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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Victorian Undertaking - A Plea...

Whilst researching for the pipe dream I’m writing, I had to look into the world of the Victorian undertaker. I gathered as much information as I could, which was mostly on the subject of funerals, attitudes to death in Victorian culture and the mourning process – all very interesting and made for some good notes for the future, but not quite what I was after.

I found information regarding houses of mourning, such as the General Mourning Warehouse on Regent’s Street, London, and of course Jays, that sold the jet jewellery, black crepe, mourning gowns and veils and advised people on what was the latest fashion for a mourning widow etc, again, very interesting and duly noted, but still, as I sat down to write, something I needed wasn’t there.

I found information on funerals, coffins, carriages, mutes and burials. I read interesting stories of pauper funerals, parish funerals, upper class funerals and the process of registering the death. I read tales from grave-diggers, from mourners and from the bar that hosted the wake. Still, I thought, interesting but not quite bulls-eye.

I read tales of grief and woe and rituals &c but none of them hit the mark. Why?
Because what I was really looking for was the day-to-day tasks of an undertaker. What did they do on a daily basis? I know a lot of them doubled up as cabinet makers and had other trades that they could fit around the undertaking business, but what did a Victorian undertaker do from the moment he got up to the moment he went to bed? Frustratingly, I could find very little. What I need is some kind of diary of a Victorian undertaker. I can find nothing. I even tried asking at a few local undertakers, but they did not reply to my emails.

Almost all articles and info I could find, including a few words from Dickens, painted the undertakers as ghoulish and unsympathetic characters who profited from the death of peoples loved ones. I read that undertakers provided no personal advice or sympathy beyond their roles as tradesmen with a job to do, but the details of that job are frustratingly misty.

If anybody can help me with this I will be most grateful, I feel as though I have a jigsaw puzzle with a huge piece missing as I will struggle to create a convincing undertaker character without knowing the kinds of things he would have been doing. Even our thorough friend, Kron, The Little Londoner did not broach this subject!

Anything that you think may help, please leave in the comments box below, and do so with full and unreserved gratitude from me.


  1. I fear I am going to be no use what so ever but here goes, just for interest. Embarking on my first novel I have done some research on Victorian Newcastle including that of the undertaker. Like you I couldn`t gather much information but I do know they advertised as `funeral furnishing establishments` with extra finish oak and pitch pine coffins.

    More info:
    At the heart of all of this was the rise in prominence of the Victorian Undertaker. At the start of the era, undertaking was a side job for other professions, usually cabinet makers or some other form of carpenter. However, with the rise of the big cities, greater specialization was made possible and undertaking became a distinct profession. Since it was in the best interest of the undertaker to promote the big expensive funeral, these men often became master manipulators, convincing families that they needed to add that extra coach, horse, mute, whatever in order to properly celebrate the death of a loved one. In the long term, this managed to backfire, and attacks from such personages as Charles Dickens, made the undertaker a loathed profession

    In my opinion there work would have merely consisted of making coffins,measuring their clients up but not much more as their livelihood depended on making a lot of things, not just coffins, at a fast rate.

    But like the info says, there were some who tried to persuade people to part with a lot of money so I`m guessing time permitting they would spend that time in contact with coach (hearse makers) too, probably getting a fair cut for thier `net working`.

    If you literally wan to know what they did day to day I would research intothe practicalities of Victorian cabinet making a lot more.

    This book may be helpful although I have`nt read it myself.

    Like I said, probably no help at all but good luck!

  2. That's really helpful, thanks for the comment! I hadn't thought of approaching it from the cabinet maker's angle.
    I'll definately have a look at that book.

    I do find it strange that the men who worked in a profession that was so large, in a time when mourning, death and funerals were such big business are so elusive now.

    There are books out there that claim to be about Victorian undertakers', but when you read them they are actually more about mourning and funerals.

    Thanks again for your help

  3. I agree with Faginsgirl. I think her approach will offer more information. Look for furniture maker and coffin maker rather than undertaker. You're right that the undertaker had a terrible reputation. You just have to keep digging. Sorry I couldn't be more help.

  4. Thanks for the post, these are the responses I feared but I suppose lack of historical information does give the writer a bit of creative freedom.


  5. Thank you for posting such a useful, impressive and a wicked article./Wow.. looking good!

    Cabinet Makers

  6. Thanks for the link, but I don't think the cabinet maker you have posted also works as an undertaker - at least, its not mentioned on the website.

    Thanks for looking though, and thanks for the comment, all appreciated!

  7. Hei! :)
    I came across the same problems as you`ve got, and someone tipped me about this book: Death in the victorian family by Pat Jalland! :) I think you`ll find all the information you need there :)

  8. I forgot about this book,but you really should check out this one: The Victorian undertaker by Trevor May :)
    I really hope this one will help you!
    Merry Christmas :)

  9. I got Jalland's book out of the library and scanned through it, but I though much of it was to do with mourning, however, perhaps I should look again a bit harder!

    Thanks, I'll seek it out again! Thanks for leaving a comment.

  10. Out of curiosity since this was posted almost 2 years ago, but did you ever end up finding what you were looking for? I'm actually doing my dissertation on this topic and could always use the extra info! Thank you for your time!

  11. Unfortunately, no, I never managed to uncover the day-to-day activities of a Victorian undertaker, only a lot of information about Victorian mourning and death rituals.

    Sorry I can't help more! If you have any specific questions I'll do my best to answer them!

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  13. I know this is a very old post but I came across it while researching undertakers. I found a useful chapter on undertaking in Walter Rose's memoir 'The Village Carpenter'. It's on Google Books - it's not free but you can buy an e-book version.

  14. I'm having the same problem--writing a YA novel that features an undertaking family and coming across very little information on actual undertakers, but LOTS on mourning practices.

  15. I'm having the same problem--writing a YA novel that features an undertaking family and coming across very little information on actual undertakers, but LOTS on mourning practices.

  16. I am descended from a Nottingham Victorian Undertaker, 'Whitemore Undertakers ' and may be to add a little insight into this occupation after listening to stories told to me by my Grandma (born 1901) and her sister who grew up in the Undertakers. There would have been little change to the business in their day from that of their Grandfathers who first established it in the 1880's and it was very much a family business. in 1990 my Grandma and I went to have a look at where the family business was once located .It is unclear what her Grandfathers original premises consisted of ( on Raleigh St, Nottm across the road from where the world famous Raleigh Bike Company originated) but by the late 1890's he moved the business a few doors round the corner onto a busy shopping district and opened up a funeral parlour on the ground floor of a 3 storey building. If anyone has watched the ITV Comedy Series " In Loving Memory " then you will get some idea of what our family business probably would have looked like. On the ground floor at the front of the premises was the funeral parlour. It was no bigger than an average size living room and wreaths could be bought from here (a very large cemetery was only 5 minutes walk away) A doorway from the Funeral Parlour led into the families kitchen/living room and scullery just as in the TV series. On the first floor at the front was the families best room, The Front Parlour with 2 bedrooms to the rear (one was the maids) and 2 further bedrooms on the 2nd floor. At the bottom of their yard was a 2 storey building with external wooden stair that housed my Great Grandfathers workshop(still exists today) This could also be accessed from the side street through a large covered way. Whilst he advertised as a complete undertaker I don't remember them mention about the horses and hearse - certainly there was room to house these in the adjoining stable buildings next to his workshop. There was a carriage proprietor here and so he may have hired them. Advertisements of the business from the early 1900's did mention the varieties of hearse that could be provided. My Grandma told me when she was about 18 months old (in 1903) her grandfather died and her father, who was the eldest son and worked in the business, inherited it and became proprietor. Because of the nature of the business and their advertised slogan of being open 'day and night' he had to live on site and moved back here along with his wife and daughter - all 5 of my Grandmas brothers and sisters were later born here. They were also one of the few businesses to have a phone. To supplement his income my Grandma would tell me her father, who like his father before him was a joiner, carried out shop fitting work. My Great Grandfather could work very long hours and be called out at anytime - my Grandma and her sister would tell me when they were in their teenage years one night a week they would be left in charge allowing their parents to have a night out. My Great Aunt would dread the prospect of anyone coming into the premises wanting to buy a wreath whilst my Grandma had to make sure the quarry tile floor of the shop was always spotless and was forever mopping it! They also mentioned their cellar was used as a store for empty coffins that their father had made- back then funerals were carried out within a few days and as soon as death occurred a coffin was provided and so they were not necessarily bespoke. In those days it would be normal for the deceased to remain at home or be brought home until the day of the funeral. During world war I the family would shelter in the cellar from the Zeppelin raids - to pass the time my Grandma and her siblings would play hide and seek in the empty coffins! Following the first world war the family then moved to an affluent suburb and a manager was employed to run the business. The business was one of the main Undertakers in the area and ran until the mid 1920's when my Great Grandfather then concentrated on house building.

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