Kate Mayfield has stepped inside Newman Brothers Coffin Works in Fleet Street for the first time.

She has jet black hair and is dressed entirely to match – black boots, skirt, jumper and coat.

But any suggestion that she’s ready for a funeral is just purely coincidental.

Kentucky-born Kate just happens to love the colour.

Which is just as well as she saw a lot of it in her early years, growing up in her family’s funeral parlour.

One of the early paragraphs in her new book The Undertaker’s Daughter, might raise a hair or two on the back of your neck.

“There have been many odd firsts in my life,” she writes, “like the first time I touched a dead person.

“I was too short to reach into the casket, so my father picked me up and I leaned in for that first empty, cold touch.

“It was thrilling because it was an unthinkable act.

“But I recall no first viewing (of a body) because from the time I entered the world there were always dead bodies.”

It was only years after the death of her father Frank that Kate discovered the real truth about why he felt compelled to look after the dead – and thereby their living relatives.

Her widowed mother, Lily Tate, handed Kate an envelope which she’d promised to her late husband that she’d never do.

Inside were the only pages from him that she’d kept from his two years fighting in the Second World War in Europe. The letter details the horrors he faced surviving among the casualties of war amid a conflict which claimed the life of his brother.

“Either we burned to death, or take a narrow chance of getting through the gunfire...” Frank wrote.

“...out of my company of 250 men, there were only four who got back alive.”

The subsequent fear of being captured immobilised him. On Christmas Day he snapped and was diagnosed as suffering from “neurosis due to combat”.

As soon as Frank was able to return home and work, he served an apprenticeship in a funeral home.

Kate writes: “I believe he became an undertaker partially because of his experiences on the battlefield; men falling horribly injured around him, my father perhaps trying to save them but impotent to help, stumbling up on the dead and learning to walk respectfully around them, the very thing he taught me to do.

“I believe his elder brother, who did not survive the war, made an indelible impression upon him when he expressed his desire to honour the fallen by becoming an undertaker.”

“He seemed strangely comfortable around death,” she writes, “happiest when he was busy and the funeral home was teeming with people.”

The Newman Brothers Coffin Works Factory in Fleet Street, Birmingham
 

It’s with this remarkable background in mind that I sit opposite Kate in Birmingham’s next big tourist attraction – the Newman Brothers Coffin Factoryt.

Like the award-winning Smith & Pepper tour at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter barely a mile away, it’s effectively a time capsule about some of the craftsmanship behind Birmingham’s industrial might.

They didn’t make the actual coffins here, but the handles, other fittings and shrouds.

All of the things which make a difference when it comes to meeting the wishes of the deceased in order to comfort the living.

“I love this place,” says Kate. “It’s as if the workers have just stepped out to lunch.

“One woman had even left her handbag when it closed. I am thrilled to see this place restored.

“It is bigger than I thought it would be and it is just amazing. I do hope it does well. It certainly deserves to.

“But I haven’t found out yet if any of the fittings made their way over to the States where my father was working.

“When I first came here, I thought about him a lot.

“He used to blame Charles Dickens for giving undertakers a bad name.

“When I first came here last year, it felt like a place of work and such history, rather than death.

“They have found some great stories about the people who used to work here and hopefully (the visitor attraction) will bring them to life.”

Plastic Jesus models among the found fittings at Newman Brothers Coffin Works Factory
 

What Kate has taken from her visits is Newman Brothers’ attention to quality and detail.

“The last thing you would want would be something to fall off a casket while it is going into the ground,” says Kate.

“My father always used caskets, which are four-sided with a removable lid compared with the six sides of a coffin.

“Without any handles, or a breast plate it would look naked.

“The cheapest caskets he did were plywood with grey felt, but they weren’t the most sold.”

Married to a Brit though without children, Kate attended West Kentucky University before moving to Manhattan where she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

She has lived in London for 10 years.

In her book, Kate acknowledges how some people used to have their own funeral clothes ready a decade early. Has she made any plans for herself?

“For a long time I thought I would be cremated,” she says.

“The town where I grew up still only does burials.

“Then I started to think about a green burial. Now I’m undecided. I’m on the fence!

“Some people think if they make a decision to plan it, then ‘That’s it... I’m going to die soon’.”

Does she believe in the paranormal?

“That’s a really difficult question,” she reasons.

“I believe in what you can see and what you can experience.

“And I think that you don’t have to believe in ghosts to experience something ghostly.

“I did experience something ghostly at home one time, so I am noncommittal.

“I was once at home alone and there was a body in the chapel and I felt a presence.

“I was really frightened because, at 13, I had never experienced anything like it, even though I’d seen hundreds of bodies by then. I felt it again the next day and the atmosphere in the room changed inexplicably.”

And those black clothes? Is Kate sure they’re not funereal?

“Positive,” she laughs. “It’s from my time living in New York when everyone wore black, especially at night.

“As long as it was black, it was OK.

“It’s really not about the funeral home!”

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield is published by Simon & Schuster (£12.99).

 

NEWMAN BROTHERS COFFIN FITTING WORKS

Birmingham Conservation Trust bought the coffin works in 2010.

Spending on the Grade II* listed building in Fleet Street includes a £1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund matched by English Heritage and Birmingham City Council.

The works was built in 1894 when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and funerals were big business.

Newman Brothers developed a reputation for making some of the finest coffin fittings in the world, and their products adorned the coffins of such notable figures as Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.

When it closed in 1999, most of the contents were left in place as if at the end of an ordinary working day.

There was a huge stock of coffin fittings, shrouds and coffin linings that were made on site, testament to changing funerary fashions, as well as the business archive and product designs.

Restoration started at the end of July 2013 and there will be an official opening – by invitation – on Friday, October 24. It opens to the public on October 28. For details visit the attraction's website: