Book Title: Two Floors Above Grief: A Memoir of Two Families in the Unique Place We Called Home by Kevin M. O’Connor
Category: Adult Non-Fiction (18+), 318 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Publisher: 18th Floor Publishing
Release date: November 2022
Content Rating: PG for two languages use and use of F-word.
As a child in the 1950s, Kevin O’Connor knew his house was different than those of his friends. A stately, three-story, nineteenth century Victorian. His bed tucked next to a stage in a former ballroom. His uncle and aunt lived with their three daughters on the floor below. A large electric organ stood stately in a corner of the first-floor mortuary business. Stacked caskets and an embalming room filled the basement.
Nobody had a house like his.
Set from the 1920s to ‘80s, Two Floors Above Grief is full of fascinating details and anecdotes about his upbringing as a funeral home child, brought to vivid life through a compelling collection of letters written by various family members who lived and worked together at the O’Connor Funeral Home in Elgin, Illinois. Blending the twenty-four-hour business of death and its constantly ringing phone with joy experienced through music, radios, pets, backyard basketball games, co-parenting, faith, and celebrations, O’Connor offers a reflective tale affirming the love of family and embracing life.
Guest Post From Kevin O’Connor
Becoming a Child of the Funeral Business
How did I live in an apartment above a funeral home? Simply, I did not know any differently. I imagine my brothers and cousins have responded in like fashion. Becoming funeral home children happened at the moment of our births. Without evidence or detail from our parents, my cousins, brothers, and I were presumably conceived in the buildings where our deceased clients reposed in the coffins chosen by their families. Hang on to that thought of conception. Now let it go. The following chapters of the book are about Uncle Lawrence, Aunt Mildred, and their families deciding to start a funeral home business.
In the mid-to-late ‘20s, Lawrence began formulating plans for his future. He worked at Burns Funeral Home in Hammond, Indiana. His family was acquainted with the Burns family. Lawrence told me about his initial interest in becoming an undertaker when the funeral home profession was amidst changes. Most funerals at the time were held in the homes of the families of the deceased. In rural areas, the funerals and burial of bodies occurred shortly after death. In several locations, the undertakers were also furniture makers. Building caskets was an extension of their business. Sometimes the dying person was in their house in their last hours, listening as a craftsman from the family or neighbors constructed their casket. You know the comment about “putting the last nail in the coffin?” Think of listening to the pounding of the nails, knowing your placement in the coffin being assembled.
Away from rural areas, establishments in towns provided embalming services to preserve bodies. Embalming slows down the decomposition of the body. It became a more common practice during the Civil War to preserve deceased soldiers’ bodies for burials near their homes. By the turn of the twentieth century, embalming was customary in bigger towns and urban areas. Embalming gave families more time to plan funerals. In the Hammond-Chicago urban area, funeral homes began to replace the traditional practices of holding services in the home. Mr. Burns established a business in Hammond to provide funeral preparations and planning for families away from their homes.
Lawrence and Mildred based their decision to start their own funeral business on elements connected to their circumstances. As they proceeded in their venture, they found a first location for the business and a second location on Division Street nine years later. Ultimately, they included my parents in the business. After my birth in 1950, I adapted to the life of a funeral home child. I was a youngster, teen, and early twenties-year-old ambassador for the business that bore my last name
Kevin O’Connor enjoys chronicling the stories of families and friends through tracing genealogical histories and writing. His prior writing includes a dissertation, personal letters, articles, anthologies, and presentations delivered at conferences, seminars, and webinars. He brings people together personally and professionally. Collaborating with friends and relatives, he plans family and class reunions.
He sings and performs in theaters and is active with SMART Ride, a bicycling group that rides annually from Miami to Key West, raising funds for HIV awareness, treatment, and education. Kevin was an elementary teacher, principal, professor, and curriculum coordinator in California, Illinois, and Florida from 1973 to 2020. He authored content and provided training in areas including support for substitute teachers, LGBTQ advocacy, and Sexual Health/Family Life.
Kevin resides in Ft. Lauderdale with his husband, Leon. Their family includes five sons and seven granddaughters.