Kate Mayfield is the author of a new memoir, THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER, about her experience growing up in a small Kentucky town as–you guessed it–the daughter of the handsome but enigmatic undertaker. And as befits a writer who was raised in a home where death was a constant companion, she’s had some pretty remarkable settings for her book events! On a UK book tour with fellow authors Wendy Wallace, Lloyd Shepherd and Essie Fox, and singer Kirsten Morrison, Kate got to present her work in some fascinating and sometimes creepy places.
It really was a dark and stormy night. Almost a year ago exactly, a squall blew through Kensal Green Cemetery. Founded in 1833, the first of London’s “Magnificent Seven” public burial grounds, and normally closed at night, its tall beautiful gates opened to more than fifty people who followed the lantern lit pathway to the Dissenters’ Chapel.
The wind whistled around the tombstones and it was so cold that blankets awaited the guests inside, along with a bowl of hot gin punch and funeral biscuits, over one hundred of them – I’d been baking for two days. As the rain beat down, the candlelit chapel gradually filled with our guests who had braved the weather to hear three authors talk about the history of the cemetery, the chapel, and our books.
It was an uncanny location from which to hold the first public reading from my memoir, THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER, before publication. For not only were we in the middle of a cemetery, but underneath my feet in the center of the chapel was a trap door through which the coffins were lowered into the catacombs. Or, if you were still upright, you could take the stairs.
In the winter, the temperature of the crypt drops so low that your breath is instantly visible and the damp is so prevalent you can see the drops of moisture forming on the cave-like walls.
The smell of the dank earth, the darkness, and the loculi and their inhabitants create an atmosphere that is not for the timid. You cannot help but wonder what is left of the remains in the centuries old coffins.
I was not the only American in the chapel that blisteringly cold night – neither was I the only Southerner. One of the coffins that made the journey to the catacombs contains the remains of a Southern Belle. Her father was Colonel John Pope, a cotton plantation owner from Memphis, Tennessee. His daughter, Judith Pope Ingate, was interred in the catacombs in 1896. Her sister, Louisa is pictured here.
Not only is Tennessee represented in the crypt; a man from my home state, the son of a Kentucky plantation owner, Charles Jefferson Clark, was placed in one of the loculi, also in 1896. He was the grandson of William Clark who led the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Charles Clarke’s brother was responsible for building the renowned racetrack Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby.
After relaying this remarkably coincidental history, I closed my presentation by reading an excerpt from my book about another cemetery – one that is not filled with famous burials, nor set in beautifully landscaped grounds. It is a cemetery the size of a postage stamp in comparison, the last resting place of the people of a small town in southern Kentucky, the setting of my memoir.
The Coffin Works
Early in October of 2014, what was once a Victorian coffin fittings factory benefited from a full restoration and is now a spectacular funereal museum.
My next stop was The Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Factory, branded simply as ‘The Coffin Works’, located in Birmingham, once the heart of England’s industrial revolution.
Prior to opening to the public for the first time, the cheerful staff welcomed our trio of authors to The Shroud Room on the first floor of the factory building.
Though the coffin fittings manufacturing began in this building over a hundred years ago, it was in the 1950s that women sat at the sewing machines and created England’s version of burial shrouds.
Today the wall of shelves is bursting to full with bolts of fabric and the refurbished sewing machines are proudly displayed facing a wall of windows, perched, as if ready for work again.
After relaying the history of shrouds, I invited the audience to follow me from the present Shroud Room where we listened to an atmospheric soundtrack of machines buzzing and humming, to a different sort of shroud room in the quiet of a farmhouse in Kentucky where another woman, a farmer’s wife, also sewed burial shrouds on her Singer machine. When I was a child I gave her the moniker of ‘The Shroud Lady’ and never dreamed that one day I would bring her story to life in a former shroud-making room in the north of England. I wonder how many times I said over the past year, “If only my father could have experienced this.”
The Gothic Festival
Later in October, I ventured even farther north to the Gothic Manchester Festival.
When my publicist at Simon & Schuster UK first referred to my book as “in the Southern Gothic genre”, I drew a breath in and was not a little puzzled. But as I gathered research for the event in Manchester – holy tombstone – there it was! An entire shopping list of Southern Gothic elements are contained in my book: an undertaker father, his funeral home that necessitated living above the dead in a small, tired town in the South, family secrets, violence, racism, and a whole smorgasbord of eccentric people. The story of my childhood passed the gothic test in flying shades of black.
The festival, superbly hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University, placed our group of two authors and a composer/singer in The International Anthony Burgess Foundation room. Housed in a beautifully refurbished mill, glittering candlelight cast shadows on the old brick walls. Our trio shared the space with the most delightfully eccentric man who brought along his macabre curiosities.
My reading on this night was taken from one of the “vignettes” that are interspersed throughout THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER, in which I attempted to convey what it was like to grow up in a funeral home.
The Old Operating Theatre
Halloween night in London was the warmest on record, which actually turned out to be a good thing because I’d made “frozen hands” to float inside the Bourbon Blood Punch bowl.
The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret is one of London’s most unique museums.
Our guests climbed a set of treacherous winding stone stairs to the top of an English Baroque Church tower where the operating theatre of the late Georgian period was built and was at that time a part of St Thomas’s Hospital when the church and hospital had close ties.
In its theatre-like setting I told the gruesome history of when surgery was performed without anaesthesia and anaesthetics in front of hoards of medical students. It proved to be a perfect Halloween venue from which to read about my experiences with the dead. Understandably no real flames were allowed, but our LED candles worked beautifully.
My scariest book event experience to date occurred in of all places, a bookshop. I visited the extraordinary Blackwell’s bookstore in Oxford as part of the “Kicking the Bucket Festival.”
Here I forged ahead with my readings about life and death in a small southern town. I’d discovered that the American South fascinates British audiences because it is so wholly different from everything they know, but in this audience my ears perked up when during the Q&A I was astonished to hear a Southern accent. A mother and daughter in the front row revealed they were visiting Oxford from their home in Tennessee, only twelve miles from my hometown in Kentucky. Suddenly my anonymity was snatched away. My heart beat wildly while I thought through everything I’d said. Did I mention anything that might seem to them particularly offensive or edgy? To my relief, they were lovely, engaging women who asked good questions and bought a book, the highest compliment.
This Valentine’s week will find me at Barts Pathology Museum where amongst the tiered floors filled with jars of human specimens my theme will explore “Hearts in Darkness.”