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.

Monday, 8 July 2013


In a subtle, creeping moment I realized that my life was not normal. No other child in my class slept above a room full of caskets. To descend the stairs in our house meant discovering who might be lying in one of those open caskets, a reposed, powdered face ready for viewing. No child I knew looked forward to a visit to the cemetery, or was subjected to sitting in long stretches of silence while a funeral service droned on downstairs, the organ music signalling The End notes.

Since then I have sought the unusual without much thought that the draw emanated from that languid funeral home, a dot on the map of the American South. I could never foresee that once I left my father’s house of death, I would one day stand in a remarkable historic coffin fittings factory in Birmingham, England.

When I first read of the existence of the Newman Brothers Coffin Furniture Factory I experienced a mighty magnetic pull to discover what was sure to be a treasure. When I realized the goal of the talented people at the Birmingham Conservation Trust, I felt a strong urge to shout:


In 1894 raw materials arrived via the Birmingham Fazeley Canal to the yard doors of 13-15 Fleet Street, a short street then full of manufacturers. Today, Newman Brothers is the last to stand, the only complete historic building left, gloriously sandwiched between the towering jagged modern buildings that now dominate the street. 

Its almost hidden position faces east where light streams into the small paned cast iron windows of the three-story Victorian building and into the windows of the rebuilt 1960s two-story building.

This was the setting where for over one hundred years artisan funereal work was accomplished to such a high standard that the coffin fittings produced here, from raw material to finished product, were world famous and seen on the coffins of Churchill, the Queen Mother and Princess Diana. 

Winston Churchill's coffin is lowered into the grave at Bladon Graveyard

In an atmosphere where everyone felt part of a family, and wherein a large number of females were employed, like Diamond Lil who read teacups, and Dolly who was a little deaf, employees are well remembered in photographs and in the palpable oral history arm of the project. Polishers, stampers, and piercers are brought to life through interviews and the products they created in the Grade II listed building.

Stamp Room

Though Newman Brothers had plans to begin manufacturing coffins, the plans never came to fruition; however, from the mid twentieth century they began manufacturing burial shrouds and coffin linings. 

When the factory was sold in 2003 everything was left in situ, as if the entire company had just stepped out to lunch. Thousands of artefacts littered the rooms. Along with stock, manufacturing tools and equipment, items of poignancy were startling. Overalls hung on a hook. A woman’s handbag was left behind. Tea making accoutrement stood at the ready, and the tongs for making toast hung by the fireside.

The Newman Brothers travelling salesman's bag, fully stocked.

Imagine Mr. Allen on his Triumph motorbike, his samples bags filled with breast plates, coffin handles, crucifixes, catalogues and shroud material, all tucked away in the wickerwork sidecar and headed all over England and Ireland where his was the first motorbike to travel many of its roads.

When I was a child I often watched my father polish the handles of one of his many caskets. Not that they needed this extra care; the casket and its fittings arrived in perfect condition. Could any of them have possibly originated from Newman Brothers?

And how many ways might one use a casket handle? They make a nice paperweight, or door handle…

The plans for the museum are terrifically ambitious. The use of film, sound, an iBook interactive element, special hands on activities for children, object interpretation, to name only a few mediums, will contribute to create one of the premier examples of how a Victorian factory actually worked, while simultaneously showing the changes in the business of death and funerary rituals from the Victorian era to the present.

The renovation has begun and next year 13-15 Fleet Street will be home to its own unique jewel in The Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.

Many thanks to my guide, the brilliantly informed volunteer Barbara Nomikos who deftly lead me room by room, step by step through the fascinating pre-renovated world of funeral furniture manufacturing. Grateful thanks also to Suzanne Carter of the Birmingham Conservation Trust for permissions and introductions.

Monday, 10 June 2013

MEMENTO MORI:  Alive and Well in SoHo

“Our graveyards have been planted next to that women, children and lesser folk should grow accustomed to seeing a dead man without feeling terror, and so that this continual spectacle of bones, tombs and funerals should remind us of our human conditions.”

Michel de Montaigne

Pertwee Anderson and Gold, and The Museum of Curiosity have collaborated on an exhibition that explores objects of memento mori. An astonishing variety of artists boldly ask viewers to contemplate their mortality through their work. I went along to have a look. I stepped into an intimate SoHo gallery where I left the bright glare of day and was at once enveloped in the tomb-like dark grey walls. Pointed, effective lighting enhanced the works of art. I’ve selected a few that were particularly striking, though any one item in the collection is more than worthy of a visit.

The following were created by Jim Skull. (I know!) Jim Skull is influenced and inspired by the “strong cultural heritages of Africa, New Zealand, Asia and Oceania”.

Papier mache skull, antique beads, murano black glass

Papier mache skull, antique cannetille

Papier mache skull, artificial flowers, taxidermy bird and insects, gold leaf

Papier mache skull, artificial flowers, taxidermy bird and insects, gold leaf

All of the above images Copyright Jim Skull, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Franklyn and Brendan Connor are twins and artists who grew up in an extreme Christian cult known as ‘The Family’, the same cult that included the actors River and Joaquin Phoenix. When Franklyn and Brendan were sixteen they ran away. As they learned about the outside world they communicated with each other about what they discovered with notebooks and sketchpads, which resulted in their special form of making art together.

Death Calls

Acrylic on canvas

Image Copyright The Conner Brothers, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

This piece by Tasha Marks in collaboration with David Bradley and Annabel de Vetten is one of my favourites. It drew me in quite innocently and then I discovered…it’s edible.

Edible Vanitas Case

Mixed media including chocolate, sugar, marshmallows, apples, pears and ambergris

Image Copyright Tasha Marks, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Nancy Fouts’s work has been seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, among many others, and has been endorsed by Banksy. In her words, "I hoard stuff in boxes and then I lay it all out and many ideas happen like that." Ms. Fouts is originally from, ahem, Kentucky.

Hang on
Medical skeleton, resin, rope and paint

Freedom is Overrated 
Taxidermy bird, perspex, dome, black wood and glass display case

Images Copyright Nancy Fouts, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

“The decision to erase paintings painted by other artists came partly from graffiti,” says artist Paul Stephenson. “The paintings I use, my surface, have already existed fully as objects.” When asked by Garage Magazine to what he is particularly drawn:  “Paintings that have a recognisable, iconic format and a clear subject. That is why I have worked a lot with 17th - 19th century portraiture as it has this iconic quality. We know the framework of these portraits so well that even when the central subject is erased we know what should be there and we begin to imagine it.”


No lady,
       Oil off canvas

Image Copyright Paul Stephenson, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Prepare yourself now for another sibling duo, Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose work is sometimes described as the anatomical and pornographic grotesque. 


Cast human skull, resin and oil paint

Side View

Image Copyright Jake and Dinos Chapman, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

To end, a gentler image by Michal Ohana-Cole whose “art practice instigates the complex everlasting relationship between money, death and sexuality as well as the notion that one inevitably controls the other.”


Godspeed you (No.13), 2013

Pigment print

Image Copyright Miachal Ohana-Cole, courtesy of Pertwee Anderson & Gold

Memento Mori is on exhibit until June 14.