Shirley Smith

I was never afraid of funerals as a child. I was an undertaker’s daughter, and I looked forward to “funeral days” when I was still young enough to play house. For after every funeral, the back of the big, black, hearse was a wonderful place to play. The wall-to-wall carpeting and the long, low windows with short velvet curtains were just the right height for a little girl. I wasn’t bothered by the small silver casket rollers built into the floor, or by the hearse’s distinctive musty odor. It was like a space that had never been aired; it was, for me, a wonderful playhouse. Right after a funeral there was usually a flower left behind, and I would playfully stick it into my hair, admiring myself in the rear view mirror.

I spent many, many happy hours in the back of a hearse.

I grew up in a town of seven hundred people in 1930’s South Central Kansas. As children of the town undertaker, my brothers and I were not unlike the preacher’s kids: children you noticed. Nice ladies with gray hair from the little towns around would smile and say, “Are you really Harold Smith’s daughter?”

Once the death certificate was signed, it was the family’s job to make the body look as good as possible. It was my job to keep the flower orders straight, so the deceased’s family would know who gave what. I learned how to reserve the church, hire the minister, and where to find someone to dig the grave.

My brothers hosed the mud off the hearse after long rides through the countryside. They had to make sure that the hearse was in good working order, as it simply could not stall on the way to the cemetery. During the summer months we passed out box after box of special straw fans marked “Smith Mortuary,” creating a fluttering, nervous energy throughout the church. The immediate family would sit either in the back or the front of the church, depending on whether they chose to be seen. We tried to create a respectful mood and atmosphere with beautiful organ or piano music that usually included a solo from a member of the community.

Through the funeral business I learned very early what was considered “appropriate behavior.” Wth my family’s reputation at stake, my brothers and I had to be aware of other people’s feelings at all times. I remember happily skipping into the mortuary from school, but if the bereaved family was there, I knew to stop in my tracks, put on my funeral face, say things like “He was a good person,” or “We will miss her,” or “She will be in heaven now.” I was too little to really understand, but I played my part.

And even now I find my behavior at times affected by certain memories from life in the mortuary. I wake people up when they seem too still. I simply tune people out, sometimes, when they cry. I like wild flowers in the field, but rarely have cut flowers around; they still belong, somehow, on the casket where I first saw them as a child. I still find men dressed in dark suits, white shirts, ties and polished, leather, shoes attractive.

It was very important for the bodies to look as natural as possible, as if they were sleeping, since no one really wants dead people to look dead! My greatest help to my dad was probably make-up. He was never very good at it, and the women of my mother’s generation, at least in the Midwest, wore very little. A skin-toned base and a touch of color on the cheeks and lips were about it. The eyes didn’t require make-up because they were always closed. When finished, the body lay relaxed and silent on the tufted satin pillow looking as glorious as possible.

As it turned out, putting make-up on corpses was good practice for my modeling and acting career decades later. Through the rituals of funerals I also learned very early about performance, responsibility, and the idea that the show must go on. Dad said it himself, when asked about taking care of the dead—that somebody has to do it.

Shirley Smith has lived and worked in SoHo for over thirty years. As a painter she was one of five artists to receive the American Academy of Arts and Letters Art Award 1991. Her works can currently be seen in eight museum collections including the Whitney Museum. She has worked on her poetry and memoirs since arriving in New York City in 1952.

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