He is bed maker to the dead. The pillows which he lays never rumple. The day of interment is the theatre in which he displays the mysteries of this art.
Thomas Lamb 1811.
Nothing in this would can be certain except for death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin’s proverb was never more true than in the case of John C. Felton, a cabinet maker/undertaker from Rangiora who went bankrupt just before the turn of the 20th century. In fact, a site that I was working on recently was occupied by a string of undertakers who moonlighted as carpenters of some description during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The men in question – George Dale, John C. Felton, and J. M’Auliffe – left little evidence of their macabre craft behind, save a chisel and a few nails and bolts. But this was not unexpected - it isn’t often that we find artefacts which form an obvious link to a more ephemeral business like undertaking (we do find the odd ‘mummified’ cat underneath demolished houses, but that’s a bit different). In cases like these, we rely heavily on historic records of land ownership and newspaper reports to connect archaeological assemblages to their 19th century owners.
Despite the fact that humans have been dying for as long as they have been alive, ‘the undertaker’ is a relatively new profession. Before the mid-19th century the term ‘undertaker’ referred to anyone who undertook a task or enterprise, and the ‘laying out’ of a corpse in preparation for burial was a task generally carried out by female family members of the deceased, or by individuals with other nurturing roles, such as mid-wives. This role eventually transitioned into a male dominated one, in conjunction with the rise of the ideas of feminine sensibility and Victorian female respectability (Burrell 1998).
The profession developed as a part-time industry, associated largely with cabinet makers and carpenters, who used their skills to build coffins on the side – Dale and Felton were also both cabinet makers/carpenters – and because of the early undertaker’s associations with furniture dealing, these individuals were probably more familiar to their clients and neighbours as handymen rather than being associated exclusively with death. This early picture of the undertaker developed as populations and commercial specialisation grew – as a result, undertakers were able to dedicate all of their time and effort to the one profession (Burrell 1998). As mourners required evermore elaborate funerary displays, as characterised by the mourning obsessed Victorian era, livery men joined the funerary procession. This group of merchants acted as the suppliers of the horses and carriages to transport the deceased. This in turn gave rise to the hearse bearing undertaker (Polites 2011).
All of this sounds relatively profitable, right? Multifaceted business ventures in an industry which theoretically had a steady and very reliable stream of potential clientele – particularly as the world was still coming to grips with the concept of germ theory (Tremlett 2016)... But alas, John Courtney Felton went bankrupt nonetheless (Star 20/11/1899: 2). One can only speculate as to why his business was unsuccessful.
The same fate was not met by another notable 19th century Christchurch undertaker - a prosperous business man: Herman Franz Fuhrmann, who was German. We have met Herman Franz Fuhrmann on the blog before, and it’s possible that his business success could be related to the catchiness of his name – it sounds like it was just made for a jingle! – but regardless, he managed to expand his own undertaking and cabinet making business to include a saddler, branched out into insurance, and made a killing in the sale of the Molesworth station in Marlborough.
This more capitalist version of undertaking brings us a little closer to some of the more recent attitudes toward modern funerary directors. Exposés starting in the 1960s tackled the controversy of the idea of the modern undertaking and funeral industry as a profit-driven empire - making a commodity out of death, and manipulating mourning people at their most vulnerable (Mitford, 1983). This is a large and complex debate that won’t be covered here. No price lists were found for any of the undertaking services of Felton, Dale or M’Auliffe, and their advertisements and others like them from this era seemed to focus more on being sanitary, speedy and available on short notice.
M’Auliffe is the only one of the three undertakers in question who also advertises an embalming service (Press 3/07/1903: 8). The idea of embalming corpses (the science of preserving human remains intact, for the sanitation, presentation and preservation), can be traced to at least 5000-6000 BC and the Chinchorro culture in present day Chile and Peru (Brenner 2014). Modern embalming began in the 17th century but really didn’t take off until the American Civil War, which saw soldiers dying far from home and their families wishing their bodies to be returned home for burial. The long journeys presented the need to slow down decomposition, and led to injecting various solutions into arteries of a corpse to prevent this natural process (Chiappelli, 2008). During the 19th century, arsenic was the most favoured embalming fluid, although it was eventually replaced with less toxic chemicals in the 1900s. This occurred in order to alleviate growing concerns about ground contamination from buried embalmed bodies seeping into local water supplies - not to mention the possibility of homicide cover-ups in which any evidence of arsenic poisoning could be disguised by embalming fluid (Mettler 1890). Formaldehyde eventually replaced arsenic as the favourite solution and is still used today.
M’Auliffe’s multifaceted service also appeared to have run more successfully than his predecessor Felton’s, although he also had his share of hiccups. M’Auliffe may have been a funerary director who harboured a death wish, as he was charged with riding bicycle in the street in the dead of night without a light, and a mysterious fire broke out at his premises in 1912 (also in the middle of the night), destroying his house and workshop. Luckily, the property was insured (Star 21/10/1902: 3, North Otago Times 16/10/1912: 3). Dazzling reports described a scantily-clad Mrs M’Auliffe having to make her way to the ground by a rope fire escape, “with a three-year-old child clinging to her neck. Fortunately, before making her descent she had the presence of mind to throw down a mattress, otherwise the child, who let go its hold when eight or ten feet from the ground, might have met with injury” (Star 15/10/1912: 3). I can only imagine how creepy it would have been to witness the local funeral home or mortuary burning down at the start of the 20th century!
But even without the burning building, why do we generally find the concept of an undertaker creepy, particularly one from ‘olden times’? When I hear the word ‘undertaker’ or ‘mortician’, the picture of a solitary guy in black and white, with a bit of a mad scientist vibe comes to mind. Pop culture, through the horror novel and film industry, is probably largely to blame for the demonisation of the profession, but the concept of ostracising those who handle the dead is not a new one. It can also be explained by human desire and the need to survive by disassociating one’s self with dead bodies and death. The idea has been explored by acclaimed social anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, making reference to the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, where the townsmen charged free blacks with the responsibility for picking up the dead and then "shunned them as infected, vilified them as predatory" (Burrell 1998).
Well that brings me to the end of this undertaking… Until next time…
Burrell, D. 1998. Origins of Undertaking: How antebellum merchants made death their business. Seminar in Early American History.
Brenner, E. 2014. "Human body preservation - old and new techniques.” Journal of Anatomy. Vol. 224: 316-344.
Chiappelli, J. 2008. "The Problem of Embalming". Journal of Environmental Health 71 (5): 24.
Lamb. T. 1811. "On Burial Societies, and the Character of an Undertaker." The Reflector: A Collection of Essays on Miscellaneous Subjects of Literature and Politics. Vol. 2. London: 1812. 143.
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Mettler, L. Harrison. "The Importance, from tire Medico-Legal Standpoint, of Distinguishing Between Somatic and Molecular Death." Medico-Legal Journal 8 (1890): 172-79.
Mitford, J. 1983. American Way of Death. Fawcett.
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Polites, T., M. 2011. The Undertaker Undertakes [online] Available at: http://taylorpolites.blogspot.co.nz/2011/11/undertaker-undertakes.html. [Accessed June 2016].
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Tremlett, L. (2016). Medical Buildings and Medical Theory: An Archaeological Investigation of Ashburton Hospital, New Zealand. MA Thesis, University of Otago.