Books of valentine sentiments were quite popular in the nineteenth century; one could find saccharine stanzas to pass off as one’s own poesy or vile verses for a vinegar valentine. A peculiar feature of these collections were the “occupational” verses to woo the practitioners of various trades—such as the undertaker….
To an Undertaker
I am a mantua-maker,
You are an undertaker
Whom much I do regard
Because you are a grave one,
And I’m sure won’t leave one
‘Til laid in the churchyard.
Miami [FL] Herald 13 February 1927: p. 4 [reported in 1927, but from a Victorian valentine.]
From an Undertaker to his Valentine.
Be to thine Undertaker kind,
And have him always in your mind;
Hid undertakings are profound,
And plumes have rendered him renown’d.
The Trades People’s Valentine Writer: Consisting of Appropriate Valentines Entirely Original, For People of all Trades or Professions, Alphabetically Arranged, 1830
TO AN UNDERTAKER.
To mournful strains I tune my lute,
Because to me the subject’s grave,
Too long ador’d thee, love, I have,
I can no longer be a mute.
If towards the ocean of my love
Rolleth thy fond Affection’s billow,
Send me a sprig of weeping willow,
Or cypress-wreath, thy truth to prove.
Reject me—and my fate is this:
Off life the fragile twig I hop,
And off, instanter, neck and crop,
I go to the neck-crop-olis!
In the serenest of snug corners,
I prithee, love, inter me then—
Plain walking funeral—(two-pound ten)
With return tickets for the mourners.
To Kensal Green I most incline—
There spend a half-a-crown a year,
In keeping turf’d the early bier
Of thy departed Valentine.
A collection of new and original valentines, 1858, pp. 104-5
“Let Chloe smile upon her lover,
Who will ne’er forsake her;
Each day new charms she will discover,
In her faithful undertaker.”
Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 8 February 1969: p. 65 [reported in 1969, but Victorian in date.]
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil must apologise. She made the mistake of commissioning that grave person over at Haunted Ohio to undertake a compilation of “occupational” Valentine verses. Mrs Daffodil might have known that the author of a book on the lore of Victorian death and mourning would veer into “vinegar valentines” with a mortuary flavour.
Mrs Daffodil has written before on such seductive stanzas and, while the poesy might be tortuously rhymed, at least the principals were upright tradesmen such as wheelwrights and corset makers. Mrs Daffodil hopes that this will not spoil her readers’ Valentine’s Day and, in fact, may prove useful if one is being courted by or courting an undertaker. She will try to post something in a more romantic vein on the day.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
“Man and boy, I’ve been in the business nearly fifty years, and if I had to begin over again, I don’t know that I would choose any other.” He was a retired undertaker who spoke. The writer was his companion in a coach on a mourning mission to a Long Island cemetery lately, and he ventured the suggestion that there must be a dreadfully depressing uniformity in the business which would be calculated to deaden the finer sensibilities and to induce a hardened callousness in those engaged in it for so long a time.
“There is as much variety among the dead as among the living,” said the undertaker, “and one’s interest is awakened and one’s sympathies excited by the changes of expression so frequently noticeable on the faces of the dead. Dead faces blush and smile and sometimes look sad and inexpressibly mournful.” Becoming reminiscent, the undertaker related some incidents in his long experience, illustrating the peculiar changes of expression that sometimes came over the faces of the dead and which have for the living such thrilling and ghastly interest.
Probably thirty years ago I was called to a house in Bond street. The corpse was a beautiful young woman of thirty or so, of fine, clear blonde complexion and finely formed. She had died suddenly under peculiar circumstances, and her husband, who appeared to be an excitable and jealous man, much older than his wife, was rushing around tearing his hair and cursing and threatening when I was admitted to the chamber of death. I told him that his grief was unseemly and shocking and begged him to restrain himself. He bade me send my assistant to look after the wagon outside, closed the door of the room connected with that in which the body lay, and sitting down in a chair with his knees close to mine, told me that his wife had been unfaithful to him; that he had suspected her for years, and that her death was a judgment of God, not only to punish but to expose her. He said her sister’s husband, who was a doctor, had been her paramour, and while visiting him she had been suddenly stricken with hemorrhage of the lungs and had died in a few minutes. It was a dreadful story. I said that probably he was mistaken, and I urged him to keep calm.
Before leaving the room to listen to the husband’s story I had noticed what a peculiarly wretched and suffering look the corpse had. When I returned and summoned my assistant I felt confident that this sad and disconsolate expression became gradually intensified as our melancholy work proceeded. Even my assistant noticed and commented on the anguished look of the departed, and the thought of it dwelt so much on my mind that I dreamt about the deceased that night, and I told my wife in the morning what the husband had told me, winding up by saying that I felt she was wrongfully accused.
When I called again with the coffin the husband was absent, but the look was frozen and settled in the face. It was impossible to so dispose of the features as to banish that purgatorial look of martyrdom. I was nearly through when the husband entered the room. He presented the greatest possible contrast to the man I had seen two days previously. He was meek, tearful, broken up, and could scarcely speak for sobbing. In a few words he told me that he was a monster unfit to live. He had wrongfully accused the best and most innocent women that ever lived. Her own sister had been present at the whole interview with the doctor, and up to the moment she was stricken with death; and, moreover, had adduced the most convincing evidence to prove that his own ungovernably jealous suspicions had all along been unfounded. I had been standing at the door with my back to the corpse, as he sobbed and spoke.
When I turned again there was a distinct smile playing over the dead features, like moonlight on rippling waters. His eyes followed mine, and he rushed to the coffin, crying: ‘Mary! Mary! Speak to me! Speak to me! She lives! She is not dead!’ He told me to run for Dr. ___, who lived a few doors away, and inside of ten minutes he was present. But he found her to be quite dead, although the smile remained, and with that sweet, serene and happy smile she was laid away to her long repose.
Another case has haunted me for a still longer period. The lady was a widow of fifty or thereabouts, and her only son was a sailor, employed on one of those clipper ships that traded with China, and he would sometimes be away from home two years at a time. He had been away a year when she was taken with her last sickness, which, I think, was rapid consumption. She was a deeply religious and emotional woman, and her son—Theodore, I remember the name was—was a good, affectionate lad of three or four and twenty. Before the end it became painfully probable to the doctor, the attending minister and the nurse that the mother’s life voyage and the boy’s sea voyage, were running a close and uncertain race. He was expected home in November. It was the beginning of that month, and the hope was ever present to the dying mother’s mind that she would be spared long enough alive to see him—to see him if only for a single fleeting moment. Her prayers to that end were touchingly earnest and incessant.
But it was not to be. Just as the ship that bore the boy was sighting the Sandy Hook highlands, the mother’s spirit was passing yearningly away. When I was called upon to perform the last offices for the deceased I was deeply impressed with the look of perplexed suffering that the face wore. Canker sorrow seemed to have eaten away the placid, sweet look that was natural to her wasted but benign face. The day of the funeral came. There were not many present in the modest little home away down on the Hook, but all who were present were acquainted with the family circumstances and the conversation in low tones turned on the poor dead lady’s disappointment in not being permitted to see her son once again before she went on the last long dark journey.
By and by the old clergyman came, and one of his first acts was to look with tear-filled eyes at the sad face of the corpse. He began the exercises in a low tone, but intensely earnest, speaking of the wishes of the deceased and the inscrutable higher Will that had denied their fulfillment. He had got thus far when the young man himself, with a big parcel in his hand for his mother, staggered into the room, and, as he reached the coffin, burst into a torrent to weeping as if his heart would have burst from his bosom. Everybody was plunged into involuntary tears and some minutes elapsed before the minister could recover his composure. The young sailor, who had been gazing with agonizing fervor upon the dear dead face, here put his hand on the cold, pale brow and said: “Oh, mother, speak to me—speak just once!”
And I thought, and the minister said that he thought, that a flickering faint smile played across the features. But whether the smile was there transiently or not, every body saw that the dead face had cast aside suddenly its anxious and despairing look, and that it now looked blissful and happy. It was a great and notable change, and formed the talk among that little earnest circle for many weeks afterward.
The undertaker was asked if within his experience he had seen a dead face blush. He said that he had. It was not by any means a common phenomenon, yet physicians attempted to explain it by physical reasons, which I am not learned enough to enunciate.
A case in which an apparent suffusion of the blush of modesty came under my notice was peculiarly pathetic. During the summer the young lady was staying in the country, and was killed by being thrown from the carriage in which she was riding. She was to have been married to a young lawyer in this city in a week. I was summoned to professionally attend to the corpse and bring it home to her parents in this city. The face of the beautiful girl wore a sweet, reposeful expression as if she had entered into perfect beatitude. Before the funeral ceremonies began in the house the young lawyer, accompanied by the mother, father and sister of the deceased, paid the corpse a sad parting visit. It was quite manifest to me and to all of them that the dead young lady blushed when her lover kissed her lips. So vividly distinct was the blush that the sister started and placed her hand on the cold brow and addressed the deceased by name.
“After all, though,” he said in conclusion, “the saddest and most common look of the dead is that Phoenix-like, marble rigidity—so inscrutable, awe-inspiring. Nothing can so stun the senses or chill the heart-blood of the beholder as that. I have met the dreadful expression in all its forms, and I never could become quite indifferent to it if I were to practice the undertaking business a hundred years.
The Enquirer [Cincinnati OH] 6 November 1886: p. 13
A Professional Talks About Her Uncanny Occupation.
‘I was only 12 years old,’ said a prominent lady hair-dresser of this city, ‘when I was called on by the friends of an old lady who had died to come and dress her hair.’
‘And did you go?’
‘No; I ran and hid myself under a bed and stayed there a whole afternoon. Although I loved her and had often dressed her hair when she was alive, I could not bear the idea of doing it after death. But I have done many heads since for dead persons, and, while I do not like it, I have a professional pride in making them look well for the last time.’
‘It must be very distasteful to you.’ ‘
‘Not always. It comes in the way of my business, and naturally my employees shrink from going. Sometimes we have a call through the telephone to come to such a number and dress a lady’s hair. One of the young ladies will be sent with curling irons, pomades, hair-pins and other things, only to find that the lady is a corpse. The girl will not nor cannot undertake it, and I go myself. There is only the front hair to crimp and arrange becomingly. One day last week I dressed Mrs __’s hair for the last time. She was young and very pretty, and looked as if asleep. The hair does not die, so that it is easily arranged. When it is a wig or crimped I have it sent to the store, and when it is dressed, take it to the house and put it on. Let me tell you something that happened lately. A lady died in this city who wore a grey wig. I dressed it and put it on. You can just think how surprised I was when, a couple of weeks later, a member of the family came in here and tried to sell it to me. She said they had taken it off just before the casket was closed for the last time.’
‘And did you buy it?’
‘Buy it? Certainly not. It is not very long since a man came in and offered me a number of switches of different shades and colour. I would not buy them, and sent for a policeman, as I thought he had probably stolen them. But as it turned out, they came from an undertaker’s and were the unclaimed property of strangers who had been given pauper burial.’
‘Is it customary to dress the hair of the dead?’
‘It is. I have some customers who have exacted a solemn promise from me that I will dress their hair when they die and make it look natural and becoming. I have even been sent for by those who had only a few hours to live and taken my instructions from their dying lips.’
‘Is the process the same as with the living?’
‘Just the same, except that I do not arrange the back hair in all cases. But sometimes the hair is dressed entirely, just as it would be for an evening party. And I frequently furnish new switches, crimps, or bangs, at the request of relatives who want no pains spared.’
‘And are you not afraid?’
Madame shrugged her handsome shoulders.
‘It is a lonesome task,’ she said, ‘and it certainly does make me nervous. Once the corpse opened her eyes and looked at me as a lady who was holding a lamp went out of the room in a moment, leaving me with a lock of hair in the crimping-pins. A gust of wind blew the door after her, and I was in the dark alone with the dead women. I think if she had not opened the door just at the moment she did I should have fallen insensible,’—
Detroit [MI] Free Press 1 January 1888: p. 4
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil does not have a high opinion of either the intelligence or the moral scruples of the repellent relatives who offered to sell the dead lady’s wig to the hairdresser. They might at least have dyed it so that it was less recognizable, or, more sensibly, taken it to a different coiffeuse, if they needed to offset funeral expenses.
Wigs and chignons for the living were, however, often made of what was termed “dead hair,” or hair cut from corpses. These corpses might be unfortunates from the Workhouse or paupers destined for Potter’s Field; working girls of the streets, murderers or their victims. If not a black market, it was certainly sub-fusc. Medical men issued stern warnings about the diseases and insects that might be found in “dead hair,” and argued for prohibiting any hair except that from the living in hair-pieces. These warnings were widely ignored. In 1911, for example, hair from Chinese who died in the Manchurian plague, was being imported by Germany and England without so much as a murmur from the trade authorities.
For more mortuary professions for ladies, please see this link, and this, about a lady undertaker. You will find more information on the popular and material culture of Victorian mourning in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard and under the “Mourning” tab on this blog.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
Inspired by the story of a woman taking her dead husband on a “rolling wake” Alaskan road-trip, preserved in ice from the local fisheries, I present some vintage fizz about stiff iced drinks.
Took the Ice Off a Corpse.
Charlotte, N.C., June 13. The guests of the Phoenix hotel at Winston, rose in revolt against George W. Kittelle, the proprietor of the hotel, a few evenings ago, because they learned that the ice used in their iced tea and other cool drinks had been first utilized in cooling a corpse. The result is that Kittelle’s troubles multiplied, and the news has just come of his assignment. It was claimed that a rubber sheet was between the ice and the body, and that the cooling material was not therefore injured in any way, but was as pure as ever. The guests could not see it that way, however. The corpse in question was known in life as Charles Johnson. Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 14 June 1895: p. 1.
We might assume that this was just a tasteless joke (although the hotel and the man are real) but there was apparently a certain amount of laxness in this area. I’ve seen several references in the medical literature to the following practice:
As an illustration are cited cases in which the ice used to preserve bodies dead from contagious disease was emptied out on the public street…. Medical Record 1891: p. 263
No doubt for the children playing in the streets to pick up and suck.
And here’s a poem with a twist. Memorize it! recite it at parties! I guarantee you’ll have your audience shaken and stirred.
The Globe-Republican [Dodge City, KS] 5 March 1896: p. 3
Can anybody top these stories of stiff drinks? Pour it on: chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Thanks to Michael Robinson for the Alaskan story.
For chilling stories of the perils of undertakers with ice-boxes, see this post.
Brian C. sent some variants of the “corpse on ice” theme and a cautionary tale for travellers.
Here are some variants of “The Corpse in The Cask/Tapping the Admiral” that are related to “A Stiff Drink.”
Graham Seal, Great Australian Urban Myths, rev. ed. (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 72.
One hot day in the desert the passengers on the Meekatharra Mail were relieved by the kindness of the guard bringing everyone a drink of ice water. As the day got hotter and the air drier, the passengers continued to quench their thirst with glasses of ice water provided by the guard. But after a few hours, the welcome chilled fluid stopped coming. As the guard passed along the passageway on his duties, a thirsty passenger inquired why the ice water had dried up.
‘Sorry,’ replied the guard, ‘I thought we’d better not drink any more – the body’s beginning to show through the ice.’
The Railroad Gazette. New York, 8 Sept 1882, p. 555. Quoted in B.A. Botkin & Alvin F. Harlow, eds., A Treasury of Railroad Folklore (New York: Bonanza Books, 1953), p. 431.
Where He Got the Ice
There was a party of gentlemen the other day on a train on one of the roads coming into Nashville, and none of the party being strictly temperance men, one of the crowd suggested a drink. Another wanted to know where to get it. All seemed willing, but the day was warm, very warm. At last the fourth man in the party said he had a bottle of fine “cock-tail,” which he would furnish if anybody could get ice. A fellow passenger remarked that he would do that if they would share with him. He left the car and came back with plenty, which was duly used. As a matter of course, in a short time another drink was proposed and the ice man kindly requested to furnish that necessary article to a cocktail, but with his mouth watering for a drink and every look one of longing, he said: “Gentlemen, I want the drink, and I could furnish the ice, but I am afraid if I take any more off the corpse it will spoil.”
Bennett Cerf, Try and Stop Me (1944). In Bennett Cerf’s Bumper Crop, vol. 1 (Garden City: Garden City Books, n.d.), p. 536.
My friend swears that he is the hero of the story of the four chance acquaintances who launched a bridge game on a mid-summer run of the Empire State Limited. They ordered frequent rounds of drinks, but finally the steward reported that the ice had run out. “I think I know where I can get some,” volunteered my friend, and supplied the party until the train was well past Schenectady. “I’m afraid this is the last pitcherful,” he said then. “If I take one more cube of ice, the body won’t keep till Buffalo.”
[…] Says Poonam Bachhav, microbiologist and chief of the water testing lab at the Institute of Health Systems, “We have tested a lot of samples of water taken from various street food vendors from around the city, and 80% of the time we discover that the water is unsuitable for drinking.” And then there’s ice. Stories that the ice used by street food vendors comes from the morgue might be more urban legend than fact, but the reality isn’t all that much of a step up. Ice is usually manufactured in locations many of which are at quite a distance from the city. So even if one ignores that few ice manufacturers follow all the rules and regulations set by the health ministry, the fact remains that the ice is transported in filthy conditions only to arrive at a store where it is just lying on the grimy floor, covered in rice husk, what appears to be sawdust, and what not. “We haven’t received many samples of ice for testing, but of those that we have received, most are unwholesome”, says Poonam Bachhav. “I think it is very unadvisable to eat or drink anything served by street vendors.” […]
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I do not mince words when writing about the perils of 19th-century corpse disposal. You may have read about the grim German waiting mortuaries, the dark side of those popular Fisk cast-iron burial caskets, people who asked to be stabbed to the heart after death to make sure they were really most sincerely dead, and about the Victorian fear—actually more like an obsession—with being buried alive. It was sometimes difficult for 19th-century physicians to tell when a body was a lifeless corpse, given diseases like cholera that mimicked death and an apparent epidemic of catalepsy. Yet beyond dubious diagnoses of death leading to premature burial, there was another, lesser-known mortuary danger: the undertaker’s ice-box.
While arterial embalming had been popular since the Civil War, some undertakers, either conservative or cautious about the toxic chemicals involved, shunned embalming, feeling that they got more satisfactory outcomes using the tried-and-true method of icing the corpse. For example, this undertaker was delighted with a tub of ice so effective there was doubt about the death:
“Before the patent ice boxes were in use,” continued Mr. William, “I was called on to bury a young man whose death was caused by drowning. It was in warm weather, and the family desired that the funeral should be put off a few days. The bath tub was used, and he was laid in it, covered with ice, and kept splendidly. In fact, he looked so much better in death than he did in life that his mother could not be made to believe that life was extinct, and for this reason the hour of the funeral services was twice postponed until her family physician arrived and made an examination. Arkansas City [KS] Daily Traveler 12 July 1888: p. 6
I’d always imagined that Victorian undertakers iced their corpses by putting them on beds of ice like fish in the seafood case. But, in fact, the goal was to freeze the corpse solid, letting it thaw gradually before burial would be necessary. The illustration at the head of this post shows one such device, with a handy hose to hang out the window. The sound and smell of the water running off the corpse is one of the lost sensory landscapes of the 19th-century…. There are numerous 19th-century patents for “corpse coolers” and improvements thereof. Some were essentially immense ice-chests; several were meant to fit only over the abdomen and breast of the corpse. And, according to some physicians, these devices were a menace to the public wheal.
Dangers Of Prematurely Placing Corpses On Ice.
Dr. E. Vanderpoel, of this city is strongly opposed, and for very good reasons, to the practice of hastening to place a body on ice almost as soon as the patient appears to be dead. Some of his experiences in his own professional life have made so deep an impression on him, that he has more than once, publicly and privately, protested against the modern custom introduced by the undertakers, of putting bodies on ice before there were official proof of death. He considers it a scandal to the undertaking profession, an outrage to society, and an insult to the patient’s family that for the sake of collecting exorbitant fees, undertakers do not await the arrival of a doctor’s certificate of death before they freeze the remains.
The case lately reported from Canada, of a smallpox patient who had apparently died and was about to be buried when he came to life again, suggests to Dr. Vanderpoel the following reflections: “If that Canadian had been taken ill in this city his life would never have returned at the cemetery, for it would have been frozen out of him long before he reached the grave. In reading about this case I thought of a certain Brooklyn patient of mine who died in 1872. She was forty-five years old, and the widow of a well-known reverend doctor of divinity. She had an attack of dysentery, and had been lying ill for four or five days with a low fever but her condition was not dangerous, although it was assuming a typhoid form. I called in to see her one day at one o’clock, and returned again at five o’clock on the same day, when, to my profound surprise and indignation, she was lying in an icebox down stairs partially frozen. The undertaker had committed this atrocity without any medical certificate of her death, and he had no official knowledge that she had died at all I found that after I had left she arose from her bed and fainted while walking across the floor from sheer weakness, and because she lay there motionless the children thought she was dead; so, instead of sending for me to come and make an examination, they ran for the undertaker. He responded with like promptitude, bringing in his mortuary box full of pounded ice, and in a short time she was frozen stiff. Every part of her body, except her face was covered with the ice. I believed then and I always shall believe, that she might have revived had proper means been employed for her resuscitation.”
The following is still more tragic: In 1874 I attended a wealthy lady about fifty years old, and her house was but five doors from my own. She was perfectly well at six o’clock in the evening. She went to bed as usual. In the night she was taken ill, and I was called over to the house by another doctor, for consultation, at six o’clock in the morning. After doing what we could I left at seven to finish my toilet and to get some breakfast. The other doctor also retired soon afterward, as he found he could not be of any immediate service. I returned at half-past nine o’clock and found her, not in bed, but in the back parlor enclosed in an undertaker’s ice chest. From what I knew of the character of her case, it was one in which returning consciousness would be almost certain to follow a period of apparent sinking away of life. If there ever was a case of restoration after suspended animation that should have been one. The undertaker’s excuse was that mortification might set in when he ought to have known that it takes twelve hours for animal life to leave the body after death and before decomposition can set in.
“After death there are three stages in the processes of decomposition. On the first day the features and the flesh are sunken in and the pallid shade of death is very ghastly. On the second day there is an improved look in every respect and the remains lose a part of the pallor of the first day. On the third day the flesh becomes full again, the skin clears up, and the natural hue of life returns to a degree that in some cases is almost startling. At the end of this period discoloration sets in and decomposition does its work with great rapidity if the weather be warm. But these changes can be postponed without difficulty by the proper use of a very little ice on the stomach, and some diluted carbolic acid sprayed into the nostrils. In 1848, when the modern iceboxes were unknown, I kept the body of my mother four days in the hottest summer weather of July. My son dropped dead in the street from kidney disease. He was in full health, and I kept the remains in fine condition for five days with a simple pan of ice. I was attending on a poor little girl in Thompson street. Her mother was so poor that I did not charge her anything. When the little sufferer passed away I told the mother that an undertaker would come and order the remains to be put on ice, but I would show her how to keep the body until time for burial. It would keep without trouble, for there was no flesh to decay. I left the mother to go to my office for a certificate of death. When I returned the body was on ice as usual, and the mother told me that the undertaker had come and told her that she must have the remains put into an icebox without delay. She thought it must be some kind of an official utterance, so she borrowed $10 and gave it to the undertaker before I could return.”
In conclusion, Dr. Vanderpoel thinks that physicians, the Board of Health, and the law, should take measures to put a stop to such indecencies. There is no necessity for the practice, no excuse for it, except the sordid anxiety of the undertaker to make an exorbitant fee. He strongly favors the Neurological Society, which, he understands, is making efforts to have a medical expert especially detailed to investigate each case of reported death, and to make a scientific examination as to whether the doctors themselves might not have erred and issued certificates before the vital spark of life had really fled. The Medical Advance, Volumes 9-10 1881
Dr. S. Oakley Vanderpoel, had been Health Officer of the Port of New York and also Surgeon General of that state.
This next article’s headline is even more candid.
SENT TO UNTIMELY GRAVES
The Perils of Undertakers’ Ice-Boxes
Inanimate People Frozen to Death
[New York News.]
The medical profession and embalmers are soon to wage war against the undertakers on the subject of preparing the dead for burial. The physicians nearly all claim that persons still alive are frequently taken by undertakers and placed on ice, thereby making death certain, whereas, if the body was kept until the first signs of decomposition set in, all uncertainty would be dispelled. The late occurrence in this city, where a prominent physician attending a lady left the patient after prescribing for her, and returned the following morning only to find her body packed up in an undertaker’s ice-box has given rise to severe indignation among medical men. The doctor who attended the lady expressed the belief that the patient’s blood could not have been cold in so short a space of time, and he considered that the undertaker iced her while she was yet alive, lest in delaying he might lose the job.
The embalmers charge that many bodies are rapidly hustled into the grave through the undertaker and his ice-box, and they are endeavoring to get the physicians to cooperate with them, so that in a short time the use of ice will be entirely put out of practice. It is claimed that the process of embalming will not cost any more than icing, and through its use, nobody can be placed in a coffin before life is undoubtedly known to be extinct. One of the embalmers, when spoken to on the subject, said: “I have been in the business for at least twenty-five years, and can say I never knew bodies to be packed and placed completely in ice until I came to this city. Of course I have seen ice used a little, but not to such an extent as to entirely envelope every portion of the form. In my opinion, bodies are certainly put on ice too soon after death; they should be kept for some time, so that signs of positive death would make their appearance. If the breath ceases, or the pulse stops beating, and the lips become blue, while the face is livid, you have no positive indications of death, for there have been cases where all these symptoms were perceptible and yet life returned.”
“What would be the result if a person so attacked would be seized and crowded into a box of ice?” “Why, they would have been frozen to death, and their morbid or temporarily-stilled blood-vessels made dead forever. No body should ever be placed on ice unless it is rigid in the extreme….
“Another occurrence like this took place over on Seventh avenue not long ago. A woman lived with her husband and two grown children in a tenement house. The husband, son and daughter all worked in a theater. One evening the woman, while walking about the room, was seized with apoplexy, and dropped powerless upon the floor. Some of the neighbors in the house heard the fall and went to the room, and, finding the woman speechless, immediately sent to the theater for her son. The young fellow immediately went for a physician, who pronounced the woman dead. The body was then lifted into bed and left there until the return of the husband and daughter and when they came an undertaker was sent for. He was assisted by two old women, neighbors of the deceased, in laying out of the dead body preparatory to placing it on ice. While the body was being disrobed one of the women suddenly cried, ‘Oh, my God! She’s warm! She’s not dead yet!’
”At this the husband rushed to the corpse, and sure enough it was warm, but the undertaker hastened the body to the ice-box, saying that the body was made warm by being left in bed so long without being undressed. This was received as probable, and the body was put on the ice without further comment. But two old women sent the story all over the neighborhood that the woman was buried alive. This created no little excitement at the time, and a crowd gathered around the house to see the funeral, while the poor husband and son and daughter were nearly distracted with shame. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 February 1881: p. 2
I can see how the embalmers might go to war over corpse coolers. Obviously icing cut into their profits. Yet, it seems a bit disingenuous. Though I’ve collected a few anecdotes on the subject, I have not yet investigated in any detail how many of the dead awoke during embalming before it was too late. Dead men tell no tales…
On the bright side, you will be relieved to know that being packed in ice had one important benefit to recommend it:
The morbid dread of being buried alive that is entertained by some nervous people, is entirely groundless. Such a thing is practically impossible, for the simple reason that a person supposed to be a corpse, but not really such, would inevitably be frozen to death in the ice box long before the funeral. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 June 1896: p. 25
Other stories of corpses on ice? Check carefully for signs of life before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
A casket 300 feet Long A casket 300 feet long would be needed to return the remains of all dead American soldiers from France.
As we mark 100 years since the end of the Great War, Armistice Day brings up memories of those lost and how they were commemorated. Much as families longed to hear that their sons died instantly, painlessly, and intact, the reality was that the war machine ground exceedingly fine, leaving horrific injuries, fragmented corpses, and the unidentifiable dead. At the time that the guns fell silent, battlegrounds were still no-man’s-lands of mud and metal, concealing unexploded ordnance and bones, which still work their way to the surface a century later.
Faced with the problem of how to bury the remains of over 900,000 British and Imperial soldiers left behind in France alone, a decision was taken to create military cemeteries, fields in France, which should be forever England. It was a controversial plan. As this article discusses, there was outrage that “our boys” would not be repatriated.
In the United States, also, there was generally strong sentiment for returning the bodies of the dead soldiers to their families for burial. In 1917 the American Purple Cross Association was founded to facilitate that sympathetic end.
TO BRING DEAD SOLDIERS FROM FRANCE FOR BURIAL
American Purple Cross Association Offers Services to Congress for This Purpose.
A movement is on foot to make it possible to bring back to this country for burial the bodies of all soldiers and marines who may lose their lives while fighting in France.
The organization backing the movement is the Purple Cross. A bill authorizing its acceptance by the government is now in congress and is expected to come up for a vote in a few days.
The plan is that, following the war, the body of every man who is killed shall be returned to this country and placed at the disposal of his relatives or friends for interment. Even should the conflict continue for several years, It is said, It will be possible at that time under the present modern method of caring for the bodies to recognize the remains of all the dead heroes. The bodies will be embalmed on the battle field.
More than $150,000 already has been pledged for the work, but officials of the organization state that until acceptance of the plan by congress no initiation fees, dues or contributions will be accepted.
It is urged that local citizens who believe the plan a good one should write Senators Charles Curtis and W. H. Thompson and Representative G. T. Helvering at Washington, urging that the bill, H. R. 5,410, be passed.
C. A. Wood of the Manhattan Furniture and Undertaking company is the local representative and an active member of the American Purple Cross Ass’n, and further information may be secured from him.
The Morning Chronicle [Manhattan KS] 25 July 1917: p. 3
Similar articles appeared in newspapers in nearly every state. The bills were reported to be called the Moore Purple Cross bill (H.R. 5410) or the Wolcott Purple Cross bill (S. 2692) and entitled “A bill to render possible the return of the bodies of our soldier dead to their home burial grounds in a sanitary and recognizable condition.” [The Allentown (PA) Morning Call 27 November 1917: p. 6]
The notion of “sanitary and recognizable” was, of course, tragically optimistic. And the American Purple Cross Association, as this article points out, was assuming a darker, less altruistic aspect.
A CASKET 300 FEET LONG
The Distressing Truth Revealed Why It Is Not Possible to Properly Bring Back Our Soldier Dead from the Torn Battlefields and how the Undertakers Are Pressing the Scheme for Business Reasons
By Rene Bache.
Any American mother whose soldier boy lost his life in France, or any wife whose husband died in the war “over there,” has a right to demand that the body be brought back and given to her for burial in this country. The Government promised as much, and the War Department will do its best to make the promise good.
But there are difficulties which by most people are not understood at all.
The principal agent of destruction used in the great conflict was high explosives, in shells, in bombs, and in other instruments for killing. It is estimated that 3 percent of the 77,000 American dead were literally blown to pieces. How in such cases could the fragments be collected and identified?
In numerous instances where our fighting men were killed by high explosive shells their fate was shared by French comrades-in-arms. Burying parties picked up such remains as they could find and interred them, marking part of the ground as the grave of an American soldier and another part as the grave of a French soldier. There were many cases where bodies of horses or other animals killed at the same time were buried with the bodies of men.
There are 18,000 Americans who died in hospitals, of wounds or disease, outside the war zone. Eleven thousand of these are to be brought back immediately; the rest will remain, by the expressed wish of their families, where they are.
With those who lost their lives in the war-zone the situation is entirely different. Already they have been buried twice, the first interment being usually by the regimental chaplain, without a coffin—just a covering of the body with earth, to get it out of sight and for sanitation’s sake.
This was always practicable when our troops were advancing. When they retreated, the American dead were often of necessity left unburied. The Germans interred them higgledy-piggledy in trenches dug for the purpose. Indeed, in many instances the Yaks were obliged to bury their own dead in this wretched fashion.
When the fighting lines were long stationary, bodies sometimes lay unburied for weeks before it was possible to reach them without undue risk.
Many small temporary cemeteries were established, in which thousands of uncoffined bodies were laid to rest. The sites chosen were usually on low ground, because in such places the burial parties were relatively safe from shell-fire. But there came four months of continuous rain, and the cemeteries were flooded. One there was which for a long time was under four feet of water, which washed some of the corpses out of the shallow graves, so that they floated to the surface.
This is distressing, but it is the truth. Everything was done that could be done in the circumstances. A concrete dam was built around this particular cemetery, and attempts were made to get the water out with gasoline pumps.
But the water seeped in beneath the concrete as fast as it could be pumped out; and finally, as a last resort, men equipped with long rubber boots and gas masks were sent in to grub literally for the bodies. It was a dreadful task, but they got them.
The possibilities of mistake in returning to American families the bodies of dead soldier boys are many and dreadful to contemplate. Recently 200 were brought back from Russia, and out of that small number no fewer than twelve were sent to the wrong homes….
Frequently it happened in France that American soldiers and German soldiers perished together and were buried together. Nothing is more certain than that efforts to fetch our dead boys from the war zone will result In the incidental importation of German remains. One can easily see how many an American mother or widow might thus weep over German bones, or even put flowers on the grave of the very man who slew the mourned son or husband.
For it must be remembered that the bodies shipped to this country from the war zone will be impossible of identification after their arrival.
They will be saturated with disinfectants, and inclosed in metal-lined caskets, hermetically sealed. It will be clearly explained in every instance that they are on no account to be opened.
There are now in the war zone, in France, 52,200 American fighting men, interred in proper cemeteries. Much clamor has arisen for the return of their bodies to the Union States. But the French Ambassador, M. Jusserand, says that it is “an artificially stimulated movement.” Cardinal Gibbons says: “The experiment of exhuming the bodies would be a useless one, to say nothing of the distress and pain caused to relatives.”
The American Legion, at its recent convention in Minneapolis, passed a resolution to the effect that “the bodies of American dead be not returned from France, except in cases where parents or next of kin so desire.”
The “movement” to which Mr. Jusserand refers, however, is to press for the immediate return, at Government expense, of all the American dead now in Europe. It is being very strongly pushed in Congress.
If it be “artificially stimulated,” who is giving it stimulation? The answer is that the real force behind the movement is the self-styled “Purple Cross,” which is another word for the Undertakers’ Trust. They see big money in it for them.
If proof of this be demanded, it is furnished by an editorial printed in The Casket (September 1, 1919), which is the official organ of the Funeral Directors’ Association. It reads:
“Suppose, Mr. Funeral Director, that some one were to come into your office and tell you that he had a scheme for increasing the number of funerals this year by more than fifty thousand.
“What would you do?
“Most likely you would rush out wildly into the street and shout.
“But. Mr. Funeral Director, with your neatly appointed office and your not-entirely-paid-for motor equipment, this offer is being made to you in all seriousness,
“In alien soil there lie more than 50,000 American men who died in battle or of disease during their tour of duty abroad.
“For nearly every American soldier returned some funeral director will be called upon to perform the necessary duties of reception and burial.
“Extra business, gentlemen, legitimate, patriotic; kindly, sympathetic, remunerative extra business. No additional number of widows and orphans. Only the final laying away of America’s sons in the bosom of their dear motherland.”
With which whole-souled exordium “The Casket” urges all undertakers to get busy and bring the requisite pressure on Congress to put through the scheme so promising of big profits for them,
The undertakers are pushing propaganda designed to cause uneasiness among people whose boys died in the war and to persuade them to write to their Congressmen and bring other influence to bear.
Listen to the testimony of one bereaved mother, Mrs. Mabel Fonda Gareissen, of No. 619 West One Hundred and Fourteenth street, New York City. She writes:
“I am a Gold Star mother and vitally interested in what is to be done with the bodies of our soldiers who lie in France. Therefore I decided to discover for myself the truth of persistent rumors that the Purple Cross (American Undertakers’ Association) is back of the movement to bring to America the bodies of our heroes.
“I asked Miss Jane O’Ryan, sister of General O’Ryan, to go with me to Mr. Blank, a leading undertaker. We saw there a tall, pale-faced man, with horn-rimmed glasses, who spoke with authority as one of the proprietors or managers.
“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘the dead in France are to be returned. Every pressure is being brought to bear. We have powerful representatives at Washington–not only our own, but Congressmen. We have been after the Congressmen for a long time.’
“‘Are you sending embalmers over?’
“‘No, the dead are in no condition for embalming. We shall use strong disinfectants, place the bodies in hermetically sealed caskets, and they will not be reopened.’
“‘Shall you ship all the caskets from America?’
“‘Yes, we shall use our own caskets, made in America.’
‘”After our dead arrive, can we be certain they are our own?’
“He hesitated and cleared his throat. ‘Well,’ he said, with very evident doubt, ‘we are going to be as careful as possible.”
“As we left he gave each of us a beautiful pink rose. We dropped them on the sidewalk when out of sight.
“Is it possible that the undertakers of this country would profiteer and use to that end the bodies of our American boys, one of whom is my own son?”
An answer to Mrs. Gareissen’s question is furnished by the editorial above quoted from “The Casket.” “Extra business, gentlemen–remunerative extra business.”
Big money in the scheme from beginning to end if it goes through. Fifty thousand caskets to start with! If all the American dead were put in one casket it would require a coffin 300 feet long, about sixty feet high and would cover a block and a half of Fifth avenue and stretch from sidewalk to sidewalk.
There is no article of merchandise on which the profit is larger than on coffins.
Each coffin must be inclosed in a box. It is an ordinary wooden box, costing perhaps $2.50, but the price the undertaker usually asks for it is $50. Then the funerals on arrival at destination, with carriages, incidentals and “service.” Did you over see an undertaker’s bill, and note the way in which it was “built up” out of a variety of items? Only a plumber’s bill can compare with it in this respect.
And then there are the tombstones, to wind up. The tombstone maker usually stand in with the “funeral directors,” and tombstones, like everything else, have gone up in price. The cost of them has doubled and trebled recently. When a monument is in question, you cannot buy the smallest and simplest pattern for less than $500.
H. S. Eckels, Director General of the Purple Cross (No. 1922 Arch street. Philadelphia) offers the following estimate for bringing a soldier’s body from France—a private job:
Average cost of disinterment and transportation to New York $605.00
The above total itemized as follows:
Zinc-lined oak coffin and outside box (cheapest) $115.00
Labor, legal fees, etc $120.00
Own transportation and expense of journey $112.00
Transport from French port to New York $100.00
Transport of body in France $48.00
Personal supervision and service $50.00
It will be noted that this fetches the body only as far as New York. One may safely surmise that “extras” would double the bill. And, of course, the undertaker would not be making such an expedition for the bringing back of one body. There would be many, and for each one the charges for “personal services” and “own transportation, ” etc., would be duplicated.
Never was there such a chance for ghoulish graft.
Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt’s father and mother asked the War Department to permit his body to remain in France. They felt that the American soldiers who fell there should lie in the soil they died defending.
A great many parents and widows have been led by the Roosevelts’ example to relinquish their desire that the bodies of their soldier sons and husbands be brought back. Already letters to this effect have been received by the War Department from 19,000 families. In two recent weeks 500 such letters came from families who wished to reverse a previous request that their dead be returned.
Congressmen have made excited speeches to the effect that the French were anxious to prevent the removal of our dead, in order that money-spending Americans might come over in flocks. But, as a matter of fact, the French, in relation to all this sad business, have conducted themselves in the most sympathetic way imaginable. Their women, peasant and cultured alike, have tended with loving care the graves of the khaki-clad American dead. They are doing it to-day, esteeming it an honor and a privilege. They plant flowers on the graves, one or more being assigned to each volunteer for the purpose.
It was the voice of France that spoke when Clemenceau said “We look upon the Americans who died in France as sons of France!”
At the close of hostilities, with the ready cooperation of the French, convenient sites for burying grounds were chosen as centers into which the American dead were gathered from the temporary war cemeteries. There they now rest, awaiting the decision as to their final disposition.
Meanwhile there has been organized in this country an American Field of Honor Association, which, when sentiment on the subject has crystallized, expects to send to France a commission for the purpose of choosing a site for a great central soldiers’ cemetery. It is thought that France will give the site. There will be erected a magnificent memorial—possibly a duplicate of the Washington Monument. Also there is in contemplation a memorial hall, to be there located, with a room for each State of the Union, on the walls of which will be placed bronze tablets bearing the names of the gallant dead.
According to present plans, the cemetery is to be made as much unlike a typical burying ground as possible. There will be no dismal rows of tombstones, but groupings of graves about rocks and under trees. And always will be maintained there a guard of honor, composed of honor men of the army, who, with fine quarters and extra pay, will service for one year, being thus rewarded for distinguished and meritorious services.
The great memorial cemetery will enjoy the special and extraordinary right of intra-territoriality. In other words, though in France, it will be a part of the United States—as much so as the Island of Manhattan. And above its sacred precincts will forever float the sheltering folds of the Stars and Stripes.
France has pledged herself to care for the American dead. In the belief of the Field of Honor Association, it is a mistaken scheme to attempt to disinter the bodies in the war zones, to haul them hundreds of miles to a seaport, to load them on ships, to bring them to this country and to forward them by railroad and truck to all parts of the United States.
It would take years to complete the job. During that time homes that have endured the first pangs of sorrow and have become in a measure reconciled would be plunged into renewed grief.
“Extra business, gentlemen! This is a matter of dollars.” So says their official organ, “The Casket.”
The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland OR] 15 February 1920: p. 61
The mortuary men quickly responded to this portrayal of their profession.
Funeral Men In Denial.
Elmwood, Ill. –To the Editor:
The article written by Rene Bache which appeared in The Register Feb. 8, in which the statement is made that the undertakers are urging for the return of the dead American soldier boys from France, because it will help business, does a gross injustice to the legitimate members of our profession.
We desire to correct the article in two instances. First, The Casket, quoted in the article, which is edited by William Mill Butler of New York City, is not the official organ of the National Funeral Directors’ association.
Second, the National Funeral Directors’ association is not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association, neither does it approve of the aims and objects of said Purple Cross association, as evidenced by the fact that at our last annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Sept. 10, 11 and 12, the National Funeral Directors’ association emphatically refused to affiliate in any way or to approve of the methods of the American Purple Cross association, whose request for such action was at that time presented to our association.
We believe the publication of this communication will in a measure explain to the people that the legitimate undertakers, of which the National Funeral Directors’ Association of the United States is composed, are not in any way connected with the American Purple Cross association.
H.M. Kilpatrick, Secretary.
The Des Moines [IA] Register 17 February 1920: p. 8
The founder and Director General of the Purple Cross, Howard S. Eckels, was an inventor of embalming fluid. He declared that he did not have an economic interest in promoting the repatriation scheme, stating that his company would be donating thousands of gallons of preservatives. He also wrote newspaper articles during the Spanish Influenza pandemic, giving his unique theory about the disease.
BLACK DEATH NOT INFLUENZA….
“It is not influenza; it is not Asiatic Cholera; it is not Bubonic Plague; it is not Pneumonia—although it frequently causes Pneumonia, or at least a condition resembling it.
“It is the Black Plague of the Middle ages, which so often in the past has swept the world.
“It is caused by a cross-breeding of bacteria in unembalmed bodies carelessly buried in ground which later is churned and re-churned by the tramp of armies and the hail of shells as the lies alternately advance and retreat….
“America is now paying the penalty of its delay in accepting the Purple Cross offer to embalm the bodies of those killed on the field of battle or dying in the service of the nation. Had embalming been done, all germs in those bodies would have been destroyed instead of being left to grow, multiply, mingle and cross-breed, later to be released by the fighting or by seepage to ravage the earth.
“There is no question but that complete saturation with a modern and scientific embalming fluid will absolutely destroy the germs of disease, and there is no question that had this been done from the beginning of the advent of American troops on the western front, conditions would have been very much ameliorated, and if the American example had been followed by the Allies, that the epidemic would have been absolutely prevented.
“It first attained virulence in this country in army cantonments and naval bases, and had really passed its climax in each of these before it attacked the civilian population.
“Many thousands are dead as a result!
“What a different tale we might have to tell had the Purple Cross been authorized to act, the embalmer officially recognized and our profession given the governmental consideration its importance entitles it to.
“Howard S. Eckels.
Independent-Observer [Conrad MT] 5 December 1918: p. 8
Professor Eckels seems to have invented a catastrophically optimistic theory of a disaster which killed between 20 and 40 million people world-wide, far more than died in the Great War.
Mrs. Mabel Fonda Gareissen, the Gold-Star mother, author, and Y.M.C.A. Canteen worker who did her own private investigation of the Purple Cross, sent a letter to all members of Congress, which contained much of the material above. This letter was read into the Congressional Record – Senate 13 January 1920: pp. 1471-2. And there the matter rested. I can find no references in the press to the Purple Cross after 1920.
Today more than 30,000 American soldiers who fell in the First World War lie row on row in tidy military cemeteries; the names of the honored dead carved on headstones; the names of the missing inscribed on the walls of memorial chapels.
As Robert Laurence Binyon wrote in “For the Fallen,”
“They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home…”
And they were not laid to rest in the family plot in the local cemetery. Mourning those who did not return must have been doubly painful without the familiar rituals of funeral and burial.
In the doorway of his office stood old Job Graves. A funeral procession passed. It was a funeral of Job’s; not “Job’s funeral,” mark you, but “A funeral of Job’s;” one of many which had fallen to his charge; for Job was an undertaker. Over the doorway was his weather-beaten sign, in dingy white paint; on the large front window was inscribed “Coffin Warerooms;” and within the window lay a funeral wreath of wax flowers, a silver coffin-plate, and a little white coffin, — Hope and Despair in one pathetic group.
Job stood in the doorway, and his thin body scarcely filled his threadbare coat. He leaned against the door-post, absently took off his rusty silk hat, and slowly wiped, first, his thin white face, and then his bald shiny head, with his red handkerchief. The face was worn, bleak, with tufts of white beard scattered among the hollows and under the shrunken jaw, like patches of snow among the hollows of a wind-swept wintry hillside.
Job’s gaze rested upon the old hearse,— his hearse, and the black horses, — his horses, and the black-garbed driver, — his assistant; the whole equipment, so to speak, the work of his hands; it seemed good in his sight; and a feeble sense of joy in its ownership struggled faintly with the habitual melancholy of the undertaker’s heart.
A slight elevation of the hearse-driver’s eyebrows asked of Job, “Is all as it should be?” And the master’s answering nod returned approval. Then Job’s thin frame straightened a little, his right hand paused with red handkerchief in air, and a slight frown gathered on his pale face; for he beheld, across the street, through the gaps in the passing carriages, two other men standing in a doorway. They also were viewing the procession, and critically; over that doorway was the sign, in bright gold letters, “Daver, Funeral Director;” on the half drawn olive shade of the broad window was the same legend, adorned with many scrolls and flutings. Within the window rested a large silver plate, reading, in delicate script, “C. A. Daver & Co., Funeral Directors.” Nothing more; no suggestive signs of the craft, no symbols of mortality. Rather a scrupulous simplicity; almost an admonitory simplicity; as one should say, “Look over there, at those barbaric emblems of woe, and then behold the refined taste, the chaste quality, of this ‘establishment.'”
That is what Daver & Co. maintained, an “Establishment;” old Job Graves was only a plain “Undertaker,” and had “Coffin Warerooms;” Daver and Co. were “Funeral Directors,” and maintained an “Establishment for Funeral Furnishings.”
There stood Daver, himself, in the doorway, with his assistant beside him. A short stout man he was, with round ruddy face, thin grayish hair and beard, his red good-natured face beaming through the hairy haze like the sun’s disk through a dissolving fog.
Daver’s glance always rested lightly, soothingly on all objects; yet few interesting things escaped his notice; his critical eye now passed over the procession, and over Job Graves; and he said, in a low tone, with a skillful suppression of facial muscles acquired by long experience, and amounting almost to ventriloquism, “That hearse, Jim! What an ark!”
Then the assistant, sharply, “It ought to be burned. I wouldn’t be seen in it for all I’m worth.” As he spoke thus enigmatically, he winked in a facetious way at the driver of the hearse, and the greeting was reciprocated; evidently there were underground sympathies existent, between the two, while outer rivalries were maintained.
“Strange,” continued Daver, reflectively, “how little self-respect and pride people have about such things. It’s hard to elevate the popular taste. Ten years we’ve tried it, here; not much improvement.” Then he yawned, and returned a politic salute to the one timidly offered by a driver on the third carriage. The man had driven for him scores of times, and often for Job Graves, his rival. Daver’s disapproval was limited to the hearse; not an intense antagonism, but a pained disapproval. Daver never antagonized anybody, took the world’s blows on a slanting buckler; but he was very clear as to which prizes he sought.
His answering salute to the driver could hardly have been sworn to, as such, in a court of law; a slight corrugation of the forehead, passing down into a brief closing of the eyes, and ending in an almost imperceptible sinking of the chin, and it was done, and no outsider the wiser. Then Daver yawned again, and retired, with his assistant, into the office; and Job Graves, with the slightest possible sigh of relief, put on his rusty hat, adjusted the striped cotton neckerchief around his old-fashioned high stock, climbed stiffly into his old chaise at the curbstone, and took up his position at the rear of the procession.
That was Job’s custom, to ride alone, at the end of the line. He had maintained this custom through the funerals of forty years; having inherited it with other customs from his father, undertaker before him. Whereas Daver, with his other “progressive” ideas, had introduced the custom of leading the line; which he did, very grandly, in a luxurious coupe, with gold lettering. This innovation was accomplished gradually, discreetly. The first year the new “Funeral Director” moved up behind the clergyman’s carriage; the next year he pushed up past the clergyman, and followed the hearse; the third year he pushed past the hearse, and led the line, in a very impressive way. This position he had ever since maintained, despite the concerted attempt, in the fourth year, of seven clergymen — one a Doctor of Divinity — to retire him.
It was the ages-long struggle between the New and the Old, this rivalry across the street. Elsewhere it is “hand-work versus steam,” or “Puritan against Cavalier,” or “stratified rock at war with the leaf of a book;” here it was “caskets against coffins,” with all that these implied. Always, however, the iron rule is — with occasional exceptions — New conquers, modified by Old. So it was here; and Job saw the evil day afar off — as many a conservative sees it — but held, with might, and largely with conscience, to the old methods, to the accustomed ways.
Job knew nothing of “caskets;” he made “coffins;” made them in that back-shop; his father had made them there, and was buried in one of his own fashioning. So would Job be buried. “Am I better than my fathers?” Many a time, as a child, Job had taken his afternoon nap in a coffin in the back-shop, and nobody harmed, no human life the shorter for it. Years afterward, when his wife died, Job knew that life’s noon had passed. After that day the cemetery seemed different to him; seemed more personally related to him; even attractive. He understood now why people lingered there, after a burial, and resorted there at other times. He bought an iron settee and placed it on his lot, close by his wife’s grave; he might feel like using it.
Then the two boys went; one to lie beside his mother; a boy of ten; diphtheria; Job had a “case” of it, and might have slighted his dread duties; but Job never shirked his “work;” and the boy at home died. The other, a wild lad of eighteen, wandered into the “far country,” to be swallowed up in distance and degradation, and perhaps despair. Then Job selected cedar, and made his own coffin; twilight was about him; darkness would follow; then the coffin would be needed; coffins and darkness come together; best to have all things ready; Job was a “fore-handed” man, the people said.
The two undertakers differed widely, in many ways. They met death weekly, daily; but they met it differently. In Daver’s bluff abounding presence, death seemed minimized–he reduced it to an incident; but mourners found it loom crushingly, after his departure. Whereas Job knew it as a visitation, and his presence counselled patience, submission.
Therefore people who desired “cheerful funerals” — those chimeras — sought Daver’s tactful offices; but sensitive people and those whose fathers and mothers had been buried by Job’s father, turned to Job’s father’s son, in their hour of need, and their hearts’ wounds were touched most gently.
As Job and Daver differed in their attitudes toward the dead, so also they differed in their relations with the living. When coarse careless people made stupid jests about death and the duties of his vocation, Job listened in silence and passed on in pity. Stupidity is piteous. But Daver always laughed louder than the jester, — and hated him in his heart, and grimly wondered when he might be privileged to look at him through a casket-lid.
Daver & Co., Funeral Directors, knew nothing of coffins. They had, however, “A choice line of caskets.” “This way, please,” with bows and smiles, and eager hands rubbed over each other; and you followed master or assistant into the mysterious rear-room, and you chose from “A fine stock, sir! A high grade, madame!” Occasionally, after careful scrutiny of the buyer, and skillful measuring of the degree of his grief, it was — “Extra quality, sir! Anybody using one of these never will use any other as long as he lives.” But that facetious sentence was venturesome; it was forbidden to the assistant, and was rarely indulged in by Daver himself. The main object was that some selection should be made, from the “caskets in plain black, brown, magenta or white;” or from “caskets in plush, black, brown, magenta or white.”
Daver & Co. sold many, of both kinds. Job likewise sold many, of the one simple unvarying pattern which he had learned to make, taught by his father. Before Daver & Co. appeared, Job, by working hard, met the entire demand; after the “Funeral Director’s” coming, trade fell off. Then Job Graves waited patiently; “This is not a business that you can push,” he said. But in a year or two custom increased, up to the old amount, and Job was fairly busy; his products were soon taken; “Supply creates demand;” (an economic law, we are told; — of almost suicidal application, here).
The two undertakers differed widely, in their conduct of funeral services. Job did as his father had done; not because that way was best, but because it was his father’s way. This rule of conduct became more absolute with him each year. Now that wife and sons were gone, he had no future; he had “the imagination of regret, having lost the imagination of hope.” The star of success, before him beckoned no longer; the star of experience, from behind, illumined his sad path. Job had given up the idealism of purpose for his sons; he lived by the idealism of example, from his father. Often he brooded anxiously about that absent lad, but his anxiety was not suspected by others; an undertaker is not supposed to have griefs of his own.
In the house of mourning Job came and went silently, unnoticed. At the funeral service he effaced himself, coming forward, at the close, with resolute step and squeaky boots, from some retreat, to state, in a plain sturdy sentence, “There will now be a chance for every one to look at the body.” After this old-fashioned invitation had been accepted, and the general farewell had been taken, the company separated, like a chemical solution, into liquids and solids; liquids, — casual friends, — flowing off homeward; solids, — mourning friends, — remaining. Then Job, reading laboriously through heavy gold-bowed spectacles, like a clerk casting up accounts, called, in a firm tone, the mourners, in fours, from the residuary group, in the order of their grief.
Here there were nice shades of distinction, as in arranging guests at a court-dinner; but Job was not only an undertaker of experience, he was an old resident; he knew all the circles within circles; knew not only how deep each person’s sorrow should be, but about how deep it really was. And he always spoke with such quiet confidence, that even if he sometimes gave a “second cousin on the maternal side” precedence over a “nephew on the paternal side,” he was so convincing, that a listener might sometimes forget his own identity, or even become a trifle confused regarding his own sex.
Daver & Co. discarded many of these “old-fashioned ideas.” They did away with the sombre bunch of crape on the door-bell; and placed there, instead, “floral emblems.” By these, skilfully graduated, were expressed more distinctions than the “seven ages” of Shakespeare. A cluster of white buds, or one of full-blown flowers, — white or yellow, or white and red mixed, — these, tied with ribbons, — white, violet or black, — could become a language of flowers so plain that he who ran might read; (though, of course, he would not run, in passing a house adorned with such a symbol). In addition to the flowers, a few brown autumn leaves were considered significant; or a wisp of brown grass was added; this last symbolized the “bearded grain” of the poet.
During the funeral service itself Daver & Co. were very much in evidence, either master or assistant; on important occasions, — great crises of the profession, so to speak, — both were present; very much so; active, cheerful, inspiring all with confidence. And whereas Job Graves humbly wore around his stock a kerchief with a little “color,” in deference to the “parson,” Daver & Co. boldly wore immaculate white ties; and, with their faultless black clothes, might be easily mistaken for clergymen; thus the service often took on the high quality of a solemn festival.
But Daver and his assistant were not clergymen; Daver had no foolish deference for “the cloth.” During a funeral service he tried, visibly, even conspicuously, to be patient with the readings and prayers; it was customary to have these; therefore he must acquiesce; and, always smiling, he utilized the time in scanning the faces of the people present, to detect signs of physical weakening, and, possibly, of mortal disease. Such people, — or, better, their near relatives, — he afterward spoke to with especial consideration.
After “the church” had been tolerated for a half-hour, the great moment arrived; the moment which — Daver knew — alone justified this coming together; and the skilful man’s heart beat high with pride as he stood by the casket and offered for inspection the unequalled quality of his “work,” a triumph of funereal art.
Sometimes a family was strangely unappreciative; gave orders to keep the casket closed. Then you should have seen the “Funeral Director.” Then, only, did his unvarying “immortelle” smile vanish. “Do I understand, my dear sir,” (in a measured, circumflex tone), “that the casket is to remain closed?”
“Very good, sir! It shall so be, sir.” And no human ear, however keen, could detect that pity and scorn in his voice, which the Omniscient One knew was in his heart.
Thus Daver & Co., zealous, in season and out of season, grew and prospered. They had now become the “City Undertakers;” and their doings were often chronicled in the papers. “How did they become the City Undertakers?” Who knows? This is an age of wires; both “overhead” and “underground.” However, everybody now knew of their existence, — half the problem of financial success solved — and, in the haste of sudden affliction, recalled the name.
Then, too, there were the little gifts — bookmarks, paper-cutters, paper-weights — which many of the physicians found on their desks; Christmas presents, New Year’s Greetings, with “compliments of Daver & Co.”
“Capital fellow, Daver!” And the doctor “remembered” Daver — “the next time.” “People do lean so on the family doctor.”
So Daver & Co. increased in favor and prospered; and still sturdy old Job Graves said, again and again, as he drove his plane, or plied his sandpaper, or wielded his shears, “A business that you can’t push! You can’t push it, as you can other kinds of business.”
Everybody knows that undertakers are hard-hearted, soulless. Just how everybody knows this is another question. It is a portion of that general fund of knowledge which is born with many people. Therefore Job was rarely asked for charity; beggars paused not at his office; tramps glanced at his sign and passed on. Even the children looked askance at him, when they learned his occupation.
Yes, it is a part of the Public’s innate axiomatic knowledge, that undertakers have no feelings; machines merely; necessary evils. Job felt his alienation deeply; felt it the more, since wife and children had gone away. The old-fashioned, sad-faced, silent man, in his rusty coat and high stock, went in and out among the homes of sorrow; he heard sighs and moans, saw bitter tears trickling, dropping; but always for others, never a breath of sympathy for him. He moved, a white shadow, in darkened rooms, yet a shadow with a heart. Oh, his heart was hungry, often, for pity, for affection. He even envied, sometimes, the silent form in the coffin; it at least had love rained upon it. Voices, which spoke to him in stern command, sobbed there; faces, which turned to him in critical inquiry, grew distorted with anguish as they bent over that other face, scarcely whiter than his own.
Thus Job lived, and hungered, and was “in the world but not of the world.” His impassive worn old face told little of the need of his desolate heart. He accepted his destiny, which was, — “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”
One early morning a drunken, dishevelled tramp found rear entrance to the “Coffin Warerooms,” and lay, in a stupor, under a bench. Job’s assistant discovered him there. Perhaps this degraded human remnant, seeking such hospitality, lacked the knowledge regarding undertakers so fully bestowed on men and women in general. The assistant pushed a bag of plush trimmings under his head. Job entered hastily, preparing to journey to a distant city, to bring back a “body” for burial. He glanced at the heavy besotted face, partly hidden by an unkempt beard, and said, “Let him sleep it off, here! Afterward give him food, and my old coat on that nail, there!” Then he hurried stiffly down the street, to his train.
The tramp did not “sleep it off.” He had “slept off” too many such states before. He was a shattered wreck. There are two exits from stupor. One is back into this visible world, the other is forward into the Unseen. The latter was the shorter exit for the stertorous tramp, and tramps prefer short routes. So he took it.
“Poor devil!” said Job’s assistant, and summoned the doctor and coroner; they tried pulse, opened eyelid, felt heart, voted the beast dead. Chuckled over his wisdom in selecting his lodging-house. Affirmed that he had chosen his own undertaker; “the wishes of the dead should be respected;” then a loud laugh, and they departed. So “Daver, City Undertaker,” lost this case.
Here was the ambitious assistant’s opportunity. An assistant, may not be trusted by a careful master to prepare “regular cases,” but a tramp — It was a rare opportunity; the assistant washed, shaved, clothed, — in short, “laid out” the body.
When Job returned, that evening, the assistant met him at the door, told him the unexpected, and with pride led the way into the back-shop, to a painted pine coffin beside the bench. And Job Graves, undertaker, looked, then stared, then gasped, and then recognized — the dead face of his wayward son. Death had done its purifying work, as assistant or even master could never have done it; the coarse tramp-face had dissolved, vanished; the fine features of innocent, hopeful, eager youth lay there revealed. And as patient, wounded old Job felt this awful blow upon his tired heart, he looked about him appealingly; looked for some one to lean upon. There was nobody but the assistant and his hastily-offered arm. Not what the anguished man sought, but he accepted it; then sank, drooping, upon a box; and cold drops beaded his brow.
There he sat in silence, and the tall old-fashioned clock in the corner counted out the seconds, as a physician counts out the drops from a vial, at a bedside. Job heard them, and they seemed like years; — his own weary years coming back to him out of the past. He realized now that he had been desperately holding a hope and a purpose in his heart; realized now, by its absence, that it had been there, unnamed, unrecognized. He put his hand unconsciously to his side; something seemed to be going; the assistant saw that his lips were parted wide, and that he breathed in gasps; but Job uttered no word, told nothing of the desolation that had come to him. Who was there to tell? Who cared about an undertaker’s grief? That face! O, that poor white face of his boy!
There was a sermon, to which the old undertaker had listened, years before, which had many a time recurred to his thought; it was a sermon on the prodigal son’s return; and in whatever way he had looked at the hard facts and faced the dark probabilities, that picture of a home-coming and forgiveness had pushed its way to the front. Often he had read the beautiful parable, going away alone and unperceived to do it; and at those words “fell on his neck and kissed him,” he always stopped, and repeated them slowly and softly, and a look of hungry longing came over his face, and the good book was slowly closed and laid away. There would be no more reading of that old story. Yesterday it held a gleam of light in its depths; to-day the words were like loose formless ashes; gray like his own face; and he seemed to shrink and wither, as he sat tottering, one hand pressing his side, the other weakly supporting himself.
The next day Job did not appear at the office; he was ill, in bed.
An undertaker, ill, is a strange sight; seriously, dangerously ill; he the only man who actually wars with death and gains even a partial victory. He surrenders, indeed, as all men do, but he seems to dictate terms of capitulation. Strange it is, then, to think upon the man who traffics confidently, controllingly, in caskets and coffins, when he views them from so weak a strategic position as a sick-bed. But the old formula of dialectics reads, “Man is mortal,” — major premise; and out of our dark sad experience we append the minor premise, “Undertakers are men.” Then the conclusion is instant, inevitable.
A week later a physician stood by Job’s bedside and told him that he had no ailment, and would be “out” in a few days. For answer Job looked calmly at him and said, “On your way to your office, call at my attorney’s! Send him here! I wish to make my will!”
“But, my good man, there is really not the slightest —”
Job raised his white thin hand deprecatingly, closed his eyes, hesitated, then said, with an effort, “Please also send Daver to me! You know Daver? Does good work; has some new-fangled notions, but does good work.”
Then Job turned his face to the wall. He knew his own condition. He was dying. We all begin to die at our birth; that is normal dying. Nature does it skillfully, inexorably, gently. Job Graves had been dying with abnormal rapidity for twenty years; dying of hunger, and solitary imprisonment for life; hunger for affection; solitary imprisonment within the gloomy walls of his strange vocation. Was this also Nature’s doing? If not, whose?
Daver, mystified but smiling, prompt but constrained, came the next day. Job’s lips moved a salutation, but no sound came. Daver waited. He was ill at ease. He was in an unaccustomed position. He often was called to dark rooms and sheeted beds, but with the conditions different. This summons was premature; Daver was restless; cleared his throat loudly, fingered his hat. “To be called here! To this house, of all houses! To this man, of all men!” Daver’s ruling principle was to please; always to gloss the painful stubborn fact; but ruling principles may be suspended; hearts, like states, may experience rebellion; souls, like nations, may suffer revolution; the governing power may be unseated.
So it was with Daver. In his accustomed groove, a “Funeral Director;” outside that groove, a man; and strange rills opened in his heart, unwonted vibrations tingled along his nerves. His round red face grew anxious, sad. A man’s pity, tenderness, looked out through a “Funeral Director’s ” eyes, as they rested on that sick wan face.
The old undertaker’s eyes opened slowly; his gaze wandered restlessly about the bare room, then paused upon a crude crayon portrait of an old man, near the foot of the bed. The face resembled his own. Job’s gaze clung to it tenderly, trustfully. Then his gaze wandered, rested on the man beside his bed; he started as if with surprise, but recollected. “Daver, I have sent for you, — you know why.” He spoke feebly; the other nodded, looking constrainedly into his filmy eyes.
“I wish I could take — this — old body— with me, or see to its burying, myself; but I can’t. We all have to ask help at last, Daver.”
The plain direct appeal of the old man moved Daver strangely. He wondered at himself, as he sat there.
“We must depend on — on somebody else, Daver, when — when we are finally the ‘case,’ ourselves; and assistants are not to be trusted,— not to be trusted.” He raised his eyes, with inquiry, toward the crayon portrait; then added, “Father never slighted his work.” And a faint smile of content flickered over the dying man’s face, saying what the humble man’s lips would not utter, that he too had never slighted his work.
“Daver, neighbor,” he murmured, putting out his thin hand, seeking, in his last hours, after what he had vainly sought, for many lonely years, — a grasp of understanding and sympathy — “Daver, you — do — good— work; but you — know — what — I would wish done. My way, this time, Daver? That —is —all.”
And the “Funeral Director’s” strong red hand closed over the “Undertaker’s” wasted white one, and the grasp was a pledge. A long silence. Then Daver departed, and Job rested peacefully.
Exactly when his last breath came, nobody in the house could say; but it was about dawn, the next morning; the weary spirit slipped away. Job Graves left earth, — an undertaker; he entered heaven, — a man.
A few days later, a funeral procession passed along the street, between the two offices. It was “A funeral of Daver’s,” but it was “Job Graves’s funeral.” Throughout all the arrangements, the Old and the New in funereal art were strangely blended; and a discerning Public felt injured, as it felt baffled in its attempt at explanation. The door-knob of the “Coffin Warerooms” was hung with a knot of black crape, yet the hearse was from the ” establishment of Daver & Co., City Undertakers,” whose assistant acted as driver; the assistant from the “Coffin Warerooms” rode in the mourners’ carriage; and, — strange to tell, — inexplicable to the wise, all-knowing Public, quite contrary to his custom, Daver, in his luxurious coupe, followed the few carriages, came last in the line.
The Parsonage Porch: Seven Stories from a Clergyman’s Note-book, Bradley Gilman, 1900: pp. 221-248
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A fine epitaph for all who serve: “He Never Slighted His Work.”
Mrs Daffodil would like to take this opportunity (as she has been prodded with a hearse plume by that subfusc person over at Haunted Ohio) to announce that a new Victorian Book of the Dead blog has made its debut. The blog will provide unique, primary source material on Victorian death and mourning as well as collecting all posts on mourning, which have previously appeared on this blog and on the Haunted Ohio site blog.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.