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The undertaker at work: History of the funeral profession

Horse drawn hearse with pallbearers and funeral directors

“I think it’s very important for funeral directors to know about their heritage,” says Brian Parsons, funeral director, lecturer, consultant and author. “We come from an industry that’s always been around in some shape or form, it’s just evolved into what it is today simply because of changing needs.”

Brian Parsons has worked in the funeral profession in London since 1982 and has a PhD in the history of the profession throughout the 20th Century. He has also worked as features editor of the Funeral Service Journal, lectured at the University of Bath, and now works freelance under the banner of Funeral Service Training, providing training, consultancy and research services.

The Undertaker At Work: 1900-1950 is Brian’s latest book, taking an in-depth look at the funeral profession across this momentous period of history.

“It does what it says on the tin, so to speak,” says Brian. “It gives a snapshot of the industry in that 50-year period, in words and in pictures.”

The years between 1900 and 1950 represent some of the most monumental changes to British society as a whole, not just the funeral profession. Two world wars forever changed how we think about and deal with death, and the inter-war years brought with them plenty more industry-changing crises and landmarks.

“The book looks at the funeral profession in the First World War and the Second World War, but also what happened in the period in between; the founding of the British Undertakers’ Association, which became the National Association of Funeral Directors, the arrival of embalming into the country, how we coped during the Spanish flu, and the undertaker’s role in bringing home the unknown soldier from the fields of Flanders.”

Soldiers' funeral in 1916 A funeral held for soldiers in 1916 during the First World War.

The Undertaker At Work also has an extensive collection of photographs, some never before seen, giving an unrivalled insight into what the funeral profession actually looked like during those years.

“The photographic study looks at undertakers’ premises around the turn of the century, and in the 1920s and 30s the arrival of more automated and mechanical devices to help with coffin construction. We can also see photographic evidence of different chapels of rest, what their garages and stables look like, and also pictures of funerals taking place during those 50 years. And, of course, it looks at the arrival of motor transport, which just revolutionised the industry.”

If there’s one lesson that the modern funeral director can take away from Brian’s exploration of the early 20th Century, it’s that nothing stays the same forever.

“Change is continuous,” Brian says. “Some aspects of change are instigated by ourselves, out of convenience or because we’ve found a good way of doing something more efficiently. Some aspects of change are out of our control. For example, both the wars had their impact, generations of young undertakers were called up. Some came home, some did not. It was business as usual and they just had to cope.

Undertaker at work building coffin A coffin in progress in Ebbutt Funeral Services’ workshop

“You look at funeral directors or undertakers back in the early 19th Century and they were providing two things, the coffin and the transport, and depending on where you were, you might not have needed the transport. Friends and family would have carried the coffin to a small country churchyard.

“We’ve simply evolved. By the looking at the book you can get a sense of what we did at one stage and how that has developed into what we do now. Certain elements have stayed exactly the same, but we have added to what we did in 1900.

“The most important change is the care of the deceased. In 1900 we were pretty hands-off, people died at home, people stayed at home. Now that has completely changed. Death now happens in the institution, whether it’s a nursing home, a hospital or a hospice, and the body doesn’t rest at home between the death and the funeral.

“The funeral director is now very much the custodian of the body, preparing the body and allowing access to it. Really that’s just because society has changed, the way we care for the living has changed and then the way we care for the dead has changed.”

You can order The Undertaker At Work from Waterstones or Amazon.

Brian has published several other books on the history of the funeral profession and you can find out more about them on his website.

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