Please find my Christmas post on Gallery Books' 
XOXO After Dark website here.


I’d been living in New York for three years. I survived a slap in the face from a complete stranger on drugs, three years of school at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the demise of a relationship, an attempted mugging and an unfriendly landlord. What next, I wondered.

I received a call from one of the executives at the Academy offering me the opportunity of an audition. I stifled a squeal and said yes of course thank you very much. The address was a bit odd; not the normal stage door, or even a West Side casting director’s office. All I knew is that the audition had something to do with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Yippee.

I arrived at a Mad Man’s office: Big desk, perfectly pressed shirt, gleaming hair, intimidating. He invited me to sit down to talk about Raggedy Ann. Did I know of her? What did I think of her? Yes, of course I knew of her and, “I think she’s just adorable, a gift to children the world over,” I say.

How would I like to be Raggedy Ann in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? $200 for my trouble. Why yes, I certainly would. Immediately I imagined myself glowing from a stellar makeup job revealing Raggedy Ann-ness, waving from a huge float, appearing child-friendly and adored by every toddler in Manhattan.

This was a far cry from my first ever paying job – playing the organ for funerals in my father’s funeral home.

I arrived at West 69th Street at awfully early o’clock on Thursday morning wearing my disappointingly just okay costume. Underneath I wore a pair of 80-year-old man longjohns. No fool I, there was sure to be a breeze on that float.

There was no Raggedy Ann float. I would be walking in the parade. There was no makeup artist. Instead, I went slack-jawed to see a representative making his way towards me carrying a massive head in his arms. My head. My Raggedy Ann papier-mâché head, the size of a city block. Just as I was adjusting to this remarkable change in circumstances, a wild-eyed young man staggers over reeking of the previous night’s alcohol binge and announces himself as Raggedy Andy. Another representative quickly hides his unshaven face in the Andy version of the papier-mâché monstrosity.

Suddenly the thumping drums of high school bands, the blaring noise of organized chaos is muted. 

What had once been my view of hundreds of feet now became inches with no peripheral vision. It was like trying to function inside a tree trunk.

Off we go! Andy grabs my hand and jerks me along; on and on we skip down the streets of New York sandwiched between two floats filled with celebrities, comfortable in their special seats.

Children wave, parents point at us, or no, maybe they’re pointing at the dancers.

We turn the corners and our section hits the 40’s near Times Square. We enter the Blade Runner version of the parade. Suddenly the sun hides behind a dark sky. I’ve worked up a sweat inside the massive head by skipping half the length of Manhattan in longjohns, which are damp underneath the dress, pinafore and pantaloons.

There are three times as many people along this part of the route and most of them are young children herded by comparatively few fully stressed adults. When Raggedy Andy-with-the-hangover and I appear the children go absolutely wild. 

They scream our names and scream some more. Then they break loose from their parents, scramble under the barriers and Good Great God they are on top of us! Andy and I are separated at once. Children tear at our clothes, they reach up to smack at our huge heads, they hold on to our legs. For one terrifying moment I thought I would be knocked down completely and right there on Thanksgiving morning die a death from child attack on 42nd street.

Say what you will about big burly intimidating New York City policemen, but thank the heavens they were alert to our distress. They pulled the children off us and performed human barrier technique in a very satisfying way.

I never saw Andy again.  It took months to wrangle the $200 from the Mad Man.

Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy the parade.




When I recently gave a talk in Birmingham in the newly restored Coffin Works Shroud Room, I became engulfed in a beguiling sense of synchronicity. I grew up in a funeral home. My father was an undertaker in a small town in southern Kentucky and that means that most mornings, before I skipped off to school, I could be found peering into a casket in which the deceased was dressed in a shroud.
When I left Kentucky and went abroad for the first time, I didn’t go to London or Paris, like most Americans. I landed on the shore of the Nile in Luxor and crossed that ancient river by ferry to the Valley of the Kings, the burial ground of all burial grounds. Enamored with the ancient Egyptians’ burial practices, I learned about the single length of cloth used to wrap around the body of the deceased. 

These shrouds were sometimes inscribed with the name of the deceased, whole chapters from The Book of the Dead, and spells, like this shroud, inscribed with spell number 64:

In 680 BCE this netted, beaded shroud was created for an Ancient Egyptian mummy. 

The arms of the net are tubular faience beads.
The word "shroud" originated in fourteenth century England to describe the clothing used to dress or wrap a corpse prior to burial, derived from older words scrud meaning garment and screade - a piece or strip of fabric.

The early shroud contained the decaying corpse and covered the body. During the eleventh century, ordinary people would have clothed their dead in a loose shirt before wrapping them in a sheet, sometimes wound tightly with extra bands of cloth -  a winding sheet.
The sixteenth-century shroud, a length of linen or plain wool, like the one seen here on John Donne in his funerary monument was also tied at the head and foot.

Donne’s effigy at St. Paul’s Cathedral was the only statue to survive the Great Fire intact.
In his final sermon in 1630 at Whitehall, Donne’s spoke these words:
"We have a winding sheet in our mother's womb, which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
In the United States, there is no doubt that the homemade shroud was a significant part of 19th-century burial customs. 

Notices for meetings of “Shroud Committees” or “Ladies’ Shroud Sewing Societies,” where charitable ladies made shrouds for the poor were listed in the newspapers. There are many news articles about elderly ladies buried in a shroud made by their own hands decades earlier. Women from the 16th through the 19th century would sew their own burial clothes when making their wedding trousseaux because women were so likely to die in childbirth.
In the mid 20th century the Shroud Room of the Newman Brothers Coffin Works buzzed with the hum of the Singer sewing machines.

I imagine these ladies talking about their children, or their plans for the weekend. I imagine the shrouds boxed up, ready for delivery. 

Today in the Coffin Works’ newly refurbished Shroud Room there are splendid spools of brightly colored thread and shelves filled with bolts of fabric. 

While the shroud makers at Newman Brothers kept their fingers busy, a woman who lived far away from Birmingham on a farm in Kentucky needed a way to earn extra money. She was quite a good seamstress, a fact that a lady in a haberdashery recognized, and she suggested to the farmer’s wife that she consider making burial shrouds.
In this small, seemingly sleepy southern town where the town square has not changed for decades and where the funeral business is fiercely competitive, as a child I waited anxiously on the swing on the veranda of our funeral home for the appearance of the woman I called the Shroud Lady. She opened her green cardboard boxes to reveal her hand sewn shrouds, similar to this.

She sold shrouds to my father for many years until one day an elderly woman decided she wanted to be buried in her own clothes and thus changed a long held burial practice in our town. And there you have it, from the north of England to the Southern United States, a shroud story.

An Interview With Brian Parsons

Brian Parsons is a funeral director and training consultant to funeral directors, trading under the name Funeral Training Service London. He trains new funeral directors and works to enhance skills of existing funeral directors. Brian researches, lectures and writes about the British funeral industry, particularly regarding the latter part of the 19th century up to the present day.

I was delighted to sit with Brian and pose a few questions.

When did you know you wanted to be an undertaker?

I was about fourteen or fifteen when I got to know a cemetery superintendent and he introduced me to a funeral director. I’d never been to a funeral at that point, but then I went to a neighbor’s funeral and was very intrigued about it all. There was a hidden world that worked seamlessly. It was all going on somewhere, but you weren’t exposed to anything, and didn’t see anything apart from big vehicles, people in black doing certain tasks, and nobody would say much about it.

The intrigue has never ceased. Because when I left school at sixteen, I started a three-year apprenticeship scheme for a funeral directing firm. I began in the workshop finishing coffins.

Coffins would be brought in ready-made, but empty, so you had to learn how to line them and put the handles on, they were all different. Some of them had the most beautiful linings. There was quite a range of caskets because the firm I looked after held many Travellers’ funerals and they would always buy the best casket available. They wanted the most expensive caskets in the range and they wanted the best for the person who died. This was in no way the undertaker encouraging people to spend more money; this was the family saying, ‘this is what we want, this is what we do’.

It’s a client led interaction. To quote a cliché, it’s the ultimate stress purchase. The funeral director starts off on a bad foot because people are distressed and they’re purchasing something they don’t want to pay money for because they don’t want people to die… let alone be landed with a £6,000 bill for the funeral. It’s a transaction that the vast majority of people don’t want to enter, but have to. At the same time, the funeral director takes instruction. We offer a huge range of options to get from point A, when the person has died, to point B, when the person is laid to rest. There’s a huge amount that can happen in those days, weeks, sometimes months between the two. There are no rules - we can keep a body as long as necessary.

I didn’t do the second year of training because I wasn’t particularly interested in the stone and monument side of it. I went straight on to the funeral directing side and at the same time I trained as an embalmer. Within a two-year period I did quite a bit of training and began funeral arranging.

It was a learning curve. It was one thing to read about the possible ways people might react to a death, and another to actually interpret what was happening.  I learned to tread carefully, negotiate tactfully, to use the right words, particularly when there is a dispute within the family, or when there is a very tragic circumstance. It’s an art, it’s not a science, and you can’t always get it right. Sometimes you’re left in situations where you can’t win.

Someone once said that a funeral director is a bit like a meteorologist in that the meteorologist gets blamed for bad weather and we get blamed for the loss.

How long have you been an undertaker and in which aspect of the business are you most involved?

I’ve been an undertaker since 1982. Now I attend to training needs and spend quite a bit of time looking after staff, but I still get involved with undertaking.

I do a great deal of interviewing. We’ve become good at weeding out people who think they might be good at the job, but maybe their reasons or motivation for doing the job is not in line with our expectations. Maybe they want to work as a funeral director to in some way resolve the aspects of their own loss, particularly if they’ve been recently bereaved. The last thing we want is for people to get emotionally involved in someone’s loss. We don’t know the client we’re dealing with. They’re not engaging us to become counsellors or to take the emotional strain on our shoulders. It’s the practical, immediate necessities that have to be managed. The churn of staff is probably not high as you might imagine.

What type of training is involved in the mentoring role?

Some training can be delivered in a classroom setting, such as telling people about recent changes to legislation and how that impacts upon the funeral arrangements that they will be carrying out, to training new funeral directors where you have to carry out mock funeral arrangements with them, or where you’re teaching them how to direct funerals. You go out and shadow them. The art to teaching is to get them to actually do the work. You give then the skills and then a push. You’re there in the background, but they’re actually doing it, pointing them in the right directions and giving them confidence to do it.

I asked Brian about the role of women in the undertaking industry.

There have always been women working in the industry. There’s a hidden area here because particularly in the smaller firms, and the vast majority of firms in the 1950s were small, the husband would be the funeral director and the wife would assist in an administrative capacity. And we mustn’t forget that women have had a very important end-of-life role because they assisted in the preparations for laying out the dead. There was a formal network of layer-outers that existed in the community right up until the 1950s. Someone would notify the local lady who would come along and wash the body and prepare it and the reward was probably a fish and chips supper.
But as fewer deaths occurred at home and people died in hospital, that tradition died away. The male paid-for carer in the form of a funeral director really took over the responsibility for the dead.

There are a significant number of women embalmers. Probably around 1/4 to 1/3 of the membership of British embalmers is female. Embalming was a way of professionalizing the occupation by stating that we have an effective scientifically based treatment that’s inexpensive and can be used to halt any deterioration until time of the funeral. Women have a significant place in funeral directing today. Not only do large corporations have equal opportunity policies and some have had those in place for many years, but also it’s recognized from thirty to forty years ago that women have a role as funeral arrangers and conductors. There are many funeral arrangers and conductors and women in senior management.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about your job?

We have Charles Dickens to thank for the biggest misconception of the undertaking business. It’s thought that we’re trading off the vulnerable bereaved. Or maybe there were just too many undertakers in the 19th century and they were all trying to get work. Maybe some of them did manipulate. But you can’t tar everybody with the same brush, and particularly one from over one hundred and twenty years ago. Yet that seems to be the legacy. It’s very easy for the press to accuse funeral directors of manipulation, but the clients’ experience isn’t that. The large majority of the clients know what the funeral is going to cost before it takes place, because everyone gives an estimate. So there’s transparency there, and if the client feels there isn’t enough money they can make adjustments to the cost of the funeral.

It’s not in people’s interest to manipulate because in the funeral directing business it could lead to bad debt and publicity. People may jump too quickly to say we take advantage because we’re in a business with an endless supply. We’re not here to ruin people, at the same time we have fixed costs of running a business and they’re very high. Staff must be paid and trained and investment has to be made in the business.

I asked Brian’s thoughts about Jessica Mitford's controversial views on the American undertaking trade.

Last year was fifty years since Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death and it was one of the most successful books to be published. The Americans got their knickers in a twist.

You’ve got to ask the question, from what perspective is this being written and why is it being written? Mitford’s book came out in 1963; months after Ruth Mulvey Harmer published a much better book called The High Cost of Dying. Mitford’s book eclipsed Harmers’, which was much more rigorous in terms of research.

My theory was that Mitford had a problem with death. And the problem was that she had lost both of her children. If you read her autobiography, there is the briefest mention of the most horrendous death of her 10-year-old child in a London road accident. This would splinter most people. She endured this, and she also lost another child. This brings me back to the funeral director being that convenient person who is on the firing line after loss. I can’t take credit for this theory because Thomas Lynch, the great American writer, poet and funeral director, pointed this out after she’d died.

Her work concerned America and also England. She writes in a homely and endearing way about funerals in England in the 1960s. The most disappointing aspect of her book was that she permitted it to be updated, which appeared in the 1990s just after she died. What was produced was a poorly researched and inadequate version of what was happening in the industry. At that stage the industry was under predatory attack by an American organization and wasn’t looked at in a sophisticated way. It sunk and was not rigorous enough.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

Again, it’s a cliché, but looking after people in great need, solving problems and difficulties. Death is a hugely complex area, not only emotionally, but also the bureaucracy of death that has to be dealt with.

Thirty years ago when I started work, we never saw the burial or cremation of the foetal remains, or a very young child under twenty-four weeks. Today we’d see a funeral for such children. We also deal in the funeral of body parts. A leg or a brain may be reunited with a person after that person has been interred, or buried, or cremated. Perhaps the reason being the body part was held back for examination.

How did you become interested in the history of undertaking? And what inspired you to write your book, The Undertaker at Work: 1900-1950?

I had a break in day-to-day embalming and went to do a degree in business. I was very inspired by a lecture about the sociology of business and in the first term the lecturer discussed how business and society had changed. I found that fascinating and could see how the industrial revolution and technology instigated change and impacted the work of the funeral director. So I embarked on the research of the organization of funerals and delved in to the history of undertaking.

I discovered that no one had really looked adequately at the 19th century. There’s one or two bits of writing and literature, but there hasn’t been a really serious study of the 19th century undertaking business and certainly no one had looked at the 20th century. That became the principal focus because I was interested in how the organization of funerals had changed, particularly from the war period to the 1990s.

The increase in cremation and the increase in people dying away from the home, the introduction of embalming, the shift from the manual craft of coffin-making to mass production, the introduction of the motorized vehicle to replace the horse drawn hearse, the increased responsibility of the undertaker, and the increase in transportation across the world - all these factors came together as well as the business factors. Here was an industry that was dominated by the small trader, the family business, yet this family business was suffering because families were smaller, sons and daughters didn’t want to go into the business. So what did they do? They sold them to realize money for their retirement. That gave the organizations an opportunity to use a centralized form of operations to manage funerals and costs and still provide a service. It all came together and it needed codifying.

Many thanks to Brian whose new book The Undertaker at Work: 1900-1950 is now available here from his website.

Brian joins The Memento Moriatas for an evening of Tales of Ritual and Remembrance at the Coffin Works in Birmingham on October 8. It promises to be a special night in the Shroud Room of the former Victorian coffin fittings factory where we three will present illustrated talks on all things funereal. Tickets and more information here.

From the Cover Designers of
 The Undertaker’s Daughter

I am doubly delighted to introduce designers Regina Starace from Gallery Books in the US and Mel Four from Simon and Schuster UK, who have been kind and generous enough to write about designing the covers of The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Here's Regina, who tells her incredible story of an unexpected treasure hunt.

"The cover design for The Undertaker’s Daughter started with a life of its own, and the people who were involved and excited about this book influenced the cover. Sometimes when there are many voices in the design process, ideas can get watered down and my creativity loses steam. But in this case, the suggestions and ideas of everyone involved made the cover and concept stronger.

I started with the manuscript and an idea suggested by Kate: “...a doll house and how one peers inside the house in that odd way...” The very talented art director at Gallery Books, Lisa Litwack, had a clear vision of this “house” with each room containing representations of the living and the dead. Lisa forwarded me imagery and ideas collected by Kate and her editor, including captivating photographs of Kate’s father the undertaker. I compiled all these materials on a Pinterest board: (kind of creepy how many times the embalming table was repinned!) and then read the manuscript. I could see why everyone was excited. This is such an intriguing and well-written book, and I wanted the cover to represent the life—and death—that it contains.

At this point I began sourcing visual materials for the “house”. There is a large antique center not far from my home that I frequent, where I befriended the owner and his son. As I wandered the booths for anything that grabbed my eye, they went looking for “death stuff”—the idea was contagious. I got lucky when I found a homemade house hanging on the wall. Then I hit the jackpot. The owner’s son allowed me into his personal collection where he showed me the salesman’s model coffin, seen in the foreground of the design, rare funeral photos, a civil war era surgery kit, medical illustrations, old bottles, miniature coca cola bottle lighters, and other strange ephemera. He even showed me a traveling salesman’s small-scale coffin replica that was lowered into a tank of water to show the “water tight” quality of their product! All this was lent to me in faith that it would be returned, and out of curiosity for this captivating project.

Once home I started playing with the objects in the house, and soon found that the image felt cluttered and too kitschy for the tone of the book. Through Lisa’s direction, we took a much darker approach and gave the image a patina with textures and added images found in old engraving books. While I was able to find objects and images that related to Kate’s father and the story, I felt it lacked the presence of Kate herself, the young girl growing up with dead bodies on the first floor. I tried toys, and dolls, but they felt too jovial. I went back to the antique store. I added the books to represent her love and escape of reading (a vintage Edgar Allen Poe hard cover), but it was still missing her energy. I searched through my own collection of vintage photos, and found an image of my mother at a young age: a little girl posing in her Easter outfit, a snapshot of growing up. This was the missing element.

At this point the design was in a place that Lisa felt was strong and showed it to the sales and editorial team. The design concept itself did not go through many iterations (in some cases there are many covers for one book of which none are selected!) For a slight variation, we tried some old wooden boxes, from my Grandfather’s workshop, but everyone went back to the house. Several changes were made, and then it was sent to Kate who made the spot on suggestion of adding the raven—the harbinger of death. A few last changes and it was final­—a relatively smooth and natural process. I can’t say every project flows this way, but when it does I silently say to myself “I love my job!”.

Regina’s images in progress.


 Mel Four explains how she adapted the cover to suit the UK market. It's quite unusual for the cover design for the US and the UK to be almost identical, because the markets are very different. Mel demonstrates how small changes make a difference.

We had actually already begun working on cover visuals for The Undertaker’s Daughter, but when we saw Regina's US cover, we loved it so much we decided we should adapt it for our market.
At first I tried making it quite a lot brighter as there were concerns from our sales department that it is quite a dark cover for our market, but it lost it's wonderful gothic feel so I ended up giving it a slightly sepia tone and brightening the objects in the house a little bit so they really stand out, the only other significant change I made was to the fonts used on the cover, the gold lettering for the title is inspired by old undertakers signage.
It was a pleasure to work on Regina's beautiful design, and of course Kate Mayfield's fantastic book.

Thanks very much to both Regina and Mel.

Full disclosure – I can’t take credit for introducing the idea of the doll’s house. Two very clever friends first suggested it to me. I merely passed it on, quite exuberantly, to my editor.



  Please note: There is an image of a corpse in this post.

In 1904 T.S. Eliot visited the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair. In the Philippine Exposition section he explored the village of the Igorot people. He was so inspired by them that in 1905 he wrote the short story, “The Man Who Was King”.

Igorots resting after dancing while World's Fair visitors look on.

The Bontoc Igorot warrior tribe live on the banks of the Chico River in the mountains on the island of Luzon where they formerly practised head hunting. They are known for their distinctive tattoos.

Their death rituals are unlike any I’ve come across.

The Igorot respond emotionally to death without a great swell of passion, unless the death is of a child, or the early death of a woman’s husband. There is no sorrow or lamentation for the elderly. It is said that Igorot men don’t cry at all for the dead.

 When death is near, a chicken is killed, people gather, eat and wait.

 Immediately after death, the body of the deceased is washed and then wrapped in a burial robe. A cloth is placed on top of the head, the face left uncovered.

Construction of the death chair begins.

It is a roughly made, high-backed chair with a low seat.

The corpse is bound to the chair with a band that fastens his waist, arms and head. The chair is placed close to the door of the house with the deceased facing out so that all can see him.

Seating the deceased on the chair is a ritual usually reserved for the elderly, for the relatively rich and those with many descendants. It’s a show of respect and a compliance with tradition, and enables a last face-to-face communication between the deceased and his relatives. Visitors may have travelled great distances to pay their respects and communicate with the deceased; they talk to him as if he were alive and expect him to listen to their pleas, their desires, and well wishes. If this ritual and tradition was not performed by a person who had requested it before death, it was assumed that the deceased’s soul may come back to bother his relatives by making them sick, or by killing another in the family.

Fires are built around the death chair to protect the corpse and drive away flies. Usually a relative of the deceased sits by the corpse, watching closely to swat flies, but also people were paid to keep the flies away so they wouldn’t enter the house. The smoke from the fire helped to dry out the body. At one point in their history, the Igorot mummified their deceased by leaving the corpse in the death chair for up to six months.

Slowly, over the next few days, people begin to gather and come to the home of the deceased. More fowl are beaten to death. A caribou is slaughtered, eaten, and the horns and a portion of the skull are taken inside the house and hung from the ceiling.

Children play, women nurse babies and spin thread, more people arrive and the corpse sits in the chair blackening and swelling while life goes on normally around it. Families laugh and tell stories.

Women weaving at a widow's hut.
The women begin a chant. More food. They sing a word-less song; it is soothing and not a dirge.

Igorot women, 1900.

The number of people increase, over one hundred now have gathered.

The men sing a low song with these words:

“Now you are dead; we are all here to see you. We have given you all things necessary, and have made good preparation for the burial. Do not come to call away to kill any of your relatives or friends.”

A pine coffin appears, wood chips strewn about the ground. It is turned upside down and makes a seat for several visitors as children play around it.

More people arrive; hogs, chicken and dogs are eaten. The roasting meat scent mingles with the heavy, sickening odour of the corpse in the chair, but those who sit near him do not flinch, seem not to notice at all.

A dozen men carry digging sticks and dirt baskets to the fringes of the encampment as the sun begins to set. They begin digging to the depth of five feet.

The last of the new arrivals stop by the chair of the corpse to pay their respects. Men move the coffin to the chair’s feet, untie the bands, pick up the corpse and lower him into the coffin.

An old woman places two breechcloths and a blanket over the body, and a small white cloth over the eyes. The cloth already on top of his head is replaced with a clean one.

Onto the men’s shoulder the coffin is hefted and then quickly carried to the grave.

Many of the other men follow - one brings the coffin cover and another the caribou horns—but the women and children remain behind, as is custom.

The coffin is then placed in the grave and the cover is lowered in place, the caribou horns are laid on top facing the head. It takes sixty seconds for the men to fill the grave, many men working as fast as they possibly can, for animals must not cross the trail or evil will follow. 

On the day after the burial, men and boys go to the river to fish and a fish feast is laid for the evening meal. The next day all the visitors return home with plates of rice, a gift from the deceased’s family.

 The fish trap.

This ritual might take place over a period of two to eight days, depending on the size of the family and the importance of the deceased.