Death must seem like a strange topic to review on a warm Sunday in early April. Spring brings birth and new beginnings and here I am talking about death or rather the customs of death.

First I encourage you to come to the library for a fascinating display. Historically it was customary to memorialize the dead in a photograph or charcoal drawing called a mourning picture.

Cheryl Smith has generously shared her collection of charcoal drawn Victorian Mourning Pictures. They date from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century and are compelling. They will be in the glass display cases through the end of April.

My next offering is not so much compelling as memorable.  Kate Mayfield brings her family, friends and the people of Jubilee Kentucky to life for us in her memoir The Undertaker’s Daughter.

Her story is not about death but the revelation of a life lived through death. On December 31, 1959 Frank Mayfield moved his family to Jubilee and opened Mayfield and Son Funeral Home. The business was on the first floor and the family lived upstairs.

Kate learned at an early age that ‘we’ve got a body’ meant you stayed out of the way and stayed quiet. She grew up with death and silence. The business of death fascinated her and the silence became easier as she grew older.

Kate grew up comfortable with death. She remembers the first time she touched a dead body but not when she first saw a dead person. She says “I recall no first viewing because from the time I entered the world there were always dead bodies”.

During the times when a viewing or a funeral was not being held, Kate had free reign in the funeral home. Her father, whom she calls the Beau Brummell of morticians, answered every question.  When there was a funeral or viewing, Kate would watch from the landing. The way her father conducted a funeral and the different ways people mourned fueled her interest.

While the business of death was central to Kate’s life, this book is about the living. Kate adored her father when she was young but Frank Mayfield was not a perfect man. Kate’s acceptance of that continued throughout the book.

Her relationship with her mother, Lily Tate, followed a different trajectory. Her mother was the enforcer of silence and quick to discipline. But she was the protector of the family which included brother Thomas, sister Evelyn, and later the baby, Jemma.

The other member of the household was Belle.  Belle was the hired help but to Kate she was family. Kate wanted to share things with Belle that society frowned upon.  Kate grew up during the end of segregation. She writes of the time with the confusion of the child she was and a matter-of-factness of the era in which she grew up.

The color of one’s skin didn’t make a difference to Kate. She was bewildered when someone cried because of desegregation. “I couldn’t understand why Paulette was so upset about her children going to school with black children. Belle was black and I thought she was exquisite.”

While family is the focus of this memoir, Jubilee offered many other colorful characters that influenced Kate’s life. None more so than Miss Agnes Davis.

Miss Agnes was a shrewd woman who built her own thriving fertilizer business at a time when women didn’t own fertilizer businesses. She always dressed in red, owned the biggest house in town, and never let in the people who turned their back on her when she was down. Miss Agnes liked Frank and Kate and became a reclusive member of the Mayfield family.

This memoir reads like a novel. Mayfield’s portrayal of family, the citizens of Jubilee, and the era will remain vivid long after you read the last word.

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