From Furniture Maker to Undertaker

by M-Gillies

1912 Funeral in New York City

The funeral industry was born in the early 20th century. Home based funerals were replaced with the professional services offered by funeral directors.

When the place was packed full, the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softly, soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke: he moved people around, he squeezed in the late ones, he opened up passage-ways, and done it all with nods and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see, and there weren’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham

~ Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

For over a century they’ve toed that fine line of life and death; happiness and sadness; yin and yang. They’ve dedicated themselves to acting as a guiding hand during a period of darkness, leading us through times of loss and mourning. Their composure is always compassionate, understanding and empathetic. Universally, they’ve taken an unspoken vow of devoting themselves as saints would for those in need and as martyrs to phenomenon shrouded in negativity, they are funeral directors, and they’ve dedicated their services to being the pillar of support for every community they reside in, but it wasn’t always that way.

When death occurred in the late 1800s, no one contacted a funeral home, no calls were made to morticians to handle the burial arrangements, no one had to go through the process of contacting the right people to carry out the task for burying the deceased, mainly because there were no funeral homes or funeral directors. Up until the early 19th century, the task of preparing the dead for burial was seen as a simple, dignified family affair.

During pre-Civil War times, the funeral process followed a typical pattern in which people generally, died at home surrounded by their friends and family. Upon their deaths, the body was laid out by close relations, who washed and dressed the body in a shroud or “winding sheet” made of muslin or wool, afterwards, the deceased was placed in a simple pine coffin, often constructed by a family member or neighbor.

It was during this time that the body would remain at home, in the parlor for one to three days while relatives, neighbors and friends would voluntarily “watch” over the body, keeping a round-the-clock vigil. Depending on the weather, a large block of ice may have been placed beneath the coffin, with smaller chunks distributed about the unembalmed body.

On the day of the burial, hymns were sung, psalms read, a discourse and eulogy was delivered, as family and friends paid their final respects to their loved one during a service held often at the home of the deceased. When the final goodbyes were said, so began the journey of the deceased to its final resting place. Depending on the distance, the coffin would be carried by pallbearers on foot or conveyed in a horse-drawn wagon through a sombre procession to a grave pre-dug and awaited by a sexton.

Upon lowering the coffin into the ground, final words were spoken by anyone who wished to speak. Shortly after, mourners would toss a branch, some straw or a handful of earth onto the coffin lid as a ritual farewell gesture before the grave was filled as the onlookers stood by and watched or, as more often then not, they performed the task themselves.

This was the mourning vigil. Every stage of the process, from the laying out of the corpse, to the sewing of the shroud; the watching of the body and the construction of the coffin; the carrying of the bier and the digging of the grave, each step was conducted, for the most part, by family and friends of the deceased, it was an intimate affair, full of catharsis and closure as mourners partook in the ritual of honoring the dead.

However, in more urban locations, upon the death of a family member, local furniture makers would be called upon to “undertake” difficult and emotional tasks for the family when handling a death. Because these skilled tradesmen were pioneers who moved into areas needing furniture, they also “undertook” the task of preparing the dead by constructing caskets.

These early furniture makers, who often hung out a shingle that read “Furniture Maker and Undertaker” would be called upon by a family to measure the deceased, and further fashion a six-board coffin for which the body would be laid out in for a one-night vigil that gave family and friends a chance to pay respects. The purpose for the one to three day vigil gave the deceased a chance to awake from a coma or show indications of life. Within 24-48 hours of death, the coffin would be carried to the village burial ground and interred in a final resting place.

All that began to change in the aftermath of the American Civil War. As the death toll of American men began to exceed the thousands, many families were requesting their loved ones be shipped home for proper burial rites. However, with the railroad industry still a newly developing innovation, the shipping of deceased bodies could not be guaranteed without showing significant signs of decay.

To change this, Dr. Thomas Holmes, a pioneering surgeon-chemist, began promoting the innovation of arterial embalming. While many Americans approached embalming with skepticism for years, deeming it a method only practiced in medical schools to preserve the dead in order to teach anatomical studies, embalming soon found favorable acceptance after the death of Abraham Lincoln. To provide Lincoln’s body a slow, solemn journey back to Springfield, Illinois, his body was embalmed, giving the practice a legitimate and favorable approval rating amongst many.

As the final decades of the nineteenth century neared, arterial embalming grew widely in popularity and was embraced by many as the preferred way of preparing the dead for the traditional open-casket viewing. Soon, even the rural-dwelling populace embraced the process of embalming as a primary source of preservative measures.

With the influence of arterial embalming becoming more prevalent in twentieth century and caskets becoming more ornate, carpenters acquiring fancier wagons and a team of dark-colored horses, the transition from cabinet-maker to undertaker began.

Many cabinet-makers began receiving training in the art of embalming and with the increased education, came the sense of added professionalism to a specialized trade. This lead to the unification of many funeral directors across the country who, in 1921, formed the Funeral Service Association to act as a professional organization to enhance the standards and improve services to the public. Meanwhile, the National Funeral Directors’ Association can trace its origins as far back as 1880, with the organization’s first meeting being held in 1882, and which further dispensed the declassified the designation “undertaker” and adopted the more high-toned title of “funeral director”.

By the 1950s, funeral homes achieved higher status among communities. With an independent ownership, many funeral homes began seeing multiple generations taking over the family business. Beginning with the first generation (the entrepreneur) to the second generation (… & Son(s)), which signified a prosperous venture, to the third-generation, funeral homes have often become historical landmarks of a city or town’s community.

While most people may not know the names of every political member in their community, funeral homes have had such an impact in their communities, through the development of personal relationships, active involvement with community events, fundraisers and charities, and the recognition of having earned the community’s trust, funeral homes, and funeral directors have long offered high quality service and dedication that transcends the most recognizable community official.

Read more:

Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Funeral Homes and Funeral Practices

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