1886 Undertaker Talks Money, Professional Mourners, & Scruples

 This is one of those times when I find myself torn between whether or not something should find a home here or over at Misc. Tidings of Yore, where I post and/or transcribe information from historic newspapers. I decided to put this article from The Wichita Eagle, out of Wichita, Kansas, December 7, 1886 on The Dead Bell because of its relevance to funeral history. The article was most likely originally printed in The Brooklyn Eagle & picked up by The Wichita Eagle

People Who are Fascinated by Funerals. 
The Fondness for “Mortuary Respectability” and Display-Growing  Moderation-Atrocious Practice.

     “The undertaking business isn’t so profitable as many imagine,” said a local undertaker to a reporter. “People in moderate circumstances can’t pay over $200 for a funeral, which sum usually includes a dozen carriages. Many funerals cost much less. For $200 the undertaker must put the body on ice, attend to the digging of the grave, furnish camp stools, the coffin and a dozen other things, all of which cost money. Carriages are worth from $1 to $7 apiece, according to the distance.”
    “Don’t undertakers receive commissions from livery men?”
    “Yes, but the commission is less than most people suppose. On a basis of a $200 funeral, with twelve carriages at $5 a piece, the undertaker would realize less than $50 for his time and troubles. Surely, such compensation is not exorbitant.”
     “Do Brooklyn undertakers ever send circulars to bereaved families, members of which are dead?”
     “Not that I know of. That practice flourishes to a greater or less extent in New York. An undertaker who would intrude on a deceased man’s family for the purpose of plying his calling would, I think, commit murder. The thought of a man sending circulars explaining the nature of his business and giving prices is to a refined mind atrocious. Possibly some Brooklyn undertakers carry on such practices in the districts inhabited by the poor, but if so I’m not in a possession of their names. Taken as a class, the undertakers of Brooklyn are better than those of New York. Certainly, they are less grasping and mercenary. Not so many years ago undertakers were considered in the same light with hangmen. Many people have a horror of the profession, and would go blocks out of their way to avoid passing undertakers’ shops. Of late years such antipathies have ceases, and the hightoned members of the profession now call themselves funeral directors.”
     “Did you ever know of a doctor aiding an undertaker in securing a ‘case’?” was asked.
     “Not exactly. While I know of no instance in which a physician willfully killed a patient so as to furnish an undertaker with a case, I could name many Brooklyn doctors who recommend certain undertakers to bereaved families. Possibly the physicians who I have reference to don’t receive commissions, but the chances are that they are reimbursed for their trouble. Do you know that certain individuals are fascinated by funerals? For three or four years I noticed that an old lady, attired in a somewhat shabby dress, was often present at funerals of which I had charge. At first I thought she might be a relative or friend, but finally I became curious and questioned her. I learned that she had a mania for attending funerals. She keeps a record of the funerals attended, and the list when I last saw her numbered 150.”
     “The old lady tells me that she has attended as many as three funerals in one day. She can cry at a moment’s notice and usually sheds tears when at the funeral of a young girl. The queer individual under notice  comes very near what the professional mourner is supposed to be. The mania for attending funerals is not confined to women. One man, with a round, chubby, good-natured face, is a frequent visitor to many of the funerals of which I have charge. It has a somewhat demoralizing effect on most men to attend a funeral and is liable to make them sad and thoughtful.”
     “What feeling prompts people to attend funerals of persons with whom they were not acquainted in life?”
     Curiosity. Many have a morbid curiosity in regard to the dead and are at all times haunting morgues and hospitals. Such men find comfort and pleasure in attending funerals.”
     “Are the poor so lavish as formerly in their expenditures in burying their dead?”
     “I can hardly think so. In former years it was the custom of poor people, and more especially in Catholics, to bury their dead in the most extravagant manner. I have had charge of funerals in which there were no less than 200 carriages. Widows have often sold the beds out from under them to give their husbands respectable burials. The custom of having costly funerals is dying out, thanks to the efforts of the Catholic clergy, who have for years denounced the practice as an injustice to the living. Many families, so poor as to be hardly able to keep body and soul together, labor night and day to pay undertaker’s bills for services rendered to some deceased relative. Among certain classes of the poor it is considered a disgrace not to give one’s relative a respectable burial. When I say a respectable burial I mean a funeral costing upward of $200.”-Brooklyn Eagle.
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