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Undertakers (Funeral Directors)

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Undertakers (Funeral Directors)

Undertaker is another name for a funeral director, someone involved in the business of funeral rites.

Please link GENi profiles of undertakers and related trades to this project. Notes are invited about customs, history etc. in different countries.


The first undertakers appeared in Britain in the 1670's. The trade didn't grow until the mid-Victorian period when there was a greater need. In the 17th Century only the wealthy were buried in individual coffins. More commonly bodies were transported to the graveyard in a reusable parish coffin and buried in shrouds.

In the early 18th Century this custom fell out of use and coffin making developed as a trade. After a person died the coffin-maker would visit the home of the deceased, take measurements and make the coffin. The body would be laid out by a local woman and the body stayed in the home until the day of the funeral, usually 3 or 4 days later. The body would be carried to the church on the parish bier, usually by members of the family.

As urbanisation grew the increased population created a demand for municipal cemeteries (the churchyards could no longer cope with the numbers), producing a demand for undertaking services. From 1840 onwards the trade attracted shrewd businessmen who capitalised on the growing demand for undertaking services.

There was no qualification needed - anyone could become an undertaker. In towns and villages undertaking was usually part of a cabinet maker's business as he made the coffins. larger towns, where the demand was greater, there was opportunity for full time undertakers.

There were three main requirements; Coffin-making, undertaking and funeral furnishing. Funerals were carried out by both undertakers and funeral furnishers, the difference being that undertakers made their own coffins and funeral furnishers bought coffins from coffin makers and then "dressed" them.

Associated occupations

  • Shroud maker
  • Funeral carriage proprietor
  • funeral coachman
  • funeral labourer
  • Grave digger
  • Funeral feather-man, employed by the undertaker to carry a tray or lid of waving, black ostrich plumes.


Cremation was introduce as an alternative to burial in the mid 1880's, but cremations didn't exceed burials until the late 1960's

By the late 1890's the three trades mentioned above were amalgamated and fell under the heading of "funeral directors".


  • Trade Directories


  • The Victorian Undertaker by Trevor May
  • The English Way of Death by Julian Litten
  • The Village Carpenter by Walter Rose (chapter on undertaking)
  • The Practice of Interment in Towns by Edwin Chadwick


United States

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