“The Undertaker’s Daughter is a wonderfully quirky, gem of a book beautifully written by Kate Mayfield.…Her compelling, complicated family and cast of characters stay with you long after you close the book” (Monica Holloway, author of Cowboy & Wills and Driving With Dead People).
How does one live in a house of the dead? 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.
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, where the living and the dead entered their house like a vapor. In a memoir that reads like a Harper Lee novel, Mayfield draws the reader into a world of haunting Southern mystique.
In the turbulent 1960s, Kate’s father set up shop in sleepy Jubilee, Kentucky, a segregated, god-fearing community where no one kept secrets—except the ones they were buried with. By opening a funeral home, Frank Mayfield also opened the door to family feuds, fetishes, murder, suicide, and all manner of accidents. Kate saw it all—she also witnessed the quiet ruin of her father, who hid alcoholism and infidelity behind a cool and charismatic façade. As Kate grows from trusting child to rebellious teen, the enforced sobriety of the funeral home begins to chafe, and she longs for the day she can escape the confines of Jubilee and her place as the undertaker’s daughter.
“Mayfield fashions a poignant send-off to Jubilee in this thoughtfully rendered work” (Publishers Weekly).
The Mayfield family moved to Jubilee, Ky., in 1959, when the author was in kindergarten, so that her parents could open their own funeral home. In this gently meandering narrative, Mayfield revisits those early years, when she lived upstairs in the rambling three-story house with its constantly ringing phones ("We've got a body") and, along with her three siblings, stayed absolutely quiet whenever a service was taking place downstairs. The embalming room was closed off to everyone but her impeccably turned-out father, a WWII veteran, and his assistants; gradually young Kate overcame her squeamishness to ask probing questions about her dad's work on cadavers and even spied on him in action laboring over strange equipment and chemicals, which was against the rules. A deep friendship with an older eccentric outsider, Ms. Agnes Davis, offered a Miss Havisham model of independence and decency. The 1960s brought desegregation to the schools of Jubilee, which rattled the status quo for the white residents of the town and also provided the mischievous narrator the opportunity to develop crushes on two black boys, Noah and Julian. Her infatuations garnered severe reprimands from the principal, her parents, and the boys' friends. Mayfield's "secret life" forced her to lie and sneak around, and her teenage angst was only compounded by the brutal revelation from her sister Evelyn, a thoroughly unpleasant bully, that her father was a serial philanderer and a drunk. Mayfield fashions a poignant send-off to Jubilee in this thoughtfully rendered work.