Sara Blaedel hadn’t ever been to Racine when she chose the city as the setting for her latest book, “The Undertaker’s Daughter.”
Blaedel — an international best-selling author originally from Denmark, now living in New York — had been searching for a location far from her home country, yet tied to Danish culture, where the story could take place. And when a friend of hers who had worked in Wisconsin suggested Racine, she “Googled” it and liked what she saw.
Everything from the city’s size to its harbor, as well as its Danish heritage, seemed to fit the story that was “spinning” in her head, Blaedel said.
“I knew it was perfect,” the author said during a Feb. 6 book tour stop in Racine.
Blaedel’s initial thoughts were confirmed when she first visited Racine in 2015 to do research for the book. The city looked much as she’d imagined it, she said, and she found it easy to make connections here, including those with sources essential to the story — local funeral homes.
“Everyone was so open and welcoming to me,” Blaedel said.
“The Undertaker’s Daughter” is the first in a series of three books that tell the story of Ilka, a 40-year-old, widowed school portrait photographer who leads a modest, regimented life in Copenhagen until receiving unexpected news that rocks her quiet existence. Her father, who abandoned her in childhood, has died and left her one thing in his will: The funeral home he owned in Racine.
Desperate for a connection to the parent she never really knew, she flies to Wisconsin, planning to visit the funeral home and go through her father’s things before preparing the business for a quick sale. But when she stumbles on an unsolved murder — and a killer who seems to be very much alive — Ilka realizes she might be in over her head.
It is a story that Blaedel said came to her following a series of personal losses, starting with her parents, who died within several days of one another, and followed by the death of a dear aunt. Those were her first dealings with a funeral director and the author said she was both surprised and fascinated by the experiences.
Instead of the older, gray-haired man she’d always envisioned a funeral director to be, the one who came to her home was a young woman. And Blaedel said she was “so impressed” with how the director dealt with her during her times of sorrow, making the experience feel like a natural process.
“She handled the whole situation with so much respect and dignity,” said Blaedel. “Afterward, I had a clear picture. I knew I needed to write about a funeral director, and it needed to be a woman funeral director.”
The author said she also realized how lucky she’d been to have spoken with her parents about their end-of-life wishes in advance. And she wondered how often such conversations don’t happen among family members — and how many things are left unsaid between them.
“This book is very much about all the things that are never said,” Blaedel said.
Before coming to Racine, Blaedel worked as an intern at a funeral home in Denmark. She learned, first-hand, about the funeral business there and said she found “all the small details so interesting.”
While here, she met with the owners of both the Wilson Funeral Home and Maresh-Meredith & Acklam Funeral Home. And in the process, she discovered how different some American customs are from those in Denmark.
In Denmark, for example, the body of the deceased is not embalmed; they don’t have open caskets; and visitations are not held at funeral homes, she said. Blaedel also noted how services honoring the deceased are more personalized in the U.S., with families incorporating everything from the deceased’s beloved dog to their love of karaoke, by singing at the service.
While it took her a little while to get used to some of the practices here, in the end the author said she felt Americans’ way of dealing with death and loss seemed very natural.
“Being here and hearing the stories from real life was very helpful,” she said. “People took the time to help me understand.”
Setting the scene
Writing “The Undertaker’s Daughter” trilogy has also led Blaedel — who is best known for her popular series of crime novels featuring Detective Louise Rick — in a new direction with her writing.
Her latest books are not crime novels, she said, and the reader doesn’t have to solve anything.
“This story is about family relationships and all the things we’ve hidden from each other through the years, and the reasons we hide those secrets.”
These books are also different in that, while each book in the Louise Rick series tells a different story, the new trilogy continues the same story through all three books. Blaedel, who has written Louise Rick stories for 14 years, said it is unusual for her to see a story carried out that far. She has already finished the second book, due out next year, and is currently writing the third.
Blaedel said “The Undertaker’s Daughter” sets the scene for what’s yet to come in the other books, because she wants readers “to get to know the people, before letting all of the skeletons out of the closet.”