A brief history of undertakers

Charles 10 Comments




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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Paul Hensby
11 years ago

Erudite, interesting, enlightening and concise…if only all blogs and articles had these qualities.
I will make reference to it in My Last Song.

11 years ago

Lovely and informative article RR – thank you. You may be interested to know that this isn’t quite history in Yorkshire villages yet! My father’s funeral was undertaken by the joiner from the next village in rural North Yorkshire. As was my Dad’s wont – there wasn’t a great deal of ‘fuss and bother.’ The joiner/undertaker and his wife came to the house, I never saw a brochure and there were no forms to fill in and sign. He said, ‘Your Dad would just want a simple coffin.’ He never asked how many limos we wanted – he knew the… Read more »

Charles Cowling
11 years ago

Aye, lookin after one of us own.

Lovely account, Evelyn. Makes one wonder if undertaking ever really made it to being a specialist trade.

11 years ago

Thanks, Paul, and thank you, Evelyn, for your firsthand and parallel reminiscences. Your words brought your experience with your Father to, er, life.

11 years ago

Very interesting piece, Richard. Forgive my ignorance but I always associated lats rites with Catholicism. Does it occur in the Anglican church too?

Ru Callender
11 years ago

When Claire and I attended the National Funeral Exhibition over ten years ago, as a date incidentally, we were the only people who put the word ‘undertaker’ on our name badges. It was remarked on constantly. Now we find all of our competitors emblazon the word across their advertising. We are flattered.
By the way, don’t underestimate the hidden erotic forces at work in a large hanger full of stretcher salesmen and car wax reps; reader, we married.

11 years ago

Thanks Quokkagirl. For Catholics, there are seven sacraments: Eucharist, Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony, Reconciliation, Ordination and Unction (Last Rites, when possible given just before death). While Anglicanism only holds the two Gospel rituals of Baptism and Eucharist as sacraments, many clergy nevertheless administer the others as ‘secondary’ rites—more than simply pastoral care.

Rosa Morgan
5 years ago

I’m starting a new novel with a main character being an undertaker. Great article

5 years ago

According to the OED:
One who makes a business of carrying out the arrangements for funerals.

First use recorded in 1698.

Pres. St. Trade in Chester Waters Parish Reg. (1883) 52

‘The furnishing of funerals by a small number of men called undertakers.’


[…] catch-all term. The first appearance of the word in the context of deathcare became popular in the 17th century. Funeral undertakers were the funeral directors of their day. Eventually, […]