Six Feet Under sits alongside The Wire, The West Wing and The Killing as one of the best television series in recent times in my book. In case you haven’t seen it – and if that’s the case I’d advise you to beg borrow or steal at least the first series – it’s set in a funeral home which also happens to be the home of the family whose business it is. Each episode deals with an individual funeral but it’s really about the family and how they cope with the business of death. Not always very well, unsurprisingly. Throughout its six series, it consistently confronts what we all try to avoid and perhaps rarely come face to face with in the modern world but which some people have to deal with every day of their working lives. It’s a superb piece of television and it’s what drew me to The Undertaker’s Daughter, Kate Mayfield’s memoir of growing up in the same circumstances as the fictional Fisher family.
In 1959, Mayfield’s family moved to Jubilee, a small town on the Kentucky/Tennessee border where her father, Frank, sets up shop as an undertaker with the family living in an apartment upstairs. Mayfield, a bright sparky little girl who idolises her father, has a lively interest in his work. She knows a ringing phone usually means a death and that her father may be called away at all hours. Frank teaches his family respect for the dead, taking care to answer Mayfield’s questions honestly and directly. Mayfield has her problems – the cruelty of schoolmates, the difficulty of making friends and her bullying elder sister – but she’s a happy if unusual child. The first part of the memoir bowls along replete with eccentric figures familiar from Southern literature, most notably Miss Agnes the ageing business woman who dresses entirely in red and to whom Frank becomes quite devoted. Things take a darker turn as Mayfield enters adolescence and begins to understand that her father is not all he seems. It ends in high drama worthy of Six Feet Under.
Much of the interest in this book lies not only in the nature of the family business but also in its location. Southerners seem to have very definite views on death and how they are to be presented to the world at their funerals, way ahead of the event: who is to do their hair, the colour of their lipstick and what colour casket they’re to have – lavender being a special line, who knew? – are all details passed on to Frank even when he’s out shopping. Miss Agnes has a stunning red number which Frank refuses to repeat no matter who asks him to do so. The South in the ‘60s and ‘70s is far from integrated despite the desegregation laws – a perfectly nice waitress cries when she has to send her kids to school alongside black children much to Mayfield’s chagrin. Belle, one of the people she loves best in the world, is black and the young Mayfield cannot understand why it’s impossible for them to go to the cinema and sit together. It’s a fascinating portrait of a particular time and place, poignant but also occasionally very funny: while contemplating what she assumes is the sadness of a widow praying for her dead husband Mayfield is somewhat discombobulated to hear her muttering “Thank you lord. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to finally put this bastard in the ground.” When your business is death you have to find your laughs where you can.