Return to main page


ORIGINS OF UNDERTAKING:

How antebellum merchants made death their business

by David Burrell
Seminar in Early American History
Professor Randolph Roth
9 June 1998

 

In 1963, journalist Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death exposed the American funeral business as a cause for national disgrace. With unceasing wit, Mitford portrayed funeral directors as greedy and heartless, dedicated to manipulating people at their most vulnerable. With lies, feigned sentiment, and cynical marketing techniques, America's "deathcare" industry purportedly had instituted a multi-million dollar burial racket. Instead of offering dignity to the dead, funeral directors had lured Americans into the false values of "beautiful memory pictures" and spring-cushioned caskets.  Death, like good breath, had become a commodity.

Outraged, Americans responded to Mitford's muckraking with "sunshine laws" and an inevitable re-examination of how the dead should be treated.  But apparently it wasn't enough, for funeral industry exposés live on.  In recent years, scores of magazine articles, television broadcasts, newspaper exposés, and best-selling books have focused on the consolidation of American funerary businesses into heartless, profit-driven empires. Indeed, the modern media seems always to have found funeral directors and the costs associated with death to be good copy, not only since 1963 but for many decades previous. Jessica Mitford may have been called "Queen of the Muckrackers" for her thrilling and insightful jabs, but she was no pioneer. Even her simple title "The High Cost of Dying" had already been employed by Christian Century (1936), Collier's (1951), National Maritime Union Pilot (1961), The Economist (1962), and book author Ruth Mulvey Harmer (1963) before her work.  Since then, The Examiner (1996), Houston's KPRC-TV evening news (1996), and CBS's 60 Minutes (1998) have similarly followed suit.

One might wonder how such strong feelings arose. Why such condemnation of the funeral business? Surely something about death mixed with burdensome expense seems to roil contemporary spirits, but another answer seems equally applicable: that is, societies in all places and times have expressed disdain for people who handle the dead because it is part of our instinctive reaction against death. Anthropologists such as J. G. Frazer and Bronislaw Malinowski have shown that humans around the world exhibit an instinctive aversion to corpses and stigmatize those who come into contact with them. In the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, for instance, townsmen charged free blacks with the responsibility for picking up the dead and then "shunned them as infected, vilified them as predatory."

But even if this "natural" explanation for anger against funeral directors is relevant, certainly it is insufficient. Natural sentiment addresses neither the manner in which a society appoints its death-handlers nor the reasons for which it criticizes such people. Moreover, death-handlers have been treated quite differently in different nations and times; these varying degrees of contempt can not be explained by "human nature."  Thus social ideologies, class structures, rhetorical strategies, and business relations are important to understanding both how and why people avoid corpses.  Why is it that when twentieth-century funeral directors and cemetery superintendents employ their favorite quote -- "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness its respect for the laws of order and society" (William Gladstone) --  people nod rather than scoff?  It must be something more than mere  tradition, superstition, or cultural inertia.

A society's deathways seem so ingrained that it is often difficult to convince folks (or oneself) there is anything meaningful behind them at all. It seems therefore a remarkably telling fact about nineteenth-century American death that undertaking became an occupation and later even a profession; it had not already been so. Moreover, the fact that the occupation grew not out of any mandate of race or caste, but as the choice of thousands of new "undertakers" suggests a significant revolution in attitudes. Of course, we should expect that material, market, and demographic forces helped make this possible. But so too mattered the way communities thought about and reacted to death, for such considerations surely affected an undertaker's willingness to associate himself with death. Such attitudes must also have affected any prospective undertaker's sales opportunities and social conduct. This study, then, is something of a cultural business history. By reviewing  ideology, economy, and cultural discourse, it seeks to undercover the roots of American undertaking.  The strengths and limitations which occasioned undertaking's rise to legitimacy may also help us to understand the underlying conflict with a group which Americans seem both to accept and  to revile.

Though interest in the undertaking business has been considerable, historical study of the occupation has not. One reason for this neglect may be the perception of "easy" answers to the emergence of undertaking. It is hardly requires time in the archives to suggest that undertaking exists because people die and need to be buried, or to locate discontent against undertakers in the traditional human revulsion against handlers of dead bodies. The dearth of undertaking studies may also lie in the fact that the topic of death, insofar as it has been studied by historians at all, has proven interesting mainly to cultural historians, who have been far more drawn to cemeteries, novels, letters, and works of art - and the aesthetic, ideological, and religious implications such sources reveal - than to the pedestrian affairs of business.

A third and perhaps more positive reason for this dearth of historical study is the presence of one monumental work in the field, which has perhaps crowded out challengers. Robert Haberstein and William Lamers' 1955 The History of American Funeral Directing details the development of the profession from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; through early Christianity, medieval Europe, and early industrial England; and on to the American experience and the "panorama" of modern funeral directing. Its financial sponsorship by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) notwithstanding, Haberstein and Lamers archivally-based investigation seemed judicious, and certainly revealed extensive familiarity with the history of the field in America. Readers are drawn through undertaking's development from the late colonial era to the present: eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century "layers out of the dead"; mid-century cabinetmakers, sextons, and liverymen; Civil War-era embalmers; and the late nineteenth-century professionals who organized the NFDA are at the core of the profession's development in America. Habenstein and Lamer's central argument was, unsurprisingly, that of contemporary funeral directors: the profession evolved involuntarily, from largely impersonal forces, seeking both social respectability and ordinary profits. The occasional "jobber" or unethical operator was the profession's primary source of strain.

Yet if Haberstein and Lamers were friends of funeral directors, their progressive history implied a less impressive defense for the profession's prototype: the undertaker. These "funeral furnishers" or "funeral undertakers" were posited by Haberstein and Lamers as somewhat shady and ignorant forerunners to the more substantial and professional services of later years, disdained even in their own time. "If the medical profession [in the late nineteenth century] looked askance at funeral directors, so also did the American press, which sustained the stereotype of the funeral director as the traditional undertaker, the 'dismal trader' of doubtful character and indifferent feelings." The undertaker's role needed improvement and sophistication. Funeral directors thus emerged with a new image to go along with their newly-devised name and profession. But as they elevated their status as "doctors of grief," they disparaged the "dismal trader." This abandonment by funeral directors left "undertaking" an ugly word; these mid-nineteenth century businessmen had lost the respect even of the profession which was their chief legacy.

Twenty-five years later, the undertaking business received a more intensive and positive review in James Farrell's, Inventing the American Way of Death, 1830-1920. Embedding his narrative within a study of religion, cemeteries, and cultural cosmologies, Farrell portrayed the undertakers of Vermilion County, Illinois as harmonious members of society seeking only moderate reforms. "Because he was also a furniture dealer, the nineteenth-century undertaker was probably more familiar to his clients than the contemporary funeral director... [his clients thus] did not associate the undertaker exclusively with death. In general, Vermilion County residents probably accepted innovation because they trusted a tradition." Unlike Habenstein and Lamers, Farrell did not make a clear break between undertakers and funeral directors, perhaps partly because the former subtly sought to remake himself into the latter. Pioneering "funeral directors" were simply small-town undertakers striving for greater education, professional advance, and additional profits. Such a graceful evolution fit Farrell's thesis that scientific naturalism had led the culture into a gradual "dying of death," moving the cosmological context of deathways into the more sedate, more removed, and less meaningful practice now witnessed in modern America. As an intellectual history, Farrell's narrative is directed by disembodied ideas, while material and personal characteristics become mere vehicles for reforming tendencies. American Culture thus marches steadily toward modernity as undertakers direct us invariably toward that end.

Gary Laderman, the most recent chronicler of the history of death in America, disempowers undertakers in yet a final, more interesting way. The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes toward Death, 1799-1883 tells the story from the perspective of a unique protagonist: the dead body. Although undertakers did help transfer the body from home to the grave, "they usually played a subsidiary role in the drama of death, particularly in the antebellum period, secondary in importance behind the survivors and the corpse itself." Such a situation was healthy and fortunate, according to Laderman, strengthening a vital social relationship between the living and the dead. But soon this changed. A new capitalistic spirit made dead bodies into "the focus of a developing economic regime that was determined by consumerism, class differentiation, and mass-produced goods." Strangely, Laderman avoids directly naming undertakers as his foe; he writes instead of forces such as a new "urban model" of death or a vague "economic regime" which undertakers presumably embody. While Laderman includes a large body of actors almost entirely absent from prior works, including dead bodies, grief-stricken relatives, bodysnatchers, women, war, and racism, readers learn little about the death practices of anyone other than white, middle-class, Protestant Northerners.

Recognizing the merits and shortcomings of all these works allows us to address the topic anew. This study suggests that antebellum undertakers were not "indifferent" purveyors of expanding funerary services, nor were they small-town agents of death-denying reform or personifications of a new capitalistic regime. They were merchants who followed the example of medical professionalization and took advantage of opportunities forged by anatomical science; they replaced not only male occupations but particularly female roles in deathcare; they profited from (and perpetuated) new gender relations, market relations, and class interests; and as a social group, they seem about as insignificant as most histories currently have them, having done little to create the occupation they assumed. They were not professionals but hard-headed businessmen, and the later development of funeral directing repudiated as much of their legacy as it retained. What makes their story worthwhile is not the power which undertakers wielded but the cultural context and social structures revealed in their ascension. Undertakers remain less-than-central to the history of death in antebellum America, but their inclusion enriches the narrative which has been told.

Because undertaking involved a gradual expansion of various death-related tasks, the timing of the occupation's origins cannot be precisely ascertained. It began not when folks started doing undertaking tasks, but rather, when they came to be called "undertakers" - or to call themselves such. The term "undertaker," which had previously been applied to any person who undertook a task or enterprise, did not gain its modern connotation relative to funeral arrangements until late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century England. It was a century or more before many undertakers could be found in North America. New York City records reveal an undertaking business by Blanche White as early as 1768, but this was a significant exception, not only in timing but more particularly in gender (as we shall see). More typically, we find undertakers emerging in the mid-nineteenth century, with establishments for Montreal in 1820; Baltimore in 1824; Providence, Rhode Island in 1856; and Vermilion County, Illinois in 1869. These varied dates reveal important first principles regarding undertaking: the occupation's evolution was both highly localized and contingent upon urbanization.

In Ohio, the first establishment dedicated to undertaking in Cincinnati dates to 1842, in Columbus to 1845, in Cleveland to 1848. Throughout Ohio, city directories added the category "undertakers" to their list of occupations in the late 1840s and 1850s. Similarly, exhaustive economic survey of Cincinnati demographer-historian Charles Cist did not list undertakers in 1841, but ten years later noted 14 undertakers, with 4 hired hands, doing approximately $76,000 worth of business in the city. By 1859, those numbers had practically doubled to 24 undertaking establishments ("of which several are small"), 50 hired hands, and a $140,000 product value. The explanation generally given for such growth is demographic, and the data here largely supports such a contention. Cincinnati's population expanded rapidly, from 46,381 residents in 1840 to 340,000 by 1860. The rapid urbanization in Ohio and the rest of the United States provided considerable impetus for growth in the undertaking business.

But undertaking's emergence was no simple matter of demographics. Columbus, a much smaller city than either Cleveland or Cincinnati, experienced more aggressive marketing campaigns at an early date than either of its larger-city neighbors. The establishment of Reader & Williams, "CITY UNDERTAKERS, [who] Keep constantly on hand every sort, size and description of COFFINS" was particularly visible. They implemented detailed, half-page ads regarding their services in the late 1840s, nearly a decade before any Columbus directory listed "undertaking" as an occupation. Thus we find a different character to undertaking in Columbus: almost certainly smaller in volume, but with at least one undertaker extremely active and voluble in proclaiming the emergence of the occupation within the city.

Historians have offered confusing narratives regarding the occupation routes leading to antebellum undertaking. On the one hand, most recognize that carpenters, cabinetmakers, liverymen (hack drivers), and sextons were all capable of reorienting their businesses to deal exclusively with funerary arrangements. On the other hand, historians repeatedly have tended to emphasize the primacy of one route to undertaking. James Farrell assumed that, "Because he was also a furniture dealer, the nineteenth-century undertaker was probably more familiar to his clients..." An 1876 article in The Casket tabbed the profession's forerunner as "the menial obscure church-yard sexton," but an article a generation later argued that livery was the foundation of undertaking: "Thirty years ago, the undertaker's task was simply furnishing the hearse and managing the funeral cortege. More recently, Richard Metcalf and Peter Huntington have stated that "In colonial times, the undertaker was a part-time specialist only; his main skills were those of the carpenter," and Judith Newman has said simply "Undertakers originally were carpenters who built coffins on the side."

The problem is one of perspective. On the national level, undertaking did have numerous roots. Yet of the cities intensively studied, only Baltimore has reflected this multiplicity of origins on the local level. More often, local services were dominated by just one of the several "feeder" occupations. In antebellum New York City, sextons controlled the area's undertaking market. In many other cities, cabinetmakers held sway: in Cleveland, Ohio, at least 7 of the city's 8 undertakers in 1857 hailed from cabinet work; in Columbus, Ohio, the 3 undertakers listed in 1860 included one cross-registered with cabinetry and another previously listed as a cabinetmaker; and in 1860 Covington, Kentucky, all 3 men listed as undertakers were also cabinet ware manufacturers. Yet in Cincinnati, the cabinet-maker undertaker seems virtually nonexistent. Only 1 out of 35 undertakers listed in the 1850s could be identified as a former or current cabinetmaker. But 11 were liverymen.

Numerous variables could be used to explain such findings. Cemeteries placed at a greater distance from downtown might have necessitated increased use of liveries. If the cholera epidemics, which hit Cincinnati particularly hard, had initiated stringent city health codes regarding burials, such distances might be explained. So too might urban crowding explain more intermural burials. Perhaps the physical geography of Cincinnati's rolling hills - and the social geography of the elite who chose to inhabit them - created journeys too arduous for corpses and their attendants. Social stratification among Cincinnatians might have encouraged status distinctions based on commodities such as the style and dignity of one's funerary train. A Southern preference for the culture of the horse or an ethnic German tradition of horse-drawn hearses could also be implicated. The popular metallic coffins manufactured by Cincinnati's Crane & Breed, which weighed up to a hundred pounds, might have strained the even the most hearty human pall bearers. Prohibitive taxes on horse-drawn vehicles could have offered a negative incentive for hacks and liveries to engage extra work. Or perhaps Cincinnati's sheer number of horses or tradition of raising fine horses made livery plentiful and affordable, particularly after the Mexican War. Whatever the reason or reasons, the origins of undertaking reveal sensitive dependence upon not only a nation's culture, religion, tradition, or value structure, but also upon the regional and local circumstances within which deathcare businesses operated and gained meaning.

With such an understanding, we look again to the differences between Cincinnati and its immediate Kentucky neighbor, Covington. In 1860, every Covington undertaker was a cabinetmaker, and only one of the town's cabinetmaker was not an undertaker. Was undertaking under such circumstances simply an unexceptional side business, an expected adjunct of cabinetry work? The situation in Cleveland was different, because even if 7 of the city's 8 undertakers were cabinetmakers, the existence of 32 other cabinetmakers not listed as undertakers suggests that one could choose whether or not to specialize. Similarly in Cincinnati, 42 liverymen and 285 cabinetmakers eluded - or did not attain - being labeled an "undertaker." Embedded within more nucleated communities but less tied to undertaking (due to limited demand), Covington undertakers may have held a fundamentally different relation to both the community and craft. Though such speculations falter from a lack of evidence on small-town undertaking, the general point remains: the character of undertaking in Cincinnati was distinct from that of its Ohio neighbors and satellite communities.

Despite all this discussion of skilled workers transitioning into the undertaking occupation, one also profits from recognizing the slight prerequisites necessary for this nascent industry. Though some have argued that material requirements or mobility underlay the development of undertaking, it seems quite the opposite. The skills, education, training, and material requirements employed by mid-century undertakers were so inconsequential that most Americans could well have done the work themselves. And while mobility had increased, the image of lonely urbanites without a friendly hand to place them into a grave is overstated. Perhaps instead we might see undertaking as an attractive small business to begin because one could begin it with few skills, little capital, and no powerful or entrenched opposition. For instance, Mary Kolar recalled in 1991 that her grandfather became an undertaker because he had bought a carriage and began driving in funeral corteges. "All you had to do was to figure out how the business was run and then put a sign in your window. This is what my grandfather did." . While the simplicity of undertaking may have presented early obstacles to professionalization, it may well have supported the rise of the business.

More important than the trajectory of careers in undertaking is the existence of undertaking in the first place. History does not ordain that a special class of people dedicate themselves to burials or funerary tasks. Why did this occur in antebellum America? The primary and familiar answers relate to urbanization, demography, and the ineluctable pattern of the market: as cities grew, a greater quantity of deaths allowed merchants to become increasingly specialized. Such specialization was profitable for would-be undertakers because it was economically efficient for them to dedicate their resources to a single end. Historians of death also point to public demands; as the public demanded more elaborate services, the market grew. Religious and philosophical concerns undergirded undertaking's development as much as did practical problems of dead body disposal.

Beyond this story, however, lies disagreement. Some researchers emphasize the impersonal forces of capitalism, assuming that growth was a simple function of numbers. Others accentuate the social origins of undertaking, demonstrating a revolution in American attitudes toward death of which undertaking was both an ideological ally and a necessary attendant. The impetus for this paper was yet a third view that undertakers themselves should be granted much of the credit (or blame) for undertaking's origins, that the undertaker's role might not have been simply that of treating dead bodies, but instead involved "Charming Anguish." This triple wordplay applied to undertakers' efforts in three ways: their hopes of calming customers' anguish by providing meaningful funeral rites; their need to elicit affected anguish from society to sustain business; and their promotion of a conspicuously "charming anguish" so that one might equate social respectability with death rites. Had undertakers not only resolved a problem but also materially helped to create it, much as a firefighter might commit arson?

Unfortunately, one finds only trace amounts of an accelerant. The financial papers and newspaper clippings of Henry Hildebolt, an undertaker in Cincinnati from 1857 to at least 1880, include this handwritten poem:

A watchman at-dawning of morn on his beat,
A poor little child had found,
With only the snow for a winding sheet,
Frozen to death on the ground!

Ah! who can declare that when God shall unfold,
Eternity's records, he will not hold,
Him guilty of murder, who seeks with his gold,
Per charity's means to buy,
The praises of men, while out in the cold,
He leaves a poor child to die.

The poem offers both Romanticism and moralism. As morning light breaks through the darkness, the reader encounter a lugubrious, innocent death. The author offers no knowledge of the victim: no information about the child's background, ethnicity, clothing, or appearance. We do not even know whether it was a boy or a girl. We also know nothing about the death: where or how it occurred. We may speculate that it was a wandering child, an orphan perhaps, and certainly a neglected soul. But what truly matters here is that it was the death of an innocent at the hands of some vague, unknown culprit. Readers are drawn to pity by an exclamatory lack of funerary accouterments: no winding sheet, coffin, or pedestal leads to pathetic "frozen death on the ground!"

But the message of the poem too is interesting. The antagonist here is the wealthy man who does not attend to the needs of the poor. Inevitably male, this symbol of selfish wealth seeks to gain "the praises of men" through his charity. The man is unfeeling and status-conscious. And from this, he forfeits not freedom, liberty, or social eminence, but his favor in the eyes of God. In the poet-undertaker's interdenominational and quite-certain afterlife, "eternity's records" will be gauged by both what one has done and left undone. An insufficient response to the glory of each human, alive or dead, demeans one in the eyes of the deity. But the rich man is not told to eschew capitalism, but instead to allocate his charity thoughtfully and from the heart.

The rhetorical strategy here outlined seems profoundly meaningful for undertaking. Death - be it of any victim, but particularly a child - is tragic. Someone must set things in order. Whatever the circumstances of life or death, the departed spirit requires essential funerary items: a winding sheet, a coffin, and a plot under the ground. What makes such purchases defensible is not the consumptive status indicated but instead the (feminine) sentiment implied. The allocation of money matters because the deity will rank your soul by what you offer - and by what you do not. The undertaker's role thus springs naturally from the surety of the afterlife and the needs. He is the essential, unifying man, supplying the needed religious caution, feminine sentiment, and customer goods to an advancing society.

Yet no matter how much one accepts such literary analysis, the persuasiveness of this poem is limited. Since the poem is not dated, one has no assurance that these words were composed in the antebellum era; they might instead indicate the sentiments of a later age. This temporal challenge leaves unanswered the question of whether undertakers promoted death as we know funeral directors subsequently did. So too we cannot be certain that this is the work of Mr. Hildebolt. Perhaps instead it was a handwritten copy of a published piece. While some satisfaction can be found in the fact that the undertaker had troubled himself to put such sentiments on paper, regardless of the words' provenance, the evidence for "charming anguish" here is not compelling. One could hardly implicate the occupation on this basis.

Nor has any confirmatory evidence be found. No evidence of poetry or prose from other undertaker may be located. Neither are recorded any undertaker's letters, diaries, public speeches, or philosophical tracts, and trade journals in undertaking did not arise until the 1870s. Such lacuna in the historical record makes confirming undertakers' self-conception and public advocacy difficult. One is left only with advertisements, and these reveal little active collaboration on the part of undertakers to change social behaviors regarding death. "Charming anguish" must therefore be abandoned at least with regard to antebellum undertakers. Though a felicitatious phrase and attractive hypothesis with regard to funeral directing, it does not appear to reflect undertaking's origins or development. More pragmatic reasons must be sought.

Undertakers' advertisements revolved around two things: coffins and a readiness to serve. For instance, A. W. Reader of Columbus, Ohio found it important in 1845 to note that he "Keeps constantly on hand, CABINET WARE of EVERY DESCRIPTION, And is prepared to furnish Coffins and attend Funerals with his Hearse, on the shortest notice." Avowals of speed were not native solely to Columbus; Cincinnati's John Jenkins similarly announced his timeliness in both 1851 and 1853. And if potential customers were unconvinced by Jenkins' pledge that "All Business entrusted to his care [would be] punctually attended to," John Epply and J. P. D. Patterson were willing to up the ante in 1855, claiming a service area and a promptness that would surpass even modern-day pizza delivery: "Having the CASE ready lined, we are prepared to fill an order at any of the Public Houses, Steamboats, or notice by Telegraph, in 20 minutes." Apparently funeral directors' speed is not solely a reflection of a modern avoidance or denial of death; success in undertaking has long been predicated upon "whoever can get Mama out of the living room fastest."

Though undertakers in the 1840s and 1850s provided a number of goods and services, the coffin always appeared central. Indeed, the material development in coffins seems the penultimate symbol, evidence, and stimulus of undertaking's growth as an occupation. While the style and expense of coffins had varied according to wealth even in colonial times, the nineteenth century witnessed a sustained era of coffin "improvements." With the basic idea of storing a dead body within a closed container fairly well established, the improvements in the mid-nineteenth century aimed at a more protective and aesthetic device. Typical were the advertisements of John Epply in 1859 and 1860, discussing his fine assortment of "Wood Coffins, covered with black and white cloth, Black and white Velvet, Satin, Merino, and Luster, &c.; Fine Rosewood and Mahogany finish and Walnut Coffins." His greatest emphasis, however, was reserved for the innovative "METALIC CASES, CASKETS AND AIR-TIGHT ZINC CASES" and "SHOLL'S NEWLY INVENTED PATENT TERRA COTTA BURIAL CASE."

Metal burial cases débuted in Providence, Rhode Island in the late 1840s and introduced in the West in the early 1850s. An 1852 ad by W. C. Davis in Cincinnati's Daily Non-Pareil announced

recently made arrangements with the Patentee of this new and valuable invention for the manufacture and sale of the article in the west, they having been manufactured heretofore exclusively in the east, (where they are superseding the use of wood coffins)... This invention now coming into general use is pronounced one of the greatest of the age.
The "Queen City of the West" was soon at the center of this development. Cincinnati stove- and hollow-ware manufacturers Crane, Breed & Co. purchased the Fisk Metallic Burial Case Company in 1853 and quickly began large-scale production.

These metal "cases" not only redefined the terminology of dead body containers away from the harsh connotations of "coffins," but also reflected a new departure in the valuation of the individual, material self. An 1857 novel entitled Agnes and the Key to her Little Coffin explained that:

Their shape is not in seeming mockery of the rigid, swathed body; the broken angles and lines of the old coffin are drawn in continuous lines; they look like other things, and not like that which looks like nothing else, a coffin; you would be willing to have such a shape for the depository of any household article.
From the luxurious silk lining materials to the cases' individualized nameplates to a new system of locks and keys replacing the "remorseless screws and screwdriver," everything about the new cases bespoke a transformation the treatment of corpses. With their metallic composition, mummy-style shape, and "eighteen different sizes... varying in length from 22 inches to 6 1/2 feet," such burial cases preserved and glorified the body lain inside.

Material preservation and the inaccessibility of bodies to harm were indeed recurrent motifs. "Thoroughly enamelled inside and out," Fisk's Metallic Burial Cases purported to be "impervious to air and indestructible." Similarly, David Sholl claimed that his terra cotta burial case was "made of material which is everlasting - neither water nor dampness has any effect upon it. We warrant them to neither rust nor decay. They are truly the everlasting Burial Case." The rationale for such claims is elusive. Why did people care whether the container rusted or decayed? What had changed in society such that people suddenly sought "the everlasting" in coffins as well as in religion?

James Farrell, Phillip Ariès, John Stephenson, and Gary Laderman point to the advent of scientific naturalism, which stressed the inevitable decay of the body while simultaneously noting the noxious character of mouldering bodies. Much as some historians look to Darwin to inaugurate the modern scientific ethos, these historians implicate new coffins in the death of American religiosity. Yet the death of religion is clearly overstated: Stephenson, for instance, explains that "Not since Job had humanity in the Western world been without the support of a religious explanation for mortality" and that "With the rise of science and the decline of traditional religion, suffering became meaningless." Even more importantly, ideological transformations may not have been as prominent as these historians have claimed. More practical concerns such as the impact of the transportation revolution and increasing American mobility must also be noted.

In 1851, funeral furnisher W. C. Davis claimed that his metal burial cases were "better than any other article in use (of whatever cost) for transportation, vaults or ordinary interments." Implied by the word "better" was an ability to withstand rough handling, without additional boxing, and without the seepage of putrid odors of decaying flesh. When properly secured with cement, Fisk's metallic cases were purported to be "perfectly air tight and free from exhalation of offensive gases." Railroad or steamboat operators reportedly found advantages in the metal cases, for the regulations placed upon coffins appear not to have applied when metal was substituted for wood. An 1855 advertisement of Cincinnati's undertaking partnership of Epply & Patterson directly implicates these transportation concerns, stating that:

We are prepared with the Metalic Cases, to enclose bodies for transportation at less expense than it is possible to do in Wood Coffins, (which have to be placed in Lead or Zinc Boxes,) [T]he CASE is of less weight and more convenient to handle. We warrant our work perfect in all cases (for the above use).
The fact that Epply & Patterson were prepared to fill orders given at "Steamboats, or notice by Telegraph" at short notice thus gains additional meaning, demonstrating the significance of increased transportation (and communication) upon changes in undertaking's accouterments.

Widespread concern for the "everlasting" character of burial cases might also reflect something of an underlying discomfort or fear growing in America. Whether or not the nation had turned to scientific naturalism, the popularity of medical schools and anatomy lectures undoubtedly had increased since the early part of the century. Without a sufficient supply of cadavers to meet the growing demand, medical men created a new illicit market in stolen bodies. Communities literally feared for their dead each time the medical schools began a new session. One specialist in the field has suggested that Ohio alone experienced over five thousand stolen bodies in the nineteenth century. Both the fear and the response to such developments appears to have been an international phenomenon, as revealed in an 1822 ad found in Wooler's British Gazette:

Many hundred dead bodies will be dragged from their wooden coffins this winter, for the anatomical lectures (which have just commenced), the articulators, and for those who deal in the dead... The violation of the sanctity of the grave is said to be needful, for the instruction of the medical pupil, but let each one about to inter a mother, husband, child, or friend, say shall I devote this object of my affection to such a purpose; if not, the only safe coffin is Bridgman's Patent wrought-iron one.
Fisk's Metallic burial cases were similarly marketed in Connecticut in 1850: the manufacturer claimed to they were optimum devices for "preserving in the most secure and appropriate manner, the remains of the dead from sudden decay, from water, from vermin and from the ravages of tee [sic] dissecting knife."

Certainly people in Cincinnati had similar concerns. With more medical schools than any other city in the West, as well as a notorious bodysnatcher named "Old Cuny" purveying his services in the area, the concern was both near and real. Six medical schools in the area offered practical anatomy, including not only "alternative" schools such as the Eclectic College but also dental schools such as the Ohio College. Advertisements for these institutions prominently claimed "well supplied" anatomical cabinets, promising that "students may rely on a fully supply of materiel throughout the session." With insufficient laws for obtaining such material legally, antebellum Americans knew that the bodies of their loved ones risked both theft and mutilation, as bodysnatchers sought to ensure that the identify of the victim would not be known. From all such evidence, one might wonder whether the efflorescence of metal caskets and medical schools in Cincinnati were more than indirectly related. We see similar expressions of concern in the thirteen communities revolted against medical schools from 1824 to 1854, including four in Ohio and two in Illinois. Such crowd actions demonstrate that medical science afforded an important consideration to both nineteenth-century Americans and the undertakers entrusted to care for dead bodies.

Metal caskets were certainly not the only solution to this growing problem, and probably not the best. The "outstanding preservation" they offered ironically may have aided the cause of bodysnatching by keeping corpses "fresh" for a longer period of time. Some alternatives such as quick lime actually destroyed the body more quickly, but people more often sought to defend the integrity of their loved ones' bodies. Mortsafes or Nigg stones, which caged in or weighed down the final resting place; landmines, spring guns, and torpedo coffins, which exploded when disturbed; night watchmen and cemetery walls, which deterred intruders; mortuaries, which safely housed the bodies; and scattered items like ashes, flowers, twigs, pebbles, or sea shells, which helped to detect the footprints of intruders, all were resources helping Americans to cope with ineffective laws against bodysnatching.

Though undertakers capitalized on the opposition to medical men with regard to bodily integrity, the occupations shared a common interest in sanitary reform. Cultivating fears of decaying matter and miasmatic disease, sanitary science offered additional justification for the undertaker's rapid service, secure coffins, and transportation to well-removed cemeteries.

These interests became particularly clear in times of plague. Cholera epidemics throughout the mid-nineteenth century highlighted the need for cleaner streets and efficient disposal of the dead. Disease microorganisms, which flourished in the rapid crowding of mid-century urbanization, thus deserve at least part of the credit for undertaking's growing success. The urban epidemics they instituted offered prime opportunities for people to enter the undertaking business - and with very high rates. During the 1849 cholera in Cincinnati - which killed 4900, or nearly 5% of its population - Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote to relatives that "Hearse drivers have scarce been allowed to unharness their horses, while furniture carts and common vehicles are often employed for the removal of the dead." Stowe spoke of a "gloomy and discouraged" city, with large piles of coal burning on the crosswalks and public squares, and with a near-universal state of panic. As undertaking profited from such experiences, its legacy as a predatory occupation was cultivated and grew.

Often a city under the cloud of cholera took active measures to clear the city's dead, whether through enactment of new statutes, authorization of funds for the removal of indigents, or the creation of special new cemeteries. The city of Xenia, Ohio, for instance, hired four men to lay out corpses, transport them to the cemetery, and bury them at the rate of four dollars apiece. Although it was hit hard by cholera, the city of Cincinnati seems not to have regulated or reinforced its burial mechanisms. Perhaps human bodies were less of a concern in Cincinnati; with milk, meat, and industrial production, sanitary codes may have had enough other putrid matter to deal with. It was certainly not the case that the city categorically refused involvement with dead bodies, for city concerns regarding corpses are evident in an 1819 ordinance penalizing anyone damaging a church, school, courthouse, or "house containing any apparatus for the recovery of drowned persons." Yet instead of promulgating new laws regarding dead body disposal, city governors outlawed the sale of plentiful produce (which they thought led to overindulgence), provided free medicine, and conducted house inspections for cleanliness. "All sextons, or other persons having charge of cemeteries" were asked to report deaths to health officers, but undertakers were mentioned not at all.

Undertaking was similarly neglected in 1832, when physicians, boat captains, tavern keepers, coffee house owners, and boarding house owners (but not undertakers) were enjoined to report any incidence of disease, and in 1867, when a newly-instituted state registry of deaths ignored undertakers altogether. From such facts, one wonders whether undertakers could be said to have a significant role in society at the time, whether indeed they were doing much business at all. Aside from the few, widely-scattered advertisements, mention of funerals or undertakers was almost entirely absent from the era's newspapers. Undertakers also were uninvolved in the major changes occurring in rural cemetery movement; none, for instance, could be found among the subscribers or director's of Cincinnati's famous Spring Grove Cemetery. If undertaking was part of a new "economic regime," the revolution which had placed them into power was eerily silent. More likely, no such regime yet existed.

Undertakers were not used as widely in the mid-nineteenth century as they would later become. In studying the diaries of 56 non-famous people, Paul Rosenblatt found a large number of diarists recording "their care for the dying, their presence at a deathwatch, their participation in the preparation of a corpse for reburial, or their involvement in a reburial." The experience of Sarah Hallen Drinkwater in 1864 seems to have been quite common: "'my dear brothers all assisted to put her in her coffin and carried it into the sitting room where we all kissed her for the last time. My brothers screwed the coffin down, Mary had cot out a cross and covered it with artificial flowers and put it on top of the coffn [sic]. My dear boys went with their uncles as mourners.'"

While not omnipresent, undertakers had become a familiar part of the funerary experience by mid-century, at least among that particular society of people who would be buried in a rural cemetery. A sample of 103 people buried at Spring Grove Cemetery between 1848 and 1860 reveals fully 81 to have been attended by an undertaker. Even remains that were simply disinterred from one cemeteries and replanted in another apparently required accompaniment, for 12 of 26 such removals at Spring Grove listed practicing undertakers on the records. Undertakers might have appreciated especially these removals, for they offered the advantage of potential repeat business, rare in the industry.

Perhaps, however, the most important thing to note about the emergence of undertaking in the nineteenth century is that it did not arise out of nothing. The general tendency has been to imagine or assume that undertaking's sole predecessor was personal service to the dead by family and friends. This neglects, however, a long history of allied occupations doing the work of undertaking, whether or not they identify themselves as such. Though cabinetmaker John Needles, for instance, never advertised his services as an undertaker, a friend wrote that "he put hundreds in their coffins, before his own turn came." Another forerunner to the undertaker in America was the aanspreecker of colonial New York: "attired in gloomy black, with hat fluttering long streamers of crape," he served not only as funeral inviter, but usually also as gravedigger, bell ringer, and chorister. His was a public office, with legislated fees and a requirement to give free services to the poor. Layers-out-of-the-dead was another related occupational group; they washed and dressed dead bodies, and had their services listed in early-nineteenth-century city directories. And perhaps most well known is the service of midwives. The diary of Martha Ballard chronicled in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale has revealed that midwives were not only aided in childbirth, but also performed considerable undertaking duties. Such seems natural: with 35% of all eighteenth- and nineteenth-century births resulting in the infant's death, as well as a considerable number of maternal deaths, midwives were charged with swaddling both the newborn and the dead.

The significance of these precedents lies not merely in the fact that such people had existed in America, but that an entire gender had come to be excluded from undertaking tasks. Whereas once the family members, nurses, midwives, and professional layers-out-of-the-dead who had touched and cleansed the body were predominantly female, by the mid-nineteenth century the idea of a female undertaker was unthinkable.

This had not always been so. Gerda Lerner explains that women's "relationship to death... form[ed] an important part of the historical experience of women." She is, of course, right. Taking care of the dead was seen as part of women's domestic tasks, an extension of their nursing and nurturing functions, part of their customary service to the community, and consonant with their "natural" religiosity. Of the fifteen layers-out-of-the-dead in Philadelphia in 1810, only nine had their first and last names listed; all nine were women. In 1768, The New York Journal or General Advertiser announced the services of an "Upholsterer and Undertaker" who would ensure "Funerals furnish'd with all things necessary and proper Attendance as in England"; her name was Blanch White.

Other historians have noted this fact, but their explanation for it is rather remarkable. "The nurses and midwives, who had been entrusted in the colonial period with preparing the body for burial, no longer performed these duties by the 1820s. The occupational jump required to extend their tasks to the conducting of the entire funeral was far greater than that required of the furniture makers, liverymen or church sextons." The statement is neither true nor original. Habenstein and Lamers had offered the same conclusion over thirty years earlier, yet it difficult to ascertain how any of these historians had measured "occupational jump." Making a coffin, driving a hearse, or digging a hole do not appear measurably closer to undertaking than the functions performed by women. Indeed, if we accept that one of the more fundamental barriers to undertaking work is the psychological, and perhaps sociological, aversion to touching dead bodies, then midwives, nurses, and layers-out-of-the-dead would seem to have a far shorter distance to cross than any of these allied professions. But even if we see them all as equidistant from what undertaking would become, such an answer does not begin to explain why no female midwives - or females of any sort - became undertakers. Somehow the answer must be located in gender roles.

What made women "unfit" for undertaking? I would contend that the impetus may be found broadly in the culture of separate spheres, and particularly in the example offered by medicine. As Regina Markell Morantz explains:

Traditionalists... worried that teaching women the mysteries of the human body would affront female modesty. 'Improper exposures' would destroy the delicacy and refinement that constituted women's primary charms. Men recoiled at the thought of exposing young women to the 'blood and agony' of the dissecting room, where 'ghastly' rituals were performed.
Similarly, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explains that the roles of early nineteenth-century midwives were increasingly assailed by medical men. In 1820, one Harvard professor found it:
obvious that we cannot instruct women as we do men in the science of medicine; we cannot carry them into the dissecting room and the hospital; many of our more delicate feelings, much of our refined sensibility must be subdued, before we can submit to the sort of discipline required in the study of medicine; in females they must be destroyed; and I venture to say that a female could scarce pass through the course of education requisite to prepare her, as she ought to be prepared, for the practice of midwifery, without destroying those moral qualities of character, which are essential to the office.
Though people accepted the idea that women should be excluded from undertaking due to their "natural" facilities and weaknesses, the swiftness with which women were removed from deathcare clearly reveals that these "natural" traits were instead much more recent constructions. It was indeed the unquestioned "naturalness" of these traits which made the masculine character of undertaking so powerful and lasting. And, within a short time, it became difficult to remember that women ever had done such work:
Pine coffins, damp walls, dead bodies in every state of decay... Who would imagine that a woman could have a desire to go through this place? (1886)
It is remarkable that there should be one [woman in the undertaking business]. Women are peculiarly susceptible to their environment, and that any one of the sex should surround herself with all the paraphernalia of death for a life occupation seems almost incredible. (1893)
There is something grewsome [sic] in the handling of the dead... What in the world can ever inspire delicately nerved and timorous souled women to select the handling of the dead as a means of livelihood? (1893)
One man was even shocked and delighted to find that undertaking might become
an entirely new field of women's work. When I learned that here women are taught the art of embalming and handling of the human dead (women and children), it thrilled me and I said, 'Another evidence of humanity and civilization!' (1901)
Women's lost role in undertaking may also be implicated in the rise of the sentimental novel and mourning rituals in nineteenth-century America. Ann Douglas has argued that women assumed leading roles in mourning and afterlife as a form of "compensatory social control" for lives otherwise marked by powerlessness; Karen Haltunen has claimed that mourning rituals were part of a "genteel performance," a drama of class aspirations. More recently, Nancy Schnog has suggested that sentimentalism actually penetrated important psychosocial experiences for middle-class women. That is, displays of sentiment need not be viewed as "an aesthetic devoted to the exaggeration and falsification of human feeling... not emotional distortion but 'psychological realism.'" What had occurred in women's practical, physical relationship with the dead body might therefore be linked directly to the growing ethereal and emotional link to death. With middle-class women more socially invested in domestic relations and more divested from the physical sphere of death, the loss of a family member became of far greater psychic and emotional significance.

If it is true, as Robert Blauner has suggested, that "modern societies control death through bureaucratization, our characteristic form of social structure," then undertakers may represent an significant step in that process, creating a special category for people handling the body and its funerary arrangements. This is not exactly a narrowing of specialties, for the former cabinet-makers, liverymen, and sextons were adding to their responsibilities and arrogating control over new areas of business as much as subtracting from them. But nineteenth-century undertaking certainly represents a compartmentalization of death to a certain range of people. Dedicated to routines rather than events and to smoothing out affect and emotion, we might see the modern style of death arising from undertaking, but not as others have suggested. Undertaking gains importance not through embalming, professionalization, or the creation of specialized funeral homes, but for what it reveals about the significance of bodysnatching, transportation, sanitary science, and gender relations in antebellum America.
 
 

Return to main page