The Funeral Dress is that rare book which is not only a book club natural and a page-turning ‘great read,’ but a stunning literary work which out to be up for every award out there.

Lee Smith, author of Mrs. Darcy and The Blue-Eyed Stranger.

Consider The Funeral Dress for your book club and enjoy the The Funeral Dress Extra Libris materials included here – Reader’s Guide, Conversation with the Author, and more.

And invite Susan to join your next discussion. Whether you talk by phone, i-Chat, or Skype, just be sure and stay in touch!

Send an email at [email protected] and be sure to include the date and time of your meeting and the best way to chat.

A Reader’s Guide:

Please note: In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary
to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel—as well as the ending. If you have not finished reading The Funeral Dress, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.

1. Eudora Welty wrote, “Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else. . .” With this in mind, do you think the Southern Appalachian setting of The Funeral Dress is integral to the telling of its story? And in what ways does Emmalee’s life in the holler and Leona’s life on the mountain affect their attitudes and their relationships, particularly in the face of hardship and loss?

2. Why is it so difficult for Emmalee to leave Nolan and Red Chert Holler, even though her day-to-day existence is difficult and her father’s abuse emotionally and physically painful? How does Nolan’s grim work, assisting the town’s funeral director, affect Emmalee’s outlook toward the living and the dead?

3. Emmalee gives birth to her baby girl on the shirt factory’s floor. A single, teenaged mother, Emmalee feels burdened by her daughter’s care. Only as Cora, Wilma, and Easter embrace Emmalee does she begin to see herself as a mother. How do you imagine attitudes toward teen pregnancy have changed in the past thirty-five years? Do you think TV reality shows highlighting teenaged pregnant moms have affected our attitudes toward teen pregnancy?

4. When Mr. Fulton learns that Emmalee’s baby is his own grandchild, he faces serious moral and ethical decisions. How does Mr. Fulton negotiate his relationship with his wife, son, and Emmalee while also dealing with the scrutiny of a small town?

Lapel Makers at Spartan Industries

5. Southern textile mills and factories provided many women a first opportunity to earn money of their own and gain some financial independence. What types of challenges at work and in the community do you think blue-collar working women like Cora, Wilma, and Easter faced? And how do you think these challenges have changed since the mid-1970s?

6. Religion, church, and God mean very different things to Leona and Emmalee. Leona attends Sunday and Wednesday services regularly, but it seems an obligation, whereas Emmalee doesn’t attend church but faithfully makes her crosses for every Cullen resident who dies. What do you imagine the relationship with God and church may mean to someone living in a small town versus a large metropolitan area? And what do you think it would be like to feel alienated from formal, organized religion in such a place?

7. References to birds are made frequently throughout the book. The first mention is “A redbird rapped at the trailer’s far window, but it flitted off before Leona could blow a kiss and wish for something better” (page 25). More than good luck, what do these birds represent in the telling of this story?

8. Many of the characters in The Funeral Dress have dealt with loss of one kind or another: the loss of a child, the loss of a friend, the loss of the way a relationship used to be, the loss of a spouse, the loss of dreams. Do those who are experiencing loss seem connected in some way, even if on the surface their lives are very different?

9. Mr. Clayton and Leona’s adulterous relationship was judged harshly by the other seamstresses at Tennewa. Do you think these women were unfair in their judgments?

10. Leona’s death was sudden and tragic, and no one felt her absence more acutely than Emmalee. Do you think Emmalee became a stronger, more independent woman because of her friend’s death? And in what ways do you think Emmalee’s making of Leona’s burial dress affected her and her relationship with her baby girl?

11. What do you see ahead for Emmalee? Do you think she will be up to the challenges she’ll face while raising Kelly Faye?

LISTEN TO SEAMSTRESS, Nadean Kell, talk about her work at Spartan Industries in Dunlap, Tennessee.

Q & A with Susan:

Q: What inspired you to write The Funeral Dress?

A: I stumbled across this 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 sew?

A: Oh, no. I can place a button if need be or a very simple hem, but I had to take sewing lessons to understand the proper construction of a dress. I was making a linen dress as part of my research. Unfortunately, I cut it too short. But it still hangs in my closet, reminding me of what’s possible if you really put your mind to it . . . and have a great teacher.

Q: Do you think, as Leona does, that redbirds bring good luck?

A: Of course! My daddy taught me that when I was a little girl. When you spot a redbird, you make a wish and blow a kiss. When I first moved back to Tennessee after ten years in California, I would see redbirds everywhere and was convinced that every one of them was a sign from my father. Maybe they were, but I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of redbirds in Tennessee. But it’s still a comforting

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!

Q: You write eloquently about the difficulties of raising a baby. Do you have children? Do you think having a newborn is overwhelming no matter what the circumstances?

A: Thank you, and I do have children. I have three amazing daughters and several nieces and nephews that I love on, too, as if they are mine. I do think having a newborn can be very overwhelming even with a good support system in place. When my second was born, she was small and struggled to nurse. They called her a nip-and-napper like Kelly Faye. Had it not been for a community of women here in Chattanooga that reached out and supported me, encouraged me, cooked for me, I probably would have quit breastfeeding. That’s a very physically demanding experience for a new mother, and I so empathized with Emmalee, who had no one teaching her, coaching her, loving on her. My oldest niece, Mary, had a baby while I was writing The Funeral Dress, and I went to help her for a few days. Boy, that brought back a lot of memories, and I felt Emmalee was there with us, watching our every move, soaking it all in.

Recommended Reading:

The books on my desk while writing The Funeral Dress included a few reference books, different-colored Moleskines filled with research notes, and some classics from John Steinbeck to Willa Cather were stacked about my desk while I worked. But the most important books I kept close were those of my friends. It was a comfort during the writing process to be surrounded by their beautifully crafted stories.

The Good News Bible, New International Version, and Revised Standard

The Celebration Hymnal: Songs and Hymns for Worship

The Synonym Finder, J.I. Rodale

Our Southern Birds, Emma Bell Miles

Sufficient Grace, Darnell Arnoult

Midwives and The Double Bind, Chris Bohjalian

One Fell Swoop, Virginia Boyd

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks

Commemoration, Lisa Dordal

Moon Women, Pamela Duncan

The Book of Marie and To Dance with the White Dog, Terry Kay

Creatures of Habit and Going Away Shoes, Jill McCorkle

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O’Connor McNees

The Blueberry Years, Jim Minick

Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Lisa Patton

Fair and Tender Ladies and Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Lee Smith

The Sweet Life, Lynn York

Gregg Family Recipe for Hash Brown Casserole:


2 pounds hash browns (frozen cubed potatoes)
1/2 cup melted butter
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 pint sour cream
10 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups corn flakes with 1/4 cup melted butter

My sister, Hall Gregg, made this dish. Notice the tomatoes in the background - a good Southern girl!

Mix all the ingredients together (except for the corn flakes and 1/4 cup of the melted butter) and spoon into a casserole dish. Toss the corn flakes with the 1/4 cup of melted butter and set aside. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes and then remove casserole from oven. Sprinkle the top with the buttered corn flakes and return to the oven for an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until the topping has turned golden brown.

And . . .

For additional Extra Libris content and more on your favorite authors and books, visit Discover fabulous book giveaways,sneak peeks at great reads, downloadable reader’s guides, and behind-the-scenes insights from authors, editors, booksellers & more.

A Reading Guide for Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen is available in the back of the paperback edition (Three Rivers Press/$13.95) or download the official reading guide here.

A Reading Guide for The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove is available in the back of the paperback edition (Broadway Paperbacks/$14.00) or download the official reading guide here.

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Susan Gregg Gilmore