By Kate Mayfield
The milk bottles dripped sweat on the doorsteps, newspapers flew from the hand of a dungaree-clad boy and landed on the dewy lawns, and the citizens of a small town on the southern border of Kentucky stirred to greet the day.
A road leads to the edge of town where the rural section of our county spread into brilliant green farmland against the morning sun. A woman fed her family an early breakfast before the work of farming began. She performed her dawn tasks and then, once her husband left to harvest the tobacco and her two sons climbed into the school bus, she stood at her worktable with her scissors in hand. Snip, snip, snip. Ribbons of chiffon fell in a palette of pale colours to the floor. She tossed a strip of cotton lace over her shoulder. Pins rested between her lips. By the end of the day she had created a burial shroud.
On the other end of town in a neat brick house, another woman waved good-bye to her office-bound husband. His salary could easily support her, but she enjoyed earning her own money. She was one of the two piano teachers in town. On many days, however, she cancelled her afternoon students because she was due at my house to play the organ for the funeral of the deceased.
“She tossed a strip of cotton lace over her shoulder. Pins rested between her lips. By the end of the day she had created a burial shroud.”
Hymns. It was always hymns. No favorite jazz tunes of the deceased, no I Did It My Way. Hymns.
In the 1960s and 1970s my father owned a funeral home in a town only large enough to support two white funeral homes and one African American establishment. At that time the funeral business was strictly segregated. Our funeral home wasn’t one of those spiffy purpose-built buildings, but instead, a house in the centre of the residential end of Main Street. The funeral home and all its rooms of death were on the ground floor and my family lived directly above it on the top floors.
When we had “a body”, the activity in our house began early. Another woman of importance sometimes arrived at the funeral home as early as six-thirty in the morning. Always clothed in her work uniform of white dress, stockings, and comfortable white shoes, after her stop at our house, she rushed off to stand on her feet all day at the beauty parlor she owned, called simply Mildred’s.
She was a farmer’s wife, too, and while her husband rode high on his tractor, she washed, dried and styled the hair of the corpse in our embalming room. Mildred stayed in hot demand throughout her career; the women of our town insisted that she and no one else be allowed to touch their hair after they died.
“After her stop at our house, she rushed off to stand on her feet all day at the beauty parlor she owned.”
My mother adopted the role of all round funeral home helper. She did the best she could when Mildred wasn’t available, having no experience at all styling anyone’s hair, including her own. She was the funeral home’s bookkeeper and often commandeered the phones during the funerals, pen in hand with the ledgers spread out before her. Occasionally she was called upon to help dress the female corpses when my father needed a feminine eye. Odd tasks often cropped up, such as the occasion she had to purchase underclothes for a woman whose family couldn’t afford to provide clean, new items. The intimacy of death is boundless.
These then were the women who worked behind the scenes of the funeral business in an era in which they were expected to become teachers or nurses, or to do nothing at all but make ice tea and organize church socials.
“She was called upon to help dress the female corpses when my father needed a feminine eye.”
I grew up observing the invaluable contribution these women made to the business of death since the time I could walk and talk. When it was my turn to help, I was eager to be present at casket delivery day when I would gather up the boxes that fell from the sides of the shiny new pieces of funeral furniture. I carefully positioned paper fans on the visitors’ chairs when the air conditioning broke down. My father spent so much time in the cemetery that I thought it my duty to tag along to keep him company on his long strolls in our town’s necropolis.
I’ll never forget the day I first substituted for the organist and played the hymns for a funeral. I was so nervous that I would ruin the reverent atmosphere with a wrong note, or miss my cue.
My participation in caring for the dead and their families was an organic and natural process. I never for one moment thought being female excluded me from these tasks, thanks to the women who moved in and out of our funeral home like ghosts to the public, but vibrant and real and ever-present to me.
My father embalmed, directed the funerals, and led the families through the rituals of death, and the men he employed performed the heavy lifting.
However, just as important were the women who enhanced and completed the deceased’s final needs.
I would leave that town before female undertakers and embalmers finally entered the profession. I heard the occasion caused quite a stir.
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Kate Mayfield is author of the memoir, The Undertaker’s Daughter, published by Gallery Books in the USA and Simon & Schuster in the UK. Kate attended Western Kentucky University before moving to Manhattan where she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After living in New York and Los Angeles, she now makes London her home. She is the co-author of two other books.