The Funeral Makers

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Meet the residents of Mattagash, Maine, a dull backwater town rocked by scandal, seduction, mayhem, blackmail, and the only recorded case of beriberi on the entire North American continent! One of the most highly acclaimed debuts in the last decade. The funeral Makers is 'a crazy rollicking whoop of a book, written with a poet's sensibility and a deeply wacky down-home Wilson

This is the story of the trials that beset the McKinnons, the first family of Mattagash, ...

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Meet the residents of Mattagash, Maine, a dull backwater town rocked by scandal, seduction, mayhem, blackmail, and the only recorded case of beriberi on the entire North American continent! One of the most highly acclaimed debuts in the last decade. The funeral Makers is 'a crazy rollicking whoop of a book, written with a poet's sensibility and a deeply wacky down-home Wilson

This is the story of the trials that beset the McKinnons, the first family of Mattagash, Maine, when they try to arrange a funeral for the family matriarch. Bubbling with quirky humor, this marks a dazzling debut for a gifted and richly talented young writer.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This first novel is an auspicious beginning. A seriocomic look at life in a decaying Maine village, it centers on three middle-aged sisters, last of a founding family. Marge, the eldest, is dying of beriberi as a result of her eccentric diet. This results in a reluctant family reunion to plan her last rites. As Marge drifts away, her relatives involve themselves in various unlikely and often sordid situations typical of their town. Though these include theft, adultery, and suicide, the tone is dominated by a dark humor reminiscent of Ed McClanahan's The Natural Man ( LJ 3/15/83). If the episodes never quite blend into a coherent whole, there is the story's energy and vivid characterizations. Pelletier is a writer to watch. Starr E. Smith, Georgetown Univ. Lib., Washington, D.C.
Susan Kenney
"Hillariously irreverent, comic, tragic, and lyrical." -- New York Times Book Review
John Blades
"Mobidly funny...satires, redicules, and maligns almost everything that's sacred about American life." -- Chicago Tribune
From the Publisher
"A generous and genuine entertainment...funny and wrenching." - The New Yorker

"Cathie Pelletier is absolutely, inherently funny, yet she can walk the tightrope between humor and grief without once losing her balance.
" - The Los Angeles Times

"An ambitious, fearless novelist. The Funeral Makers established Cathie Pelletier as one of the funniest novelists at work in this country today, but now she has clearly emerged as one of the very best." - The Washington Post

"The most touching, funny and dryly astute characters to come along since the irresistible eccentrics of Eudora Welty...Pelletier is a writer of great craft.
" - The Boston Globe

"A fresh intelligent voice describing a hidden pocket of life that few people see...humorous and poignant...Pelletier's characters have universal appeal." - Boston Sunday Herald

"A bitingly funny and highly original novelist." - Vogue

"Cathie Pelletier's got the formula right, combining warmth, humor and insight in roughly equal proportions.
" - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Pelletier has demonstrated that she's a master of the art." - Chicago Tribune

"Masterful work...subversive, humorous, and heartbreaking." - Publishers Weekly

"A writer with a genius for vernacular." - Detroit Free Press

"A morbidly funny tale." - People

"Very talented, very true, very terrible, and very funny." - Mary McCarthy, author of The Group

"The Funeral Makers completely satisfies...a clear-eyed yet passionate examination of life in an isolated small town, where the road ends." - Newsday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684826141
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/6/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 0.58 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Cathie Pelletier was born and raised on the banks of the St. John River, at the end of the road in Northern Maine. She is the author of 11 other novels, including The Funeral Makers (NYTBR Notable Book), The Weight of Winter (winner of the New England Book Award) and Running the Bulls (winner of the Paterson Prize for Fiction). As K. C. McKinnon, she has written two novels, both of which became television films. After years of living in Nashville, Tennessee Toronto, Canada and Eastman, Quebec, she has returned to Allagash, Maine and the family homestead where she was born. She is at work on a new novel.

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Read an Excerpt


"If God had meant for me to be religious, he would have alphabetized the books of the Bible. It was just too hard for me to find what I was looking for, especially if I was looking for it through a few glasses of scotch."

-Gert McKinnon, Atheist and Spinster, 1935

The summer of 1959 was short and dry. The leaves fell from the trees much earlier than they should have fallen. There was something uncanny about the birds flying south too soon, in the hurried way the squirrels gathered hazelnuts, how the river sucked up its own water for the early dog days. It was all in the signs by the time September arrived and Marge McKinnon became seriously ill. And while the land and the animals had been in a hurry, Marge was not. She held on to her illness as though it were a medal, and in a way it was. She was the only person in Mattagash, Maine, suffering from beriberi. It was the town's solitary attraction and a well-deserved one considering that Marge contracted beriberi because her father, the missionary Reverend Ralph C. McKinnon, died in China of kala-azar.

Someone in Mattagash looked it up in a medical book and discovered that kala-azar is sometimes called dumdum fever. Many of the townspeople wondered who had had the foresight to call it that without ever having met the Reverend Ralph. His own sister Gert, who had been nipping from the little silver flask in her purse, stood up at Ralph's wake, leaned over the empty coffin, and said, "No wonder they call it dumdum fever. Why would a reverend want to traipse off to China when there's sinners to save right here in his own backyard?"

Marge's few relatives could enjoy an unspoken pride in her rare condition. Not to be outdone by even the medical community, the McKinnons had always managed to become afflicted with only the rarest of diseases. Not that Mattagash, for a town of its size, didn't have its share of unusual ailments over the years. A doctor from Watertown, at the nearest hospital, said it was because everyone in Mattagash was descended from a little bunch of people who left Canada in a pirogue looking for pine trees. Their descendants were all interrelated, he said. Their genes had gone haywire. Whatever the reason, Mattagash was not unfamiliar with carnival-like maladies. There had been cases of giantism, clubfoot, hunchback, a few untraceable types of cancer, lumpy jaw, brain tumor, two blue babies, and a case of undescended testicles. The latter was the unfortunate Herbie Fennelson, who later went to New York and wrote home that he had caught homosexuality in a movie theater on Forty-Second Street. Everyone in Mattagash agreed that it was connected, one way or another, to his early illness. But no one in that town, in the entire country, in this day and age, was ever before or ever again stricken with beriberi because his or her father died in China of kala-azar. When Marge went out, she was determined to go out like a true McKinnon.

Marge got the news about her father in 1927 from the druggist over in Watertown, who also handled telegrams. The old Reverend was dead. He had been dying for almost two years but had never let anyone know. Marge, a spinster who had pined for sainthood from an early age, had been saving her dollars to go to China and join her father, to live on polished rice and save unpolished souls. Two weeks after the telegram, she got a long letter from Reverend McKinnon. It had been mailed before he died. He told her all about kala-azar and how a sand fly had bitten him while in the service of God, and that his spleen and liver were swollen from it. He told her not to mourn him, that dumdum fever assured him a room in the house of God. But Marge ignored this advice. She began wearing only black, and as a sacrifice which the townspeople thought only the hell-bound Catholics capable of, she began fasting, giving up all food except for polished rice and Chinese tea. Marge figured if rice and tea were good enough for the missionaries of the world, they were good enough for her, too.

Over the years she lost weight and her legs became heavy and swollen. She was short of breath and had to pay some boy a dime a day to carry her letters in from the mailbox. Finally, Amy Joy, sister Sicily's daughter, began sleeping over nights to keep an eye on her. Marge spent her last days writing nasty letters to Sears and Roebuck, suggesting they begin a new line of black cotton handkerchiefs for widows, orphans, and people in general mourning around the country. She complained often to her neighbors of what she called "disturbing sensations" in her arms and legs. At last her mind began to go. The doctor said her heart was waterlogged and that she needed to be hospitalized immediately. But there was no convincing her of this. She was a true McKinnon to the end, saying that if kala-azar got the Reverend a room in heaven, then beriberi would get her the one next to it.

Marge never referred to her father's disease as dumdum fever. She even wrote once to her state senator asking that he petition the AMA to have the derogatory reference removed from medical books, and hinting that her family would be eternally grateful to him and loyal in their votes. She even went so far as to suggest that they consider "McKinnon's Malady" as a proper alternative. Thankfully, she lapsed into a coma before the polite refusal came back. Refusals could really upset Marge McKinnon.

Doctor Anderson came over from Watertown complaining of eccentric old women and the hospital being thirty miles away. Sicily spoke up and told him that most folks couldn't always die in the vicinity of a hospital. That's why God created ambulances.

The doctor took one look at Marge and gave the signal to summon the family. She was drawing her last breath. "Any woman who's lived on rice and tea from 1927 until 1959 can't expect much more," he told Sicily and Amy Joy.

"She cheated sometimes," Sicily told him, going on to mention the Drake cupcake wrappers Amy Joy was forever finding in the garbage can.

"The woman needs fresh vegetables. She needs B1. Haven't you ever heard of thiamine?" he asked.

"Simon?" Sicily looked closely at the doctor. She wondered why he had not lisped before. "Wasn't he that little MacLean boy who almost died of rat bite?"

"No, Mama, that was Therman," Amy Joy said.

After the doctor left, Sicily and Amy Joy sat down at Marge's writing desk, took out her book of family addresses and telephone numbers, and made a list of people to contact.

"We may as well charge this to Marge. It's her ball game," Sicily said, dialing her sister Pearl Ivy, who lived with her husband on the top floor of the Ivy Funeral Home in Portland, Maine. Amy Joy leaned over, chin in hands, to hear the conversation.

"Amy Joy, your face is just a smattering of horrible little pimples. Do you have the curse?"


"Are you late, honey? The heat sometimes does that. And all this excitement doesn't help."

"I guess."

"Well, if it isn't the curse, have you been eating Hershey bars with almonds again?"


"Marshmallow cups?"

"I guess."

"You're about to come out of your clothes now, young lady. If you're left with a single tooth hanging from the roof of your mouth, don't you come crying...Pearl? Pearl, it's Sicily. How's your weather down there?"

A nurse had been hired to attend to Marge's last needs, sponging her forehead and massaging her swollen extremities. Amy Joy stood in the doorway and dangled a pink flip-flop off the tip of one foot. The nurse looked up and smiled.

"A relative?" she asked.

"She's my aunt," said Amy Joy. "She gave her life like the great missionaries, to the service of God."

"I thought the doctor said it was beriberi." The nurse glanced nervously at the bed in fear that she'd been sitting with the wrong patient.

"She caught it as a sacrifice," Amy Joy said and blew a pink bubble of gum.

"Oh, I see," said the nurse and fluffed Marge's pillow.

"She'll have a room in heaven now."

"I'm sure she will, dear."

"I'm Amy Joy Lawler. My mom is Aunt Marge's sister. I'm going to be a freshman in high school this fall and travel all the way to Watertown on the bus every day and I can't wait."

"I would have taken you for a much older girl," the nurse said, glancing at the soft mounds beneath the tight blouse.

"Everybody says I look older than fourteen."

"Yes, you certainly do."

"We don't have our own high school yet. We might get one built in 1965 but I'll be graduated by then. At least I hope."

"I'm sure you will," the nurse said. "Just study hard."

"I got a new boyfriend, too."

"Aren't you too young for that?"

"Mama thinks I am, but she don't really know about him. She just suspects."

The nurse put a fresh cloth in a pan of water and wrung it out. She folded it and placed it carefully on Marge's forehead.

"You should listen to your mother, Amy Joy."

But Amy Joy had already turned away and headed down the hallway to the front door, her tight white pants making soft squeaking noises. She pushed the screen door open and went out to the back porch. Leaning forward, she studied her reflection in a square of windowpane. She slid a rattail comb up from her hip pocket and teased her brown hair a bit on the top. The kiss-me-quick curls on each side of her face had dried, so she removed the bobby pins. The tiny sample tube of lipstick that the Fuller Brush man had let her select was Shocking Pink, to match her blouse and flip-flops. Amy Joy had flip-flops and lipsticks to match every blouse she had. After a bit of trouble squeezing the tube back into her front pocket, she peered again at her reflection to check the results. Inside, Sicily screamed. Something broke into many pieces.

"God in heaven, Amy Joy! Is that you out there with your eyes bugged out?" Sicily was edgy. This was her first planned funeral. In the past, Marge had taken charge of family functions.

"Mama, can I dye my hair?" Amy Joy asked through the screen of the door.

"Let me recover from one shock before you kill me with another one," Sicily said. She was picking up the shards of a tumbler. Raspberry Kool-Aid was splattered about the kitchen floor. "The least you could do after scaring the daylights out of me is to help me mop this up."

Amy Joy let the screen door bang.

"Have consideration for your dying aunt, young lady. And watch out for the ice cubes. They're around here somewhere." Sicily was on her knees, mopping up the mess. Amy Joy sat on a chair and pulled both knees up to her chin.

"I've been thinking of Sensuous Ash," she said.


"Sensuous Ash," said Amy Joy. "You know, if I was to dye my hair."

"Watch my mouth as I say this," said Sicily, who felt the situation was important enough to stop mopping. "If you so much as alter a strand of hair on your head, especially so close to a funeral, if you so much as buy a bottle of Sensuous Ash hair dye to even read the instructions, your father will hear of it. And Amy Joy, do I have to tell you what will happen to you if your father hears of it? You wanting to dye your hair with him being principal of the grammar school. You know what kind of woman dyes her hair."

"Oh, Mama," said Amy Joy.

"What's wrong with your hair?"

"It's mousy."

"It is not mousy. It's wholesome. Besides that, it's God-given."

"Who is more wholesome than Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds? And they dye theirs."

"Who told you that?" Sicily asked with interest. She found one of the ice cubes.

"I read it somewhere," said Amy Joy, and went out to swing on the back porch.

"And wipe that pink stuff off your mouth!" Sicily shouted after her.

When Sicily went out later to tell Amy Joy that she had called everyone, had checked on Marge, and was now on her way home to cook supper, she found her daughter beaming into the unkempt face of Chester Gifford, who was only inches away from Amy Joy's own chubby face. When Sicily cleared her throat, Chester jumped as though someone had shot him between the shoulder blades.

"Amy Joy, may I speak to you for a moment, dear?" Sicily held the screen door open as an embarrassed Amy Joy stumbled past her, losing a flip-flop. When she bent to pick it up, there was a loud ripping sound. The seat of Amy Joy's faithful slacks had finally given in to the stress of adolescent fat.

"Just leave it there, miss," said Sicily, and kicked the flip-flop to one side. She turned and looked back at their visitor. "Good night, Mr. Gifford," she said. She let the screen door bang shut and latched it. Then she closed the inside kitchen window and locked it. In case Chester Gifford still didn't get the hint, she closed the two Venetian blinds in the back windows and snapped off the porch light.

"We're closed for the night," she said and turned to Amy Joy, who was studying herself in the mirror of the medicine cabinet on the kitchen wall.

"All right, Amy Joy Lawler. Let's hear it."


"You know what."

"No, I don't."

"Was that Chester Gifford lurking out there like a thief in the night, or was it not?"

"I guess."

"You guess, do you? Well, let me tell you that this will be brought to your father's attention. I'm on my way home now to cook his supper, and Amy Joy, this is one time he will be told."

"Oh, Mama," said Amy Joy, and squeezed a pimple.

"Don't pick at your complexion," said Sicily. "And you look at me when I'm speaking to you." Amy Joy turned to look at her mother, a dollop of blood on her chin.

"Now look what you've done to your face," said Sicily, passing her daughter a tissue from her apron pocket.

"It isn't bad enough that you're thirty pounds overweight, you have to go around picking at your face. Honey, what's to become of you? Reading True Confessions all day when other little girls your age are reading cookbooks and sewing patterns."

"Who wants to cook and sew?" Amy Joy asked and turned on the radio Marge had won by punching the lucky name "Perry" on someone's ticket board. "‘Life gets cold and empty, when your self-respect has died.'" Amy Joy danced along to the music. "‘What does it take to keep a woman like you satisfied?'"

Sicily turned the radio off. "Now you listen to me, little girl. Have you been seeing Chester Gifford?"

"I guess," said Amy Joy.

"You guess what? Have you or haven't you?"

"Yeah, I suppose."

Sicily sank into a chair at the kitchen table. Amy Joy snapped one last meager bubble, then tossed the dying gum into the trash can at the end of the stove.

"What's wrong with Chester?"

Sicily removed more tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. She cleared her throat for the second time that night.

"Amy Joy, you are my only daughter. And you are only fourteen. You're a baby. I thought God gave you to me as a blessing in my old age, but I swear, it's getting harder and harder to think of you as a blessing." Sicily looked at the floor as she spoke. Finally, she chose a time to look directly at Amy Joy, who was leaning against the refrigerator. A piece of tissue spotted with blood was stuck to the ravaged area of skin.

"Take that bloody rag off your face while I'm talking to you."

"It's bleeding, Mama," said Amy Joy, and returned to the mirror to dab at the small volcano.

"Well, don't pick it then," said Sicily, raising her voice. This was something she hated to do. Marge was famous for voice-raising and Sicily was determined to pave roads of her own.

"Your friend Chester Gifford is at least thirty years old if he's a day. And not to mention the fact that he's been in trouble with the law a dozen times. You are barely fourteen years old, young lady, and he's a full-grown man with a mustache."

"Oh, Mama." Amy Joy was now inspecting the damage done to the seam in her pants.

"‘Oh, Mama' what?"

"Haven't you ever been young?" Amy Joy pulled a thread and it snapped.

"Yes, I have been young, but I don't think Chester Gifford ever was. That man was in trouble when he was a toddler."

Amy Joy took two slices of bread from the bread box and popped them into the toaster. She found some homemade rhubarb sauce in the refrigerator and unscrewed the cap. She poured it directly from the jar to her plate, then licked the drippage with her tongue. She waited for the toast.

"I don't believe it," said Sicily. "I don't believe you would resort to that fattening stuff after our mother-daughter talk the other day about diets."

The toast popped, Amy Joy buttered each slice, then spooned rhubarb onto one. She bit into the combination.

"All right, Amy Joy," said Sicily, putting on her sweater and shouldering the strap of her purse. She pointed to Marge's room.

"I've got a sister in that room dying of beriberi. And I leave you here to see to her last needs, and instead you're gadding about the backyard with Chester Gifford."

Amy Joy finished the first toast and smeared the second with rhubarb.

"Let me tell you how things stand." Sicily had found her car keys and was twirling them in her right hand, like they were an oriental weapon. "If you so much as glance at Chester Gifford again, your father will hear of it. And you know what that means, don't you?"

"Yeah," said Amy Joy.

Sicily opened the front door. She had the evening paper in her hand to take home and read after a long soak in the tub. Before she closed the door behind her, she looked back at Amy Joy, who had pulled the soggy tissue from her face and was trying to shake it from her fingers and into the trash can.

"If you spoil this funeral for me, Amy Joy Lawler, I will no longer be your mother. Do you understand?"

"I guess," said Amy Joy.

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  • Posted November 17, 2012

    A lyrical telling of the lives of people living in rural Maine a

    A lyrical telling of the lives of people living in rural Maine and those passing through. No matter where you live, you'll recognize your neighbors, your family and yourself in her stories. Funeral Makers is like life itself, incredibly funny and terribly painful. This is a book to read, pass along to friends, and then to read again.

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