Most scholars agree that the early modern period in Europe ended with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the emergence of the first "global powers" at the Congress of Vienna. Thus, this long period of transition from the Renaissance to the modern era ended right in the middle of the Regency. Which may well explain why the Regency is such a singular decade, a time when the old, traditional ways finally, often grudgingly, gave way to the modern world. Including the means by which people laid their loved ones to rest.
The funeral trade did exist during the Regency, but not at all like we know it today. The planning and execution of a funeral very much depended upon the social status of the deceased, so much so that that factor alone would usually determine which funeral tradesman would handle the matter.
The funeral trade in Regency England, also known by some as the "death trade," was made up of three separate divisions, coffin-makers, undertakers and funeral furnishers. In urban areas, coffin-makers devoted most of their time to the making of coffins, which they usually sold on to undertakers or funeral furnishers. But in rural areas, the coffin-maker was usually the local carpenter or cabinet-maker, who made coffins only when they were needed. Undertakers were the next step up in the hierarchy, and were typically located only in urban areas. They seldom made coffins, but rather purchased them from a local coffin-maker. But undertakers offered many additional services to their clients in the preparation of a funeral. They "undertook" many of the tasks which in previous centuries been done by the family, such as washing and dressing the body for placement in the coffin, as well as arranging for the necessary attendants to the funeral party, transport of the corpse to the church and the graveyard and the payment of the various fees associated with a funeral. Undertakers usually handled the funerals of the middle classes. But for aristocratic and upper class funerals, much more pomp and circumstance was necessary. For such funerals, only a funeral furnisher would do. Funeral furnishers were at the top of the funeral trade, and could coordinate even the most important funerals for those at the highest levels of society.
Funeral furnishers typically had their premises only in the largest urban areas, but they, like both undertakers and coffin-makers, seldom, if ever, had their business locations on the main roads or even in the better areas of town. They typically chose to locate on smaller, less traveled side streets, whenever possible, near their regular suppliers. These locations had the advantage that they were much less expensive to rent or buy and they had ready access to everything they needed to furnish a funeral. In addition, those in the funeral trade were well aware that most people did not care to be reminded of death while out and about in the town. Plus, for the larger and better known undertakers and funeral furnishers, there was no need to advertise since they typically had regular business. Most families who had established a relationship with funeral tradesman would continue to return to that same tradesman or his successors to handle their family’s funerals for generations. Undertakers and funeral furnishers had no need to maintain elegant shops since none of their clients would ever visit their premises. When someone had a death in their family, the funeral tradesman would come to the client’s home to discuss the preparations for the funeral. This was done partly as a courtesy to the bereaved client. More importantly, it gave the funeral professional an opportunity to assess the social status and wealth of the deceased’s family. That knowledge would be critical to the planning of the funeral.
The higher on the social scale the deceased ranked, the more elaborate their funeral would usually be. The reasons for these extensive and often costly funerals were very complex. The family of the deceased were seldom willing to break with the traditions of the past and in many cases they felt obligated to do all they could to honor their loved one by an elaborate funeral, sometimes out of love, or guilt, and occasionally, both. There were also a number of bereaved families who wanted an ostentatious funeral since such a funeral not only proclaimed the social status and prominence of the deceased, but also that of the surviving family members. The funeral tradesman was more than happy to encourage the bereaved family to choose an opulent funeral, as it would only increase the profits he would be able to derive from the event.
In most cases, when a prominent member of the beau monde died, a funeral furnisher was engaged. If the deceased left a will and had designated executors, it was usual for the principal executor to take on the responsibility of arranging the funeral, to ease the burden on the bereaved family. However, if the deceased died without a will, the responsibility of planning the funeral would fall to a family member, or when possible, a close and trusted family friend, usually male. Once the funeral furnisher had determined the social status of the family, he would be able to provide his client with a schedule of the arrangements for a funeral appropriate for the class and standing of the deceased. When the arrangements had been approved, the funeral furnisher would set the plans in motion, though he did not do the work himself. A funeral furnisher functioned much like a general contractor, coordinating a host of tradesmen and artisans to assemble all the components necessary for a grand funeral.
The funeral furnisher would engage women, typically a pair of them, to wash, dress and lay out the body. Midwives often did this type of work to supplement their income. At this time, only members of the royal family and the highest ranking aristocrats would have been embalmed. While the body was being prepared, a coffin would have been made to fit the deceased. Elm was considered the best wood for the making of coffins, and the finest coffins were made of wide planks of knot-free elm. The coffin would have to be covered with the type and color of fabric specified. The coffins of high-status individuals would usually be covered with silk velvet, typically black, though deep purple was sometimes used. The velvet covering would be attached with at least a double round of nails with decorative heads, typically brass, but they might also be japanned in black. After the cloth covering was secured, the coffin "furniture" would be attached. On the lid, a depositum or breast plate, typically engraved with the name or initials and the date of death of the deceased, would be affixed at about breast height, with the traditional motifs of an angel above the plate and flowers below it. For the upper classes, this coffin furniture was most often made of brass, though silver coffin furniture was sometimes seen. Handsome decorative handles, a pair on each side, would also be attached. The interior of the coffin would be padded and lined with a fine weave crepe, usually white. If the deceased was a woman, a ruffled edging would be added around the upper edge of the coffin. A specially made mattress and pillow would be placed in the coffin for the most wealthy of the departed.
The concept of funeral homes had not yet been introduced in the Regency, so the funeral furnisher would also arrange to have at least one room in the family’s home fully draped with black cloth, usually black baize, certainly for the room in which the body would lie in its coffin while vigil was kept. The funeral furnisher would also provide the candles needed to keep this room illuminated until the day of the funeral. Some families preferred to keep vigil overnight themselves, but if they did not, the funeral furnisher would also arrange for professional watchers to sit with the body each night until the funeral service and burial. This vigil was maintained partly to show respect for the deceased, but more importantly it was meant to ensure that they were not simply unconscious and therefore, might be buried alive. Many families also had the interior of the church draped with black cloth for the funeral service as well. The draping of the church would also be coordinated and arranged by the funeral furnisher.
While all of this was in progress, the funeral furnisher would contact one of his regular "black jobmasters" or "black jobbers," to arrange for the necessary funeral transport. Black jobmasters maintained a selection of vehicles, all painted black, which could be used for carrying the coffin and the principal mourners to the funeral service and the burial. They also maintained a stable of all black horses to draw those vehicles in funeral processions. "Belgian blacks," that is, Friesian horses, were the preferred breed for this work, as they were elegant and graceful in appearance, but strong, sturdy, reliable and of a calm and even temperament. Nearly as expensive as the rental of the vehicles, harness and horses, the black jobmaster’s fee would typically be nearly the same as that paid to the funeral featherman. Yet the featherman provided only one, if very important, component of the funeral, the tall black ostrich plume head-dresses which would be worn by each of the black horses that would draw the vehicles in the funeral procession. Ostrich feathers were very expensive and very delicate. Those used for funerals all had to be dyed a deep and even black and they all had to be fairly equal in size and shape in order to be made into an appropriate head-dress for a black horse. A dozen or more of these ostrich plume head-dresses would have to be supplied for the average upper-class funeral. Each of these fragile and costly head-dresses would then be attached to the headstall on a horse that would then proceed to treat it with no respect whatsoever. The funeral featherman and his workers would be constantly repairing and refurbishing these black ostrich plume head-dresses in order to have them ready for the next funeral.
During the late eighteenth century, another "featherman" had become common in funerals. This was a man, usually dressed in black, though in some cases wearing a skeleton costume, who was hired to lead the funeral procession. This featherman bore a black board in the shape of a coffin lid above his head which was covered with a forest of upright black ostrich plumes. In the seventeenth century, it had been common to affix a number of black ostrich plumes to the top of a coffin as it was carried in the funeral procession. The featherman leading the funeral procession appears to be an outgrowth of this tradition. This practice of the featherman leading the funeral procession continued into the mid-nineteenth century, though the evidence suggests that this featherman was seldom employed for aristocratic and upper-class funeral processions by the Regency. This appears to be due, at least in part, to the fact that, by the end of the eighteenth century, most of the higher class funeral processions were primarily vehicular and not pedestrian. It is very likely that the leading featherman’s ostrich plumes were transferred to the heads of the black horses pulling the funeral vehicles as a replacement for the walking featherman with his "lid of feathers." But this type of featherman did not disappear completely. He was often to be seen leading the funeral processions of many of the middle and lower classes which typically did not include vehicles, well into Victorian times.
But dressing the horses for the funeral was only a small part of the responsibility of the funeral furnisher. The mutes, bearers, pages and other attendants of the funeral party also had to be properly dressed out for the funeral procession. The mutes, usually a pair, would have to be provided with gowns, sashes, staves, hatbands and gloves. It was usual to have six bearers, each of which would wear black cloaks, hatbands and gloves. Six was the usual number of pages as well, though very grand funerals might have even more. Each page had to have a black hatband and gloves as well as carry a truncheon and a wand. Many more pairs of gloves would have to be made ready, as gloves were a common gift to guests at a funeral, as they had been for more than a century. Black cloaks might also be required for the principal male mourners, depending upon the wishes of the family. Black scarves, and/or, though rather old-fashioned, black hoods, were sometimes provided to certain funeral guests. The funeral furnisher would also provide the pall, the large cloth, usually black velvet, which would cover the coffin from the time it left the home of the deceased until it reached the graveside.
There were a number of fees which had to be paid for various aspects of a funeral. Typically the funeral furnisher would pay all of these, then add the charges to the bill he would ultimately present his client. It was customary to ring the bells of the local church immediately it was known that someone in the parish had died. There was a charge for the ringing of the knell and there would be an additional charge for the ringing of the bells before and after the funeral service. During the Reformation, the Puritan-controlled government had tried to stamp out the ringing of bells as both Papist and superstitious. They had some success, until King Charles II was restored to his throne. Many churches then quickly reinstated the custom, due to the fact that they had lost a great deal of revenue when the ringing of death knells and funeral service bell ringing had been suspended. These bell-ringing fees were typically divided between the bell-ringers and the church. [Author’s Note: Even when a man died and was buried at sea, though there was no funeral, his parish church would ring his death knell when the news of his death arrived and the family would be expected to pay the fee.]
But the fee for bell ringing was only one of many other fees which must be paid to the church when someone died. There were significant burial fees which had to be paid to the local parish church. And, even if the deceased was to be buried elsewhere, the burial fee had to be paid to the church in the parish in which they had resided. If the body was to be buried in another parish, the burial fee would also have to be paid to that parish as well, not to mention the cost of transportation to the final burial site. Contemporary documents suggest that a number of executors considered this double charge of burial fees to outrageous, but most paid them to avoid what could often be costly and embarrassing legal suits brought by the church which was not paid. The clergyman who officiated at the funeral would also have to be paid. If he walked in the funeral procession itself, there would be a charge for that. There was also a charge for the funeral sermon itself. The average charge for a funeral sermon during the Regency appears to have been about £1, except for those sermons for which a Biblical text or topic had been specifically requested by the deceased or the bereaved family. In those cases, the fee was typically somewhat higher.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, the elaborate funeral practices of the aristocracy and upper-classes were moving beyond London, not only into the other substantial cities of the realm, but even into smaller townships. Many of these outlying communities did not have a full-time undertaker or even a coffin-maker. Certainly none had a funeral furnisher. But even before the Regency began, that had ceased to be a problem. In most towns, a local carpenter or cabinet-maker, or more often, an upholderer, could supplement their income by organizing funerals. Many of these tradesmen had made contacts with either funeral furnishers or undertakers in London or other large cities, who would provide them with everything they needed to arrange even a very ostentatious funeral, for a fee, to which the local tradesman would then add a percentage for his own services. Though the village carpenter often undertook funerals in the last decades of the eighteenth century, by the early years of the nineteenth century, the local upholderer (upholsterer) was more likely to undertake the management of a funeral. This seems to be due to the fact that the bulk of funeral furnishings were textiles, with which an upholderer was more familiar. The upholderer would then simply commission the coffin from the local carpenter or cabinet-maker. Nearly everything else which was needed would be sent to him by his contact in the funeral trade in London or the nearest large city.
And what of the funerals of those of the middle classes? Seldom, if ever, would a middle class family engage a funeral furnisher. In nearly all cases, they, or the deceased’s executor, would retain the services of an undertaker. Though lower in the hierarchy of the funeral trade, an undertaker could typically provide everything necessary for a "respectable" funeral. And just as with the upper classes, it was imperative to provide the deceased with the most elaborate funeral possible. The family’s reputation depended upon it. But a successful undertaker knew how to deliver the most showy funeral possible, without quite depleting his client’s resources.
Coffins for the deceased of the middle classes might still be made of elm, but with narrower planks and perhaps a knot-hole or two. They were less likely to be covered with velvet. Black superfine was the preferred coffin-covering fabric among the middle classes, though black baize was also used. The interior of the coffin was seldom padded, and there was no mattress or pillow provided. In most cases, the bottom of the coffin would be filled with a layer of bran, sawdust, or a mix of both. This was done to cushion the body so that it did not thump about when the coffin was being moved. The bran and/or sawdust also served to absorb any fluids which might be discharged from the decomposing corpse. Broken sprigs of rosemary might often be mixed in to the bran/sawdust which was placed in a coffin, to mask the odor of decomposition. The middle-class coffin would be lined with single layer of an inexpensive cloth, usually white. The coffin would be furnished with a depositum or breast plate of tin. The angel above and the flowers below this plate were usually still used, and were also usually made of tin, though some were silver-gilt. The coffin handles would typically be made of tin or some other base metal, but they were still decorative and might also be silver-gilt.
Even in middle-class homes, at least one room of the house, that in which the coffin was placed, would be draped with black cloth. In most cases, the family would keep vigil, rather than hiring professional watchers, and might choose to provide their own candles, rather than acquiring them from the undertaker. Few middle-class families could afford the cost of draping the entire interior of their local church with black, but some black draping, usually over windows, might be used. Even if a family could not afford carriages to carry the mourners, a hearse drawn by black horses decked with black ostrich plumes would be hired to carry the coffin. By the Regency, this was crucial to keeping up the minimum of appearances. The family and other mourners would then walk behind the hearse in the funeral procession. There would also be fewer professional attendants in a middle-class funeral, perhaps only one mute, the six bearers but no pages. Many families might not be able to pay the officiating clergyman to walk in the funeral procession, so the funeral procession would meet him at the churchyard gate instead. The burial fees and the fee for the funeral sermon would still have to be paid, as would the bell-ringing fees.
The lower classes considered it just a much of a disgrace to go to their graves without the appropriate rites and furnishings as did the upper and middle classes. For that reason, many tradesmen’s societies and guilds had established "burial clubs" for what amounted to a funeral on layaway. Each member paid a shilling or two as an entrance fee, then a few pennies each week towards their own funeral. In this way, they could be assured of a respectable funeral, which would be similar to that of the middle classes, if even less opulent since less expensive furnishings would generally be used. They could also be assured of a decent number of mourners, since most members of these clubs would attend the funeral of a deceased member. In most cases, there was a provision that any funds not used for the funeral would go to the deceased’s surviving family, unless they had specified otherwise. Though there is no concrete evidence that tradeswomen had similar burial clubs, there is also nothing to suggest that they did not.
Poor families did their best to provide their deceased loved ones with a decent funeral, without the services of any member of the funeral trade, not even a coffin-maker. Most parish churches kept a communal coffin, of plain wood, with no fabric lining or covering, which was used for the burial of the poor. Actually, it was only used for the transport of the corpse to the graveside, the body would not be buried in it. Someone in the family, usually the oldest female, would wash and dress the body and it would be laid out on the best bed in the house while vigil was kept. Many could not afford even a few yards of black cloth with which to drape this room. On the day of the funeral, those who were to be the coffin bearers would come to the house with the coffin from the church. The deceased would be wrapped in a winding sheet and laid in the coffin. The bearers would carry the coffin, usually on their shoulders, to the church, with the family and other mourners walking behind. If the family could not afford the fee, there would be no funeral sermon, but they would be expected to pay the burial fee and the fee for the use of the coffin. However, in some parishes, a compassionate clergyman might say a few words at the graveside, waiving the fee to the bereaved family. The body would then be removed from the coffin and lowered into the grave in only the winding sheet.
The destitute had no hope of a decent funeral. They would usually be buried at the expense of the local government, with little or no ceremony at all. Many would not even be washed and dressed, or even placed in a winding sheet, but rather were dumped in a grave as they died and covered with dirt without even a prayer said over them. It was not common to erect headstones for any but the most important people until the middle of the eighteenth century, and it was well into the nineteenth century before it was common to put a marker on the grave of everyone who was buried in a churchyard. Prior to that time, most people were simply covered over with dirt, the outline of the grave marked with a ridge of soil. When a destitute person died, if they had any surviving family to lay them to rest, those family members would do their best to give the deceased some form of funeral, without benefit of either a funeral tradesman or the clergy. The family would prepare the body the best they could, and would then slip into the churchyard in the dark of night to bury the body in an area where the earth had recently been disturbed, so that a new grave would not be noticed. They would say whatever prayers they knew to speed the spirit of the deceased on its way before they covered the body and did their best to make the area look as much as it had before they had disturbed it.
As you may have surmised, there were a great many opportunities for fraud and deceit on the part of many those in the death trade, and quite a number of these death traders took full advantage of all of those opportunities. Next week, the sometimes egregious tricks and techniques employed by the funeral trade to increase their profits.