The Good Funeral Guide Blog

What is an undertaker for, really?

Friday, 12 December 2014



“Most people in the funeral industry are servants by nature, but it’s time that we took that servant nature and put it to better use by aiding you in the process of caring for your dead. Instead of doing it ourselves, we now need to be teachers, and not just directors; we need to be mentors and not just morticians. We need to reintroduce you to the value of caring for your dead.”

US 6th generation undertaker Caleb Wilde in a TED talk here

“… caring for the dead is not neurosurgery requiring esoteric knowledge and the skills of experts. People have the social savvy and wisdom to do these things themselves, and centuries of our forebears managed to accomplish them without benefit of clergy or mortician.

When funeral directors and clergy realise that people can perform these actions quite adequately without us, ironically a window of understanding opens through which we can see what our proper roles might be and how it can be that people can do this better with us. And what is this proper role? To put it succinctly, the task of both funeral professionals and clergy is to help people do this very human thing more humanely.

That is why, when it comes to funeral professionals, the old title of “undertaker” is so apt. People do not need to have their funerals “directed,” any more than they need their lovemaking, birthing, bathing, eating, laboring and going about the trials and obligations of everyday living directed. Women in labor don’t need a birth director, they need a midwife. In the same way, people caring for and burying their dead don’t need a funeral “director”; they need people who will undertake to help them accomplish these tasks well.”

Thomas Long, theologian, in The Good Funeral

Wilde is reckoned to be on the progressive wing of the funerals business and Long is considered a reactionary. 

ED’S NOTE – Yes, the pic at the top is John Bates, the valet in Downton Abbey.

9 comments on “What is an undertaker for, really?

  1. Tuesday 23rd December 2014 at 1:19 pm

    We undertake to enable and empower families to create the very best funeral possible for their loved ones. We guide and support them to tenderly care for their own at home when they die. Home and family-led funerals are handmade, slow-made and well-made. They cost less and offer more time, space, freedom and choice.

  2. Wednesday 17th December 2014 at 3:46 pm

    In this day and age, when the majority of people find companies by searching for what they want on the internet, we need to call ourselves funeral directors.

    How much trade would supermarket bakeries do if they called themselves “people who put part-cooked, pre-shaped dough into an oven so it smells nice and gives the impression we’ve started from scratch”?

    • Charles

      Wednesday 17th December 2014 at 3:58 pm

      But that isn’t what they called their bakeries before they called them bakeries, Andrew.

      Google sorts also by synonym. If I type ‘undertaker st neots’ guess who comes out at the top of the page?

      • Wednesday 17th December 2014 at 5:29 pm

        That’s because we’ve optimised the home page for the undertaker search, just in case. But in 2 years I can count on one hand the number of people who have found our website by searching for an undertaker. Actually, that’s not true, it’s 6 now you’ve tried it!

  3. Monday 15th December 2014 at 10:46 pm

    …and if we’re talking about the actual funeral ceremony, the FD doesn’t “direct” the ceremony. The family, usually but not always with the help of a celebrant/minister etc, directs it. So three cheers for real undertakers!

    • vita incerta

      Tuesday 16th December 2014 at 5:37 pm

      Well said GM ! I have yet to have a ‘funeral director’ sit in on one of the 500 ceremonies I have led, unless I have asked for their assistance lest things ‘kick off’ between warring factions of the family…as they have, occasionally. ‘Undertakers’ is much more the ticket. Why the name change and what purpose does it serve ?

      • A.D.

        Thursday 18th December 2014 at 10:50 am

        As an undertaker/fd I always remain in the chapel/venue for the service, wherever it may be. When the coffin is laid on the catafalque that should not be our cue for a coffee break or worse still, a fag break! Although we do not have an active role in terms of the service, other than a bit of hymn singing, it is important for our clients and families to know that we are there should anyone feel unwell or become particularly distressed or, in my case a few weeks ago, deal with a distraught and hungry babe in arms. I was able to take the baby to the back of the chapel and wander about leaving the family to concentrate on the ceremony and, luckily, return baby asleep for the meet and greet at the end. I am not suggesting we should all become baby sitters but our job is to support quietly, without pomp and self importance. Just be there to do whatever is needed, or not….but don’t leave the building!

  4. Friday 12th December 2014 at 11:43 am

    When we started our business A Natural Undertaking it was really important that we call ourselves undertakers rather than Funeral Directors- for the very reason Thomas Long mentions above. I’ve never been very good at taking “direction” from others myself! A kind and helpful hand is always appreciated though.

    • Tuesday 23rd December 2014 at 3:42 pm

      Very glad to be working alongside you Carrie and wish you and Fran much success with A Natural Undertaking. See you in the New Year xx

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