Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Undertaker's Daughter

I enjoy reading memoirs, getting a glimpse into someone else's life. The Undertaker's Daughter caught my interest when I saw the description, which compared it to Six Feet Under.

Here's the cover copy:

What if the place you called “home” happened to be a funeral home? Kate Mayfield explores what it meant to be the daughter of a small-town undertaker in this fascinating memoir evocative of Six Feet Under and The Help, with a hint of Mary Roach’s Stiff.

The first time I touched a dead person, I was too short to reach into the casket, so my father picked me up and I leaned in for that first, empty, cold touch. It was thrilling, because it was an unthinkable act.

After Kate Mayfield was born, she was taken directly to a funeral home. Her father was an undertaker, and for thirteen years the family resided in a place nearly synonymous with death. A place where the living and the dead entered their house like a vapor. The place where Kate would spend the entirety of her childhood. In a memoir that reads like a Harper Lee novel, Mayfield draws the reader into a world of Southern mystique and ghosts.

Kate’s father set up shop in a small town where he was one of two white morticians during the turbulent 1960s. Jubilee, Kentucky, was a segregated, god-fearing community where no one kept secrets—except the ones they were buried with. By opening a funeral home, Kate’s father also opened the door to family feuds, fetishes, and victims of accidents, murder, and suicide. The family saw it all. They also saw the quiet ruin of Kate’s father, who hid alcoholism and infidelity behind a cool, charismatic exterior. As Mayfield grows from trusting child to rebellious teen, she begins to find the enforced hush of the funeral home oppressive, and longs for the day she can escape the confines of her small town.

In The Undertaker’s Daughter, Kate has written a triumph of a memoir. This vivid and stranger-than-fiction true story ultimately teaches us how living in a house of death can prepare one for life.

Kate is unlike anyone I've ever met or read about. As a  young child, she was afraid to use her grandfather's outhouse at night, longing to return to the her parents' house, the funeral parlor. She had her own Miss Havisham, a local businesswoman who dresses only in red and opens her mansion to only a rare few.

I've got to admit, this book had me in tears, especially when the author's father responded to a call from a young mother, alone and in labor, who'd called the funeral home because the hospital refused to send an ambulance out the icy road she lived on.

Although the book tells the stories of countless funerals, it doesn't dwell on the icky details. Similarly, the author shares intimate details of her childhood without making me feel like I know more than I should. I absolutely recommend this one!

Disclosure -- the publisher provided me with an ARC.

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