Why I love undertakers

If you have seen your fair share of dead people, you’ll know what a relief it is to have the corpse removed

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

I adore undertakers. Unlike dentists or buses or boyfriends, they’re always there when you need them: even if you call in the middle of the night you will be answered by a human, not an answer-phone message. Funeral directors (as they prefer to be called) are surely the only businesses in Britain never to greet a customer with the words: ‘Sorry love, we’re just closing.’ They are unfailingly courteous and full of good sense. They listen reverently while you recite your woes; like a therapist, but without the side effect of making you hate your family. In an age when even consultant surgeons dress in trainers, there is a pleasing dignity in the formality of their dress. I think of them as the equivalent of midwives, essential couriers on the journey from one world into the next.

First and foremost, they take a corpse off your hands. If, like me, you have seen your fair share of dead people, you will know how welcome is the arrival of the undertaker. It doesn’t take long for dear old Aunt Peg to morph into a convincing prop from the Hammer House of Horror. You really don’t want dead people in your living room. Or not unless you’re a serial killer admiring your handiwork, as Dennis Nilsen was wont to do.

Human bodies are not so very different from a lamb chop. (Actually, they go off much more quickly, because of being full of blood and digestive matter and offal.) But a dead human is about a thousand times the size of a cutlet. They don’t fit in a domestic fridge. If you own a chest freezer, the likelihood is that it’s already full of old lasagnes and frozen peas. In the old days, when people had walk-in larders with slate shelves, it might have been OK to move last year’s medlar jelly aside in order to make room for your dead grandmother. Thomas Hardy’s heart was thus stored, pending its burial in the grave of his first wife. At least it would have been of manageable size, but consider what had to be done to get it into that pantry. Undertakers spare you the horror of all this.

In so doing, funeral directors give to the living something of inestimable value. The removal of the dead allows us to love and thereby mourn them. Planning the funeral permits us the comforting sense that we are doing one last thing for the deceased, and an undertaker will help you every step of the way. They do all the tricky stuff like dressing the body and obtaining the death certificate and burial or cremation papers, so you can concentrate on the nice things, like flowers and hymns. Bible reading or poems? Champagne or tea? Musicians, photographs? On all these points your funeral director will advise. It’s like party planning. Actually, it’s more like putting on a rave, because you have no idea how many people are going to turn up, how long they’re going to stay and how drunk they might get.

Come the day, the undertakers do countless helpful things: take the names of all the congregation, hand out orders of service, make a note of who has sent flowers. Last but not least, they know how to carry a coffin — and lower it into the ground — without grunting or toppling. This is very much more difficult than it looks. There’s a reason they call it dead weight.

The clichéd idea that a funeral director will try to nudge you towards the more costly caskets is plain wrong. They’re not in it for the money. When some friends’ little girl died, the family went all out and had a glass coach and plumed horses to transport her body to the church. It was a fantastic send-off, as the darling child deserved. In due course they rang the funeral directors to settle their bill. It had been an honour to help the family through such a sad and difficult time, said the undertaker: there would be no charge. The American writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch says that his firm routinely charges only the wholesale price of the casket when a child has died, providing its own services for free.

Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One and Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death thought it was funny and smart to jeer at undertakers. Their puny satires now seem snobbish and brittle. A self-avowed communist, Mitford was especially indignant that undertakers should profit from their labour, a bizarre notion which still lingers. No one thinks nurses or bin-men should work for nothing: why should funeral directors? Anne Enright, in her Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering, describes a far more authentic response. Accompanied by a young funeral director, Enright’s narrator visits the body of her brother, who has drowned himself in the sea: ‘He touched my arm while I stood by the body and he led me away. He is the person who comes after you have seen the worst thing… Azrael… I love the undertaker.’ That’s right.

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Show comments
  • cromwell

    Well They are the last to let you down

  • MildredCLewis



  • John Lea

    “They do all the tricky stuff like dressing the body and obtaining the death certificate and burial or cremation papers, so you can concentrate on the nice things, like flowers and hymns.”

    No they don’t – or at least the ones in Scotland don’t. I had to get a death certificate from my local council office and give it to the funeral director, not the other way around.

    • Shorne

      You’re quite right I’m sure it’s the same throughout the UK.

  • Yorkieeye

    They were wonderful when my Dad died, completely unphazed by his request for a humanist funeral (suggesting a super celebrant to us) assistanting my boys to carry the coffin and comforting my mother. All for a very reasonable price.

    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves


      • Yorkieeye

        Is that difficult to understand?

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves


  • Dominic Stockford

    As a minister, who takes funerals (one this morning) I can say that undertakers really do care. And although there may be one or two of the bits of paper that the family have to get themselves (by law) they will guide people through things with great patience. They even get to know local clergy, and how helpful (or not) and how suitable (or not) they might be.

    The growing number of CofE clergy who are basically refusing to do funerals (though they find another way to put it) is simply one of the many challenges they face, with commendable fortitude and perseverance. And they’re not even paid very much.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Do you see that sticker on the back of lorries any more?
    All right, try this:

    Country house for sale
    -Remote location surrounded by vast tracts of neglected forests
    -No neighbours
    -No postal delivery, collect from Post Office
    -Difficult approach, only accessible by 4×4
    -Cellars, plenty of crawl space
    Suit serial killer.
    The phone hasn’t exactly rung off the hook. That said, there have been a couple of serious enquiries.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • You sound more like a Japanese bloke (which you are) struggling to come to grasp with the standard norms of English (which you also are) than being actually funny!

  • Anthony Knowles

    Great post. I have to say I totally agree. I am the owner of The Online Funeral Group. We have a variety of different online websites including http://www.onlinefuneral.co.uk and onlinefuneralgroup.co.uk. We have begun to supply local funeral directors with the business we gain through our online platforms. They are absolutely outstanding professionals and I couldn’t fault any of whom we work with. Id be interested to speak to more local funeral directors in different areas across the country as we are acquiring more business day on day and we would like to pass it to the appropriate independent funeral directors in that area.

    Best regards

  • Meryl West

    about the corpses: wow, do you really mean this???? as an undertaker in the netherlands, we believe it is very important to stay at home after dying. i always let the families wash en dress their dead relatives. it is so good and helps the whole mourning to do this yourself, with me of course. also; the whole process of staying at home all days until the funeral is an important part of the whole period… i am shocked that you talk like this about something very precious. “First and foremost, they take a corpse off your hands. It doesn’t take long for dear old Aunt Peg to morph into a convincing prop from the Hammer House of Horror. You really don’t want dead people in your living room.”

  • Lola Rushartland

    Wow – ” The removal of the dead allows us to love and thereby mourn them. “…. That is so very much the opposite of what I would want. The thought that a loved one would be taken away from me, not with me until the day of the funeral would (and DID, when my husband past away) fill me with horror – I wont allow it !

  • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

    Well it is definitely not a dieing business. Regular stream of customers.