Welcome to another “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review, wherein I relay to you, the eager reader of this blog, the insights gained from one of my recent reads. Today I have the memoir of a lady who literally grew up among the dead; residing, as she did, in a funeral home. I requested The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield partly because I was drawn in by the cover and partly because of my interest in the funerary rituals of your kind, so I was smugly grateful to receive a copy from the publisher via Netgalley. Here’s the skinny on the story:
As the child of an undertaker in Jubilee, Kentucky in the 1960s, life for Kate was relatively typical, provided you discounted the corpses temporarily populating the ground floor of her home. Sharing her house reasonably comfortably with Jubilee’s dead – although always avoiding the embalming room – Kate watches as her father renders vital services to the townsfolk during the aftermath of a resident’s passing. From feuds between the two funeral homes in town to family bouts of fisticuffs over the wills of loved ones, Kate learns about the shadier sides of human nature through others’ reactions to the spectre of death in their midst. As she grows up, her ideas about her father evolve and family secrets and struggles shed new light on the stresses of life in a small town. As well as one girl’s personal experience of growing up around the undertaker’s trade is a reflection of the broader social climates of a small Southern town across some turbulant decades.
So here are…
Five Things I’ve Learned From…
The Undertaker’s Daughter
1. Embalming is not a spectator sport.
2. Even funeral homes are not immune to underhanded tactics of sabotage from business rivals.
3. In the 1960s in some small towns, the hearse also served as an ambulance.
4. Small towns in the Southern US seem to have higher proportions of colourful characters with quirky lifestyle choices than elsewhere.
5. Living in a funeral home is much like living in any other home, except for a slight awkwardness regarding filling in the “how many people are staying in your place of residence” question on census night.
This was a bit of a hot-and-cold read for me. There were some bits during which I felt really interested and engaged, and there were some bits that I could take or leave. On reflection, this is quite a broad memoir that not only takes in the specifics of living in a funeral home, but also encompasses the author’s learnings from watching her father’s interactions with various people in their town. There are big chunks of the book dedicated to Kate and her father’s relationship with a reclusive, wealthy lady resident of the town and the resulting friction that occurs between her family and the townsfolk after the lady’s eventual death. There’s quite a bit about the volatile social climate around race in the post-segregation era as told through Kate’s experiences with friendship and dating as a young teen. There’s an awful lot about Kate’s family struggles as she learns more about her father’s less-than-stellar behaviour and deals with her elder sister’s untreated mental illness.
So if you have an interest in that time period and its impact on the relationships between different groups in a small town, there will be a lot of extra bang for your buck if you pick up this book. For me though, while some of those bits were reasonably interesting, I really just wanted to find out more about living in a funeral home. By the time Kate gets to be a young teen, the funeral home bit of the memoir is pretty much wrapped up and the rest of the book focuses on Kate’s emerging social awareness, before relating her family’s experiences in dealing with her father’s death.
Overall, I suspect this wasn’t really ever going to be the book for me. It’s in no way a bad book – it’s very readable, and as I said, got plenty to draw in the person with an interest in memoirs that focus on social history – it just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Nevertheless, I – and now you, dear reader – will depart this reading experience with some valuable learnings, and for that also, I am smugly grateful.
Until next time,