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A deeply touching Southern story filled with struggle and hope.
Emmalee Bullard and her new baby are on their own. Or so she thinks, until Leona Lane, the older seamstress who sat by her side at the local shirt factory where both women worked as collar makers, insists Emmalee come and live with her. But just as Emmalee prepares to escape her hardscrabble life in Red Chert Holler, Leona dies tragically.
Grief-stricken, Emmalee decides shell make Leonas burying dress. There are plenty of people who don't think the unmarried Emmalee should design a dress for a Christian woman--or care for a child on her own--but with every stitch, Emmalee struggles to do what is right for her daughter and to honor Leona the best way she can, finding unlikely support among an indomitable group of seamstresses and the towns funeral director. In a moving tale exploring Southern spirit and camaraderie among working women, a young mother will compel a town to become a community.
Now with Extra Libris material, including a readers guide and bonus content
A Conversation with Susan Gregg Gilmore
Q: What inspired you to write The Funeral Dress?
A: I stumbled across a 1960s Kodak photograph of my great aunt and uncle sitting in their single-wide trailer, the very same trailer they shared for fifty-two years. This one photograph got me to thinking about family, familial relationships, and specifically my ancestors and the land we've all shared. From this one image, The Funeral Dress took root.
Q: Is there a Cullen, Tennessee, and if so, was there a shirt factory there?
A: Cullen is fictional. But I did spend time researching in Dunlap, Tennessee, just about thirty minutes from my Chattanooga home. In fact, some of my most favorite days while writing the book were those spent with my friend and Dunlap native Vallerie Greer. She'd pick me up and we'd drive over Signal Mountain down into the Sequatchie Valley. We spent countless hours walking through cemeteries, driving deep into hollers, and talking to people about their lives there at the southernmost tip of the Appalachian Mountains. And we always finished the day with a late lunch at the Cookie Jar, where you can get some of the best chicken 'n' dumplings and lemon meringue pie. There was an operating shirt factory in Dunlap at one time, and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Marea Barker, a twenty-nine-year veteran lapel maker. I kept asking Marea, had she found the work monotonous, tedious, boring? Thinking surely she must have. But she just looked at me as if she didn't understand the question. For Marea, working at the shirt factory meant community and friendship and some financial independence. Sadly, Marea died not long after our last visit together, but she was sewing quilts for her family up until the very end.
Q: Do you have any ideas about your own funeral; what you'd like? What kind of dress you want to wear?
A: Sure. I have a growing file where I put songs I'd like sung or verses I'd like read. But I know I want it in a church, and I want someone who really knows me delivering the eulogy. I don't want money spent on an expensive casket. I would just as soon be wrapped in a white sheet and cremated or placed in a pine box and buried in the quiet Tennessee woods. But if I'm going to get all gussied up for the affair, I want a simple dress, tailored, not black, but something that still complements my white hair! Maybe even pants and a nice top. And of course good food and good fellowship afterward. Other than that, it can all be a surprise.
Q: While you were writing, did you identify with Leona or Emmalee or both?
A: I identified with both women but definitely felt more connected to Leona. Truth be told, it was probably more of a bonding. Leona had worked so hard all of her life and was still longing for something more. Even though I try very hard to find peace in the moment, no matter the circumstance, I understand that longing, that desperate need for something not yet attained. Even now, I find myself thinking about Leona and wondering what her life would have been like, with or without Curtis, had her situation been different. I hope she's well wherever she is!