Thursday, March 11, 2010

The History Hare - March 11, 2010

“Cabinet Maker - Undertaker”

by footnoteMaven

Carpenter, Wheelwright, Cabinet Maker, Undertaker

~ Sign From The Movie Cat Ballou ~

The position of being the local undertaker has its roots in the sidelines associated with the necessities of death. Those who were talented cabinet and furniture makers handled making coffins, a logical extension of their business. For them, undertaking was a second business rather than a primary profession.

Prior to the 1880’s it was these early carpenters and furniture dealers who would "undertake" to help with the preparations needed to properly dispose of a body after death. The term undertaker meant anything that was undertaken, but evolved into the association with death where the "undertaking" was dealing with disposal of the body.

Prior to and during the civil war the family, friends, and community handled the death of friends and family members. The family washed and dressed the body. The body was laid out in the front room and visitation was accomplished at home. The men constructed coffins and burial was on the family property in an area designated as a family graveyard.

There was no embalming at this time, so burial was swift. Often family members who were away from home were not accorded a last look at their loved ones.

During and after the Civil War, embalming became acceptable to Americans who wanted to ensure that, no matter what, they would have a last look at their lost loved ones. Those Northern families that could afford embalming arranged to have the sacred remains of their fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands shipped home from Southern battlefields.

"Where there were no family members to claim a body, the undertakers sometimes embalmed and dressed the dead soldiers in a new suit of clothes and placed them in one of the finer coffins for display in the front window for all to see. Understandably, such displays had a certain demoralizing influence on the Army and the public at large. After several complaints, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler ordered undertakers to cease this method of self-advertisement, at least around large military centers."
Abraham Lincoln was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865. He died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. His body was entrusted to the firm of Brown and Alexander, Surgeons and Embalmers, in Washington, D.C. Henry P. Cattell had embalmed Willie Lincoln, the president's son, in February 1862. Now, three years later, he embalmed the president.

It was the journey of Lincoln's body around the country that was the impetus for the acceptance of embalming in this country. The undertakers' advertisements evolved, presenting them as the caring members of the community we have come to know. The emphasis was placed on the quality of their coffins and a readiness to serve. The profession of undertaking was born.

This is the bill for my Great Great Grandfather John Campbell's casket.
The casket was provided by a furniture dealer.
It cost $45, a large sum of money in 1883.
What cost $45.00 in 1883 would cost $1022.64 today.


Weider History Network. “The Undertaker's Role During the American Civil War.” (accessed February 28, 2010).

Cincinati Magazine - Jul 1996 - v. 29, no. 10 - 112 pages.

Funeralwise. “History of The Industry.” (accessed February 27, 2010).

University of Minnesota Alumni Association. “A Noble Undertaking.” University of Minnesota. (accessed February 28, 2010).

Wisconsin Historical Society. “Young Girl's Burial Dress.” Wisconsin Historical Museum. (accessed February 28, 2010).

Salem Pioneer Cemetery. “UNDERTAKERS and FUNERAL HOMES in SALEM VICINITY.” (accessed February 28, 2010).

Advertising Card. Anonymous. Unknown. Early Advertising Collection, Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections.


Blogger Roberto said...

Incredibly interesting and thanks for the origins of the term "undertaker."

I recall even in the 1950's in Colon, Republic of Panama how the men with carpenter's skills in families would use the back yard on the Black Canal Zone to hastily build a coffin for the recently dead and the neighbors, like it or not, would have full view of the coffin until the next day or a couple days later when the deceased would be buried. Recently someone who recalls those days contacted us and told us how it always disturbed her to have to see the coffins displayed all "too" often in the back yards.

Great article!

March 15, 2010 at 3:00 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Roberto, thank you for sharing such an interesting piece of information. It seems life and death were very similar regardless of where you lived.

And thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment, as well as the link to such an interesting article. We'll share this with the rabbits.


March 17, 2010 at 4:32 PM  

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