A brief history of undertakers

By Richard Rawlinson

In medieval times, the word ‘undertaker’ was used vaguely for anyone undertaking a task, whether house building or funeral work. It doesn’t derive from taking the deceased six feet under but, by the 17th century, the term ‘funeral undertaker’ was being abbreviated to ‘undertaker’ and, as this association became widespread, folk in other trades stopped calling themselves ‘undertakers’. Death by association.

I’m not sure when undertakers started referring to themselves as funeral directors, but my hunch is it was in the early-20th century, or perhaps the 19th century? The title reflects the public, ceremonial role played on the big day itself, conjuring up an image of somber-suited bearers and polished hearses. It perhaps glosses over the preparation done before arriving at this stage: the embalming or ‘hygiene treatment’; the safekeeping in the Chapel of Rest or cold storage in the ‘hub’.

Then again, you expect a director to be an efficient administrator, entrusted with booking venues and celebrants, and answering individual needs. You also expect to talk business with a director, to buy their products and services. This is in stark contrast to the word ‘mortician’, someone you envisage wearing rubber gloves and performing rather unpleasant acts in a back room. Ironically, the American trade coined the word, ‘mortician’, believing it sounded less gloomy than ‘funeral director’—surely only to those who didn’t know the Latin root of ‘mort’? They also thought it had a professional ring. Exactly, it sounds rather too much like ‘physician’.

Early undertakers tended to work as builders, joiners and carpenters, skills that translated to coffin-making at times of death in the village. This was often the case even in the early 20th century. The family would inform their doctor first to certify a death, and then the local ‘layer out’—usually a woman—would help carry out the ‘last offices’, attending to the needs of both bereaved and deceased. They would call on the parish priest to perform the Last Rites, and summon the undertaker to take measurements for a bespoke coffin, made in haste from sanded and polished hardwood, and sealed inside with wax and bitumen to avoid leakage.

The undertaker would return to the house to deliver the coffin, sometimes having to remove a window as the door was too narrow. The deceased, clothed in their best nightdress or Sunday suit, would then rest in the front parlour until the funeral, usually held three or four days after death. Sweet smelling flowers were placed around the room to absorb bad odours and the undertaker would visit to check on any unpleasantness. Embalming was only performed for wealthy clients, and it wasn’t until the 1950s that Chapels of Rest became established in funeral homes.

The typical cost of a funeral in the mid-1940s was about £20, which included the making of the coffin, providing four bearers, hearse and car, church fees and grave digger. The fee of half a crown was paid to the person who performed the ‘laying out’. With the average wage being only £2.75 per week, the cost of funerals today is comparable. 

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