The Invisible Death Workers: Ladies’ Mourning Attire in The Undertaker’s Daughter

I’ve just finished Kate Mayfield’s richly macabre bildungsroman The Undertaker’s Daughter, which centers around her upbringing as the daughter of an undertaker in a small Kentucky town during the 60s. The reason why I found her memoir to be so captivating is because it is honest. It does not shy away from the unholy or the uncomfortable, something that, I’m sure, is difficult to bare to the world, especially during a time when people are careful of what they say and even more careful of digging up their pasts. There are a myriad of unsettling truths to be found in these almost-forgotten crevasses of personal history. It certainly takes a brave soul to navigate them.

I wanted to share my thoughts on Kate’s story because there’s so much to share, and yet, I wasn’t sure where to start. The intense racial disparities? The tumultuous, at-times glamorous, ambiance of the 60s? Adolescent sexual awakening? The insanity that pervades the family unit? The secrets of the death industry, exposed?

Ultimately, however, I decided to write on the roles of females in death, which, until recently, had become less and less prevalent. Specifically, I wish to focus on the mourning attire of the women in Kate’s immediate realm of Jubilee, Kentucky, and how their attire defines them, unites them, and also, at times, stifles them. This aspect of women’s clothing and women’s role in death is something that resonated with my recent readings on the history of the death industry.

Warning: there are spoilers here! Go read the book if you haven’t, and then come back to read my thoughts.

As this is a book that centers around growing up in a funeral home, one of its prevalent themes is death, and yet women (white, middle class, and also sometimes dirt poor – Kate does mention the African American death industry in her community, but she is not as privy to its rituals) are more-or-less left out of the acts of directly dealing with death. Rather, they engage only on the periphery. Kate’s mother, for example, is always on the lookout for death notices, and only occasionally does she assist Kate’s father with matters that involve corpses. There is also the Shroud Lady, who makes the sherbet-colored gowns that women are buried in. But besides these minute encounters and dealings, women are very much removed from the death industry. When Kate momentarily entertains the idea of becoming an undertaker as a young girl, her father tells her, “I don’t know any women undertakers, though.” Undertaking fell into a man’s realm.

Historically, women have always acted as ‘harbingers of death,’ as I mediated on a few posts back. Women bring children into the world, and and by doing so, they bring forth another life who will eventually succumb to death, something that seems morbid but is wholly true. This innate, biological tie linked women to the ritual of dying. Previously, women were the ones responsible for all of the accompanying procedures that went along with preparing a corpse for burial. Whether it was washing the corpse or dressing it or perfuming it or getting it ready for the funeral, all of these tasks fell to the woman of the house, or to a hired female layer-out. Yet this important domestic role began to disintegrate when men discovered that they could monetize these procedures, leading to the birth of the male undertaker and the commercialization of the death industry, which, for the most part, still dominates the industry today.

Forced out of their traditional roles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women found other ways to keep their tie to death culture from being severed. One of these ways was by developing, promoting, and adhering to the ‘proper’ ways of mourning a death, something that became known as the “cult of mourning” (Zlonke, Death Became Them: The Defeminization of the American Death Culture, 1609-1899.) A large part of this altered focus on death culture included the emergence and importance of fashionable mourning attire, which became an immediate physical marker that connected its female wearer to a recent, or in some cases, not so recent, death.

I was able to catch a beautiful glimpse of such mourning attire that came to rise in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries at the MET last year in New York, through an exhibit called “Death Becomes Her,” curated by Anna Wintour.

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Yet perhaps this “cult of mourning” had an oppressive side, because though it empowered women, it also stifled them, for if they forwent participation, they became removed from what I’ll call the cult of death entirely. Rebellion from the cult ushered in its own set of challenges, such as being frowned upon socially.

No longer do we women (I can only speak for U.S. women) participate in the ritual of wearing black long after the funeral is over – we wear it for maybe a few hours during the wake (if there is one), the funeral service, and the reception afterwards. Some of us might wear it longer, but the widespread social custom of wearing black for months after a death is more or less obsolete. In the past, this custom used to a prime indicator of how “good” a woman was, especially how devoted a wife she was to her late husband. Mourning attire, as I learned at the MET exhibit, often kept a young widow from being pursued by other bachelors, which was perhaps a purposefully crafted result of the cult of mourning. Yet in many cases, pursuit would not have been unwanted, as the widow’s late husband had taken his occupation and her only source of income with him to his grave, and she would often need to find a new man to keep herself afloat.

Speaking of widows, when we think of mourning attire today, this particular group of women might come to mind. Though it is archaic in many societies, the image of the widow wearing black for the rest of her life is certainly a strong signifier of the female tie to death and still persists in some aspects of culture (namely film). In her memoir, Kate describes a poignant vignette of the widows in her town after they enter her funeral home for Albert Foxwood’s funeral:

Black hats punctuated the chapel like spots on a dalmatian… They sat in dark rows and held hemstitched handkerchiefs dotted with embroidered violets. Trimmings of black lace decorated a collar, the cuffs of a blouse… Face powder settled darkly in the creases of their faces, and the palest lipstick stated, ‘We are still women, after all, and we like a little color.’

These are the widows of Beacon County, Mayfield tells us. She calls them the “blackbirds” who offer support whenever a new widow is added to their “clan.” It is interesting to wonder how old some of these widows are; how long have these women donned black? Does the “absence of all colors” dominate their every day attire, or is this just for funerals? Mayfield is unclear. What is clear is that these women are united in their donning of black, yet it is apparent that their individuality is somewhat smothered.

However, when examined through a closer lens, it seems as if the widows are rebelling against their traditional mourning roles and expectations of mourning attire by adding the touch of pale lipstick, which, as Mayfield argues, affirms their womanhood; women “like a little color.” Their makeup is a way to step out of the darkness of their identity as widows, but it’s subtle enough so as not to be garish and attract unwanted attention in their strict Southern community.

This small sign of rebellion signals that the cult of mourning has become stifling. Mrs. Foxwood, the picture of a perfect, grieving widow, makes this rather clear when she takes Kate completely by surprise. Kneeling down in what seems to proceed a prayer, Kate is shocked when she hears the widow’s words to God: “I just want to thank you today. Thank you, Lord, thank you, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to finally put this bastard in the ground.” In death, there is freedom, and sometimes it’s for the living. But perhaps the cult of mourning dilutes this, in some sense. Mrs. Foxwood must publicly “grieve” for the “bastard” who was her husband. Should she shame him, she would tarnish her own reputation.

Though the cult of mourning is stifling for women at times, it can also offer them solace. Like the widows in their “dark rows,” this cult acts as a necessary form of community.

When Kate’s father dies, it is this tie between women and their iconic mourning attire that gives her comfort when she is in the graveyard. She stands near her father’s casket during his funeral ceremony and reflects that it is not the [male] preacher’s words who offer her solace; instead, it is the “images” of those surrounding her, the images of women in mourning attire:

The coveys of women who looked like fluttering blackbirds gave credence to the old belief that black garments were thought to bestow invisibility among the grieving, thereby protecting us from vengeful spirits. I’d always felt comfortable in this necropolis.

It is interesting to note that only the women’s black attire is described and not the men’s, though it is presumed that the male mourners are also wearing dark clothing. Only the “coveys of women” offer Kate solace. Moreover, no longer is Kate just “comfortable” in this necropolis of female mourners. Now, she is part of it, cemented by the death of her father. Finally, the “invisibility” of these women in their gowns of black acts as a metaphor for their somewhat broken tie to the death industry – unlike their grandmothers or great grandmothers, none of these women would have cared for their own dead. It is not Kate who prepares her father for burial, but Rex, another male undertaker. The only thing she can do for her father is wear black and mourn, just like the rest of the women.

It is also interesting to note, however, that Kate does not wear black to her father’s funeral. Instead, she wears a wine colored blouse and a heavy khaki skirt, a decision of rebellion that she ultimately regrets, for she has completely forgone (at least, momentarily) one of the only ties to death that the general population of females could access.

This strange predicament is something that women today are aiming to change. One way they are changing this is by being active in the death industry and taking on roles as undertaker, crematory operator, coroner….  No longer does a woman’s only role in death center around mourning dutifully and fashionably in shades of raven. Of course, she can mourn this way if she chooses, but she can also reclaim her pre-twentieth century historical tie as the special soul who helped death along whenever it came to visit.

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