A few years ago I giggled over my coffee cup listening to the ageing funeral directors deliver a history lesson in the lunch room. I found it unusual when they said our funeral home was once set in a furniture warehouse. That sounded so weird! A student of the death care industry, I listened attentively as they reminisced about the ‘Good Ol’ days,’ when they built the coffins themselves and the industry was run mainly by men.
‘Oh! Women have ruined it!” Bob, a-close-to-retiring funeral director scoffed, wiping his spectacles. He had been an undertaker for almost thirty years. ‘Ever since women took charge, it’s been a bloody party! Balloons and bloody mints. I miss the days it was simple – a funeral was a bloody funeral. No bells and whistles!’
Recently I was researching the history of funerals during the Victorian Era for a piece I was writing, and I discovered most funeral homes in fact, were part of a cabinet making or furniture business.
In the late 19th century, there were no funeral homes like we see today. Instead, there were “Undertaking Establishments.” These were an office used only for the transactions and paperwork and were usually attached to a livery barn or cabinet making factory. Many of the early undertakers were furniture makers and building caskets was an extension of their business. For them, undertaking was a second business rather than a primary profession – they built the coffins as well as their usual products. The farewell took place in the home where the family kept the body from decomposing by using large bags of ice, no fancy mortuaries or body holding fridges! The family often washed and dressed their loved one themselves and if they did not feel comfortable bathing the deceased, they would call a professional “Layer out of the dead.”
In fact, if you died in a hospital it meant you had no family to take care of you. If you were apart of a family and fell ill, medical operations were carried out in the home and if you died, well, you stayed there.
Today death is ushered out the door pretty quickly, and some family (not all) shy away from the corpse as if it was contaminated. They leave the deceased alone in the room where they died until we, the professionals, swoop in with our gloves and stretchers to whisk them away to a place of mystery. I wish the western world were not so closed off to death and embraced the inevitable. Only days short of Dying to Know Day, I would like to announce: acknowledging death is healthy and kissing your deceased loved one on the hand or forehead is not going to harm you! Planning end of life is not morbid or macabre- accepting our final destination can actually help you lead a full and prosperous life!
I think we can all learn a thing or two from the history lesson of the Funeral. Bring back the days were families pitch in and help prep their loved ones, embracing their death and getting involved.
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