Monday, 14 July 2014


  Please note: There is an image of a corpse in this post.

In 1904 T.S. Eliot visited the St. Louis, Missouri World’s Fair. In the Philippine Exposition section he explored the village of the Igorot people. He was so inspired by them that in 1905 he wrote the short story, “The Man Who Was King”.

Igorots resting after dancing while World's Fair visitors look on.

The Bontoc Igorot warrior tribe live on the banks of the Chico River in the mountains on the island of Luzon where they formerly practised head hunting. They are known for their distinctive tattoos.

Their death rituals are unlike any I’ve come across.

The Igorot respond emotionally to death without a great swell of passion, unless the death is of a child, or the early death of a woman’s husband. There is no sorrow or lamentation for the elderly. It is said that Igorot men don’t cry at all for the dead.

 When death is near, a chicken is killed, people gather, eat and wait.

 Immediately after death, the body of the deceased is washed and then wrapped in a burial robe. A cloth is placed on top of the head, the face left uncovered.

Construction of the death chair begins.

It is a roughly made, high-backed chair with a low seat.

The corpse is bound to the chair with a band that fastens his waist, arms and head. The chair is placed close to the door of the house with the deceased facing out so that all can see him.

Seating the deceased on the chair is a ritual usually reserved for the elderly, for the relatively rich and those with many descendants. It’s a show of respect and a compliance with tradition, and enables a last face-to-face communication between the deceased and his relatives. Visitors may have travelled great distances to pay their respects and communicate with the deceased; they talk to him as if he were alive and expect him to listen to their pleas, their desires, and well wishes. If this ritual and tradition was not performed by a person who had requested it before death, it was assumed that the deceased’s soul may come back to bother his relatives by making them sick, or by killing another in the family.

Fires are built around the death chair to protect the corpse and drive away flies. Usually a relative of the deceased sits by the corpse, watching closely to swat flies, but also people were paid to keep the flies away so they wouldn’t enter the house. The smoke from the fire helped to dry out the body. At one point in their history, the Igorot mummified their deceased by leaving the corpse in the death chair for up to six months.

Slowly, over the next few days, people begin to gather and come to the home of the deceased. More fowl are beaten to death. A caribou is slaughtered, eaten, and the horns and a portion of the skull are taken inside the house and hung from the ceiling.

Children play, women nurse babies and spin thread, more people arrive and the corpse sits in the chair blackening and swelling while life goes on normally around it. Families laugh and tell stories.

Women weaving at a widow's hut.
The women begin a chant. More food. They sing a word-less song; it is soothing and not a dirge.

Igorot women, 1900.

The number of people increase, over one hundred now have gathered.

The men sing a low song with these words:

“Now you are dead; we are all here to see you. We have given you all things necessary, and have made good preparation for the burial. Do not come to call away to kill any of your relatives or friends.”

A pine coffin appears, wood chips strewn about the ground. It is turned upside down and makes a seat for several visitors as children play around it.

More people arrive; hogs, chicken and dogs are eaten. The roasting meat scent mingles with the heavy, sickening odour of the corpse in the chair, but those who sit near him do not flinch, seem not to notice at all.

A dozen men carry digging sticks and dirt baskets to the fringes of the encampment as the sun begins to set. They begin digging to the depth of five feet.

The last of the new arrivals stop by the chair of the corpse to pay their respects. Men move the coffin to the chair’s feet, untie the bands, pick up the corpse and lower him into the coffin.

An old woman places two breechcloths and a blanket over the body, and a small white cloth over the eyes. The cloth already on top of his head is replaced with a clean one.

Onto the men’s shoulder the coffin is hefted and then quickly carried to the grave.

Many of the other men follow - one brings the coffin cover and another the caribou horns—but the women and children remain behind, as is custom.

The coffin is then placed in the grave and the cover is lowered in place, the caribou horns are laid on top facing the head. It takes sixty seconds for the men to fill the grave, many men working as fast as they possibly can, for animals must not cross the trail or evil will follow. 

On the day after the burial, men and boys go to the river to fish and a fish feast is laid for the evening meal. The next day all the visitors return home with plates of rice, a gift from the deceased’s family.

 The fish trap.

This ritual might take place over a period of two to eight days, depending on the size of the family and the importance of the deceased.


Saturday, 7 June 2014


I was delighted to write a post for the fabulous Off the Shelf website, a site created by editors, authors and others in the publishing industry to help readers discover wonderful books they might not know about.

I was surprised while doing the research to be reminded that there are a great many graveyards and cemeteries in literature. I pulled books from my shelves that held graveyards within their pages until they towered on the floor near my desk.
I also found it interesting that, in a few cases, humour trickled through a few graveyard scenes in a slightly macabre way, as in my first selection, THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. 

The Freshly Dug Grave
SAWYER Injun Joe victims-1In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, two boys sneak out of bed and steal away into the midnight air in search of devils in the graveyard. What could possibly go wrong? Tom and Huck huddle behind a tree petrified as three men approach the mound of a fresh grave. Hidden from view, they watch in horror as men they recognize from town strike the grave with their shovels and begin digging up a corpse. When the job is done, one of the grave robbers demands extra payment. A fight ensues, a murder is committed, the weapon being a headstone no less, and the only witnesses to the crime flee in terror. All this in Twain’s inimitable voice.
- See more at:
The Freshly Dug Grave
SAWYER Injun Joe victims-1In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, two boys sneak out of bed and steal away into the midnight air in search of devils in the graveyard. What could possibly go wrong? Tom and Huck huddle behind a tree petrified as three men approach the mound of a fresh grave. Hidden from view, they watch in horror as men they recognize from town strike the grave with their shovels and begin digging up a corpse. When the job is done, one of the grave robbers demands extra payment. A fight ensues, a murder is committed, the weapon being a headstone no less, and the only witnesses to the crime flee in terror. All this in Twain’s inimitable voice.
- See more at:

Monday, 10 March 2014

Undertaker Ghost Signs Around the World

From the smallest towns in America to remote settlements in Australia, ghost signs remind us of the undertakers of the past who once built coffins and provided a place for the preparation for burials of their citizens.

First up is this colourful old sign in Clyde, New Zealand.

In this unique double ghost sign in Illinois, you can just make out the original undertaker sign beneath the funeral home sign. 

It’s not exactly a ghost sign, instead it represents evidence of undertaking in Gulong, Australia.

The foreboding hand in Eureka Springs, Arizona.

A woman in Carson City, Nevada found this sign in her attic.

There is something melancholic about the poise of these beautiful carriages against the tatty façade of this funeral parlour in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In Milwaukee this undertaker catered to your carriage needs for both your wedding and your funeral.

Included for its beauty, this Art Deco influenced building enhanced by shiny black tiles is the Hunold Bestattungen Funeral Home in Berlin.

Lastly, this faded ghost sign in St. Louis is explicit in its simplicity.


Sunday, 9 February 2014


When I was a child, every morning I walked to elementary school from our funeral home. But before I left home, I made a ritualistic visit to the room where the dead lay, ready for visitors to view. I approached the casket that cradled our town’s most recently departed and studied the face of the man or woman who rested temporarily in their last but one stop to the cemetery.

My father worked with the faces of the deceased, moulding lips with the tips of his fingers, repositioning the corners of their mouths, forming a final image for their families and friends. Devoid of movement and emotion, the face of a dead person loses a portion of its individuality, though the likeness is still there, like a death mask.

I once returned from Egypt with an artefact. When I first saw it, secreted away in a dark apartment on a back street in Cairo, I was immediately drawn to it and my memories of all the dead faces of my childhood came flooding back. Tea was served as I purchased a delicate piece of papyrus, or linen, on which was painted the face of an ancient Egyptian destined for entombment. This cloth-like substance was the result of the first process in the creation of a death mask. It would have then been soaked in plaster and pressed onto wood. I was assured it was authentic, but I may have been taken for a ride.

Before photography, death masks were the most accurate representation of the deceased. While King Tut’s death mask is probably the most famous of the ancient Egyptians, I’ve found others that are more intriguing to me.

In the 17th century death masks were used as a model for artists who created effigy sculptures for tombs. Usually masks were made just hours after death and having progressed from the wood of the ancient Egyptians, they were produced using a cast made of wax or plaster.

In 1669 Samuel Pepys had a life mask made about which he said, “I was vexed to be forced to daub all my face over with Pomatum (a scented ointment), but it was pretty to feel how soft and easy it is done on the face, and by and by, by degrees, how hard it becomes, that you cannot break it, and sets so close that you cannot pull it off, and yet so easy that is as soft as a pillow.”

By the 19th century, death masks were no longer simply tools for artists. The pseudoscience of phrenology held mainstream popularity and phrenologists eagerly collected death masks to study the skull shapes. The Victorians considered the masks as mementos and used the plaster negative to make multiple copies. It was not unusual for families to proudly display them to commemorate the dead.

These are a selection of death masks taken from John Delaney’s 
A Pictorial Guide 
Manuscripts Division
Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Princeton University Library

 Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Wilhelm von Kaulbach

 Benjamin Franklin

It was a bit harder to find death masks of women. I winced when I first saw this, because of her long confinement and almost prison-like sentence to her bed in life, here she was again captured in death.

Frida Kahlo

But death masks were also used to preserve the faces of the unknown as in the case of L'Inconnue de la Seine, "the unknown woman of the Seine" who was found drowned in the Paris river in the 1880’s. Never identified, she gained cult status when her death mask, made by an infatuated pathologist, inspired art and literature across the globe, such was her beauty in death.

The incredible journey of the drowned woman’s face continued through history when a Norwegian toy maker used her likeness to create “Resusci Anne”, also known as “Rescue Annie” a training mannequin used to teach CPR.

A life taken, a life saved.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

EXCUSE ME........

If you're looking for Kate's newest blog post, this week it can be found here:

At the home of the  Memento Moriatas 

 Where tales of dastardly deaths in a London cemetery await your reading pleasure.

Monday, 2 December 2013



The Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works left such an impression upon me that I felt compelled to offer this tribute to the history and the people who worked in this wonderful death-related business.

I hope you enjoy this 1.5 minute video. Please turn up your volume.

Paul Cripps of bitesizevideo is responsible for the visual magic and editing.

For a larger view click here.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


People are talking about…. Death

Well, it was a lot of fun.

We were there to talk about death.

I intended to be a curious onlooker, but my idea of sitting quietly in a corner was smashed to bits as I quickly became engaged in discussion upon my first visit to the Death Café.

Death Café is based on the ideas of Bernard Crettaz who pioneered the 'Cafe Mortels' in Switzerland. One could reasonably attend a Death Café in over nine countries, in two hundred different locations. JonUnderwood set up the first Death Café in London in his home in Hackney. He says the objective of Death Café is "To increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives".

On the top floor of a restaurant with a view of Hampstead High Street, people straggled into a dining room set with large tables. Most of us were strangers to one other. I was invited to sit at any table of my choosing with others who became my group for the evening. Speaking over the clamour of plates of omelettes and Petite Bouchée, cups of coffees and teas, our facilitator, a psychotherapist, steered the direction of the evening by posing questions:

Why are you here?

What is your idea of a good death?

I was impressed with the mutual respect and authenticity that was immediately present in our group. It was an intimate and safe environment – all conversations are confidential. We were a lively bunch from hugely different backgrounds and beliefs: A hospice chaplain, an advocate for changing end-of-life laws, a businessman, a teacher, a widow, and me, an undertaker’s daughter.

The biggest laugh at our table came from a man’s description of his perfect death. His vision was so specific and detailed that it felt as if we had stepped into his massive control tower as he described how he would orchestrate his last moments on earth.

I spoke about how a death changes those left behind.

No one cried. It wasn’t like that.

There was a cake break.

At the end of the three-hour session we were asked to turn our chairs to face the centre of the room. We’d been so engrossed in our own groups that for the first time during the evening we gained a sense of how many people shared the space – about fifty - it was another fully booked evening.

Just as I was leaving, a man who’d been in my group approached me. He told me that he imagined me as a little girl, standing alongside my father helping him to wash a corpse. I had offered no such description and had relayed only that I had grown up in a funeral home, nothing more. Funny that. As he spoke he mimed washing a body, making long strokes with his hands. It seemed to comfort him. And when he had completed washing that phantom body, I smiled and said good night.