Trevor Laffan: Matters of life and death: the changing role of undertakers

Trevor Laffan: Matters of life and death: the changing role of undertakers

The work of Sligo undertaker David McGowan was highlighted in an RTÉ documentary, The Funeral Director, last week.

I WORK early the other morning and, for some reason, the word ‘undertaker’ was on my mind.

At first, I thought that maybe my body was trying to send me a message: Time to poke out the best suit and prepare to be laid out.

That happens to me sometimes. A word comes into my head and it won’t leave me alone and that’s how it was with ‘undertaker’.

I was wondering where the term came from and what the link was between the name ‘undertaker’ and the occupation we associate with it.

I thought a more appropriate description might be the ‘body collector’, ‘the burier’ or something along those lines so I had to do a bit of digging — excuse the pun — to discover the origin.

I unearthed — sorry, again — an online account by Richard Rawlinson who suggested that in medieval times, the word ‘undertaker’ was used for anyone undertaking any kind of a task.

For instance, there was a ‘building undertaker’, a ‘plumbing undertaker’ a ‘funeral undertaker’, etc.

But, by the 17th century, the term ‘funeral undertaker’ was abbreviated to just ‘undertaker’.

This association became so widespread, that people in other trades stopped calling themselves ‘undertakers’ because it was bad for business and they wanted to distance themselves from the term.

Early undertakers often worked as builders, joiners and carpenters — skills that translated to coffin-making at times of death in the village — and this was often the case even in the early 20th century. They were important people in the community.

When a death occurred, the doctor would be called to certify the death, and then the local ‘layer out’—usually a woman — would help carry out the ‘last offices’, attending to the needs of the deceased.

They would call the parish priest to perform the Last Rites and then summon the undertaker to take measurements for a coffin.

That would be made in haste from sanded and polished hardwood and sealed inside with wax and bitumen to avoid leakage.

The undertaker would later return to the house to deliver the coffin, sometimes having to remove a window as the door was often too narrow.

The deceased, clothed in their best nightdress or Sunday suit, would then rest in the front parlour for three or four days until the funeral.

The typical cost of a funeral in the mid-1940s was about £20, which included the making of the coffin, providing four bearers, a hearse and a car, church fees and grave digger. The fee of half a crown was paid to the person who performed the ‘laying out’ when the average wage was only £2.75 per week.

I read somewhere that our ancestors believed in the after-life and they thought that another world existed beneath the earth. That’s why the deceased were buried in the ground, to help them on their way.

Coffins in those days must have been difficult to shoulder too because it was the custom to fill them with whatever the deceased might need on the other side. Things like food, tools and household goods were often put in with the corpse.

That got me thinking about the word, ‘graveyard’. I prefer the word cemetery and there is a difference between the two, which is something else I didn’t know. A graveyard is attached to a church while a cemetery is not.

Cemeteries are usually situated on stand-alone sites, and they were designed to be a more pleasant experience for families visiting their deceased relatives than the old traditional church graveyard.

The burial process has been tried and tested and has changed very little over the years, and it still works for some. It’s a familiar routine that brings a degree of comfort to friends and relatives. A final service, led by a man of the cloth, followed by a procession to the graveyard where the coffin is interred.

After a suitable period of mourning, a marker or headstone is placed at the head of the grave and this becomes the final resting place for the deceased. A place where family and friends can come to visit and pay their respects. And that’s that.

Times are changing though, and cremation is gaining ground as an alternative method of disposing of human remains. The Catholic Church has become more accepting of cremation over the years, but then again, they probably didn’t have much of a choice.

However, they do have a difficulty with what happens to the ashes after the event and they say that Catholics who want to be cremated cannot have their ashes scattered or kept at home.

They insist they should be stored in a “sacred place” such as a cemetery or a church. “We come from the earth and we shall return to the earth,” is the Church’s stance. Not everyone sees it that way though and it’s common for some relatives to keep the ashes in the family home. That won’t please the Church, but the fact remains that some people get solace from seeing the urn resting in a familiar spot at home.

While intending initially to keep them for a short period, they often find it difficult to make the decision to let them go, so they remain there indefinitely.

I also know an undertaker who has a room full of urns that were never claimed. He has no idea why and doesn’t know what to do with them.

But, just as we were coming to terms with the cremation process, along comes another type of cremation that uses water instead of fire, called aquamation. The body goes into a vat containing a potassium-hydroxide-and-water solution for four hours until all that remains is the skeleton.

It might be more awkward keeping those at home, and could bring a new meaning to the term ‘skeletons in the closet’...

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