The Undertaker’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Laughter in the Unlikeliest of Places, by Dee Oliver and Jodie Berndt***-****

theundertakerswife 3.5 stars. This interesting, accessible memoir will be published in March of this year. My gratitude goes to Net Galley and Zondervan Press for providing me with an ARC.

Dee Oliver grows up in a rarified atmosphere in Virginia Beach, where her parents own an oceanfront home. After completing her degree from a private college, she enjoys life and a series of part-time jobs that entail no serious commitment or career potential, supported by her parents. Eventually she is given a very Southern, Caucasian type of ultimatum: find a real job in which you can support yourself, or find someone to marry. It is understood, in this world in which debutante season actually exists, that the spouse in question will be a man, and that he will be a person of substance. A doctor is preferable, but instead, Dee marries a doctor to the dead, the co-owner of a funeral home.

Life is definitely different now. Dee and Johnnie, her newly betrothed, cannot travel for any length of time, since people don’t make appointments before dying and he could be needed any time. Their honeymoon is a three-way party: just the two newlyweds and the corpse in the rear of the car, being transported, by happy coincidence, to their honeymoon destination.

Their daughters grow up playing tag among tombstones and jumping rope with the velvet rope that keeps the mourners in line.

The one thing that surely does not change is her standard of living. Most of her friends, she tells us, would have to call the painters themselves. How fortunate that Johnnie understood that she needed the advice of a decorator, who would then call the painters personally!

This is a quick, almost flirty read as it begins, but because I make it a point (almost) never to read books by or about affluent people, I almost tossed the book down unfinished. But I knew that something about it had made me request this ARC, and so before throwing my hands up and abandoning ship, I went back to reread the synopsis. It was a good thing I did, because it gave me hope (as Christians like to say) of better things to come.

You see, Johnnie’s occupation taught him how to console and advise the bereaved, but it didn’t take him out of his state of denial about his own mortality. Dee packed him healthy lunches which he threw away, and bought him a gym membership which he never used. It caught up to him in his early fifties, in a sudden and final way.

As half owner of a funeral home, Dee realized that she should go back to school and get the credential necessary to do Johnnie’s job. However, once it was time for her internship, she whacked her well-coiffed head smack on the glass ceiling. No way, no how would her brother-in-law allow her to do such a thing.

It was at this point that Dee received one of life’s more valuable gifts: a new perspective. Riddick’s funeral home is in the African-American section of town, and its owner is not just a man of business, he is a man of the community. It is there that she was able to intern, and the results are really funny, because the area where she lives is exclusively pale, and Riddick’s funeral parlor is in an entirely Black area. Said one visitor, after enquiring whether she was a member of the press, and being told otherwise:

“ ‘So,’ he said slowly, chewing this piece of news the way a child might process his first lima bean. He wasn’t sure whether or not to accept it. ‘So what we got here is a white woman working in a black funeral home.’
‘Yes sir. That’s exactly what you got.’
‘Well, then,’ he concluded, ‘I guess you have overcome too.’ And with that, he tipped his hat to me and walked away.”

Along with her own unique story, Oliver provides us with a good deal of sound advice to follow now, while we are alive. Did you realize that if you die without a will, up to seventy percent of what you own may be taken as taxes? I don’t know whether this applies to those of us in humbler tax brackets than those in her milieu; Oliver did not specify. Either way, though, the point is made that those of us who are married and have divided the responsibilities of married life still need to be aware of a lot of nuts-and-bolts issues that it’s easy to ignore until someone has died.

Here, nobody knows better than Oliver. She has taken care of the dead, advised the bereaved, and she has been widowed. She really does know.

Everyone who writes a memoir is entitled to tell her own story with her own voice. Nevertheless, the class and religious biases here grated and could be toned down. She tells us that we need a “team” to be on to get us through the good times and the bad ones, and here are the teams she recognizes: Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and nondenominational …it isn’t going to get any more diverse in her world. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and especially Atheists like me are going to “the other place”, as she describes it earlier in the text, since we have not asked Jesus into our hearts. There’s not a lot of wiggle-room in Oliver’s somewhat limited sphere. Your team may not even exist in her universe.

So should you read this book? I vote that you ought to. Most of this memoir is either light and amusing, or full of down-to-earth, practical advice we can use. Ditch what you can’t use; for example, if you work in construction all day and come home to an empty house, her earnest suggestion that rather than marry too soon after bereavement, you “hire a housekeeper” may not be a real world option for you. But eighty or ninety percent of her recommendations should work for everyone, and if the Bible verses don’t work for you, you can skim past most of them as I did.

The real question is whether you should shell out full jacket price for this book, and that question is a very individual one. If your lifestyle is similar to that of the author, then get one for yourself, and another copy for your BFF. If you’re married, get one for your honey, too.

If not, you may want to pick up a copy less expensively later on, or check it out from your local library if it becomes available there.

Either way, the sobering message to tuck important information where your loved ones can get to it is worth its weight in gold.

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