Undertaker U in i the family
Dig deep into this vital occupation
Although the first undertakers in Britain appeared in the 1670s, the trade did not grow significantly until the mid-Victorian period since there was no real need for them.
In the 17th century, only the wealthy were buried in individual coffins. It was more common for corpses to be transported to the churchyard in the reusable parish coffin and buried in shrouds, not in the coffin itself. By the early 1700s, parish coffins fell out of use and coffin-making developed as a trade. When a person died, the coffin-maker visited the deceased’s home to take measurements for the coffin. A local woman would ‘ lay out’ the corpse for a small fee, and the body was kept at home until the funeral three or four days later. The coffin was carried to the church on the parish bier, usually by relatives of the deceased.
The development of undertaking coincided with urbanisation, an increase in population and the introduction of municipal cemeteries. From the 1840s onwards, death itself became an industry and there were opportunities to capitalise on it. If your ancestor was an undertaker, he was more than likely a shrewd businessman with an entrepreneurial streak.
Anyone could set themselves up in the trade. However, in small towns and villages, undertaking was a sideline for cabinetmakers, joiners or builders because they had the skills to make coffins. In larger towns and cities with a higher population, tradesmen could afford to work as
The development of undertaking coincided with urbanisation
full-time undertakers. There were three main branches in the trade: coffin-making, undertaking and funeral furnishing. Both undertakers and funeral furnishers performed funerals, but undertakers made their own coffins while funeral furnishers bought them in from coffin-makers and dressed them. Associated occupations you may find on the census include ‘shroud maker’, ‘ funeral carriage proprietor’, ‘ funeral coachman’, ‘ funeral labourer’ and ‘ funeral feather-man’.
Useful secondary sources on undertakers include Trevor May’s The Victorian Undertaker and Julian Litten’s The English Way of Death. There are few first-hand accounts from undertakers but Walter Rose’s 1937 memoir The Village Carpenter includes a very interesting chapter on undertaking. It’s available on Google Books ( books.google.com) for a small fee.
Walter Rose was writing about his family’s business in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, before 1893. He wrote that: “A full description of every undertaking was entered into the ledger, and reference made to it when next the need arose. Was the coffin made of elm or oak? Was it single- or double-nailed? Was it covered with black material or linseed oiled? ( We never polished them.) Was the furniture best or second class? The breastplate written in paint or gold leaf? Had it calico or swans down lining, and what was the quality of the shroud? Each family had its own acknowledged order, though varying in some small items, and it was unthinkable for us to suggest any change.”
The ledger was therefore supremely important for undertakers and some have survived to today. While it’s unlikely you’ll find a ledger for your own ancestor, it’s worth looking at an example from another undertaking business. This will give you an idea of the services provided as well as their cost. Check on Discovery ( nationalarchives.gov.uk) or the National Records of Scotland ( nrscotland.gov.uk) for available records.
Undertakers had discreet shop premises and rarely advertised. However, they are listed in trade directories, so look for your ancestor in Historical Directories of England and Wales ( historicaldirectories.org) or the National Library of Scotland’s Scottish Post Office Directories ( nls.uk/familyhistory/directories/postoffice).
A dubious reputation
Undertakers did not generally enjoy a great reputation, especially in towns. The desire to keep up appearances and have a ‘decent burial’ played into the hands of some unscrupulous undertakers who wanted to make as much money as possible from
each funeral. They were criticised in the press and satirised by authors like Charles Dickens.
The cost of a funeral varied considerably depending on the deceased’s social class, as shown in Edwin Chadwick’s The Practice of Interment in Towns (1843). The average funeral cost for an adult ‘of the labouring class’ was about £ 4 (excluding burial fees), and that of a child, 30 shillings.
Funerals for a gentleman ranged from £ 200 to £1,000 and that of a person ‘of rank or title’, between £500 and £1,500. The high costs were attributed to the extravagant accompaniments such as mutes and feather-men, which harked back to medieval aristocratic funerals.
In 1875, The Times complained of the “awful hearses drawn by preternatural quadrupeds, clouds of black plumes, solid and magnificent oak coffins instead of the sepulchral elm, coffin within coffin, lead, brick graves, and capacious catacombs”, which were no longer confined to the wealthy. In fact, by the 1890s, upper-class funerals were simpler and it was small tradesmen and shopkeepers who favoured the more elaborate send-off.
Writing in 1899, Mrs Bernard Bosanquet commented on attitudes in East London: “I have known a woman have a hearse with four horses, and a carriage and a pair, for her husband’s funeral, and within two weeks apply to the Guardians to feed her children.” This outcome was infinitely preferable to that of the dreaded pauper funeral.
Simple funerals remained the rule in the countryside. Walter Rose recalled: “Our firm adopted the same scale of charges for undertaking as for other work. I have written scores of bills at an inclusive charge of less than £1. There was no insurance and no old age pension to help the poor.”
In the mid-1880s, cremation was introduced as an alternative to burial. However, this had little effect on undertakers, as it was not until 1968 that the number of cremations first exceeded burials. By the late 1890s, the trades of funeral furnisher, coffinmaker and undertaker were amalgamated and the title ‘ funeral director’ was introduced. This is the role that we still recognise today.
Pall-bearers carry the coffin of Battersea street trader Jim Lloyd out of the house he lived in for 31 years, April 1949
Undertakers regaling themselves at Death’s Door, Battersea Rise, by John Nixon, c1802
The funeral carriage of prominent Colchester Freemason
Thomas Ralling in April 1924
In 1909, the average cost of a manual
worker’s funeral in a poor London district was £2 (or two week’s