Un­der­taker U in i the fam­ily

Dig deep into this vi­tal oc­cu­pa­tion

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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’.

Un­der­tak­ing process

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


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