Kate Mayfield grew up in rural Kentucky, in her father's funeral home. His dream home, in fact. Surrounded by death from an early age, it's no surprise that Kate developed a fascination with the death rituals and customs of other cultures. Moving from country to country, she's gathered an impressive knowledge of those traditions that usher a person on to whatever comes next.
Did you know that in the Torajan death culture in Indonesia the bodies of the dead are buried in holes in a cliff? An avatar is crafted to resemble the deceased, then placed on a balcony built outside in front of the graves. This is the kind of cultural death practice that fascinates me.
I was watching a new Swedish crime drama series on television and noticed that in a funeral scene the men in the deceased's family wore white ties. I scurried right on to Google to learn that yes, this is a funereal custom in Sweden.
My father was an undertaker in a small town in southern Kentucky. I grew up in his funeral home where the rituals of Southern funerals and burials were quite firmly fixed. After living above and participating in the daily life of a funeral home for thirteen years, I was unaware that a whole plethora of completely foreign death practices existed. We were an unworldly and insulated community in the 1960s and when I moved away from Kentucky and went abroad for the first time, it wasn't to London, or Paris, like most Americans. I found myself on the tarmac in the warm exotic air of the Cairo airport. Further along the Nile in Luxor, I stepped off the ferry and into the sand of the Valley of the Kings - the burial ground of all burial grounds. Tomb after tomb held me spellbound - and I thought a Southern funeral was elaborate!
Once I moved to London I developed a hearty interest in England's death culture. Its rich and layered history is in stark contrast to the relatively short history of the "bury them quick" pioneering Americans.
My next journey took me to the alluring country of Japan where again, I was introduced to an entirely different death culture. The body is dressed in a white kimono, but folded in reverse. The dead are given a new name, so that they don't look back when they hear their name, which would slow their journey to the spirit world. The majority of bodies in Japan are cremated. For decades cremation was an unpopular practice in the South, no one gave burial a second thought as it was expected that they would eventually be laid to rest in the family plot. The very idea of cremation was completely foreign to me until my father received his first cremation request.
There was no crematorium in our town, so off he went to the nearest large city and arrived home with the first cremation urn I'd ever seen. Once I moved to London I developed a hearty interest in England's death culture. Its rich and layered history is in stark contrast to the relatively short history of the "bury them quick" pioneering Americans. I began collecting death related objects: French jet mourning buttons, a poster of an undertaker's cabinet, funeral home postcards, and I still have a potholder and a paper fan upon which my father's former funeral home advertisement is boldly printed.
It seems that all of London rests atop a great sprawling necropolis and that in every neighborhood a gravestone juts out from the most obscure places. Perhaps that is why I've always felt at home in London.
Kate's book The Undertaker's Daughter is published by Simon and Schuster and is available now from Amazon.