The Regency Way of Death:   The Tricks of the Funeral Trade

Last week, I wrote about the various aspects of the funeral trade in Regency England. That trade was completely unregulated, as it had been for more than a century, and corruption was rampant among many of those who were involved in the so-called death trade. There were, certainly, a few reputable and honest funeral tradesmen, but the opportunities for fraud and profiteering were so widespread that only the most upright and honorable could resist them.

Some of the many tricks practiced on vulnerable victims by the traders in death …

Perhaps what makes the many deceptions practiced by funeral tradesmen particularly heinous was that they were perpetrated on people who were emotionally vulnerable due to the death of a loved one. These funeral tradesmen also knew that these people were under great societal pressure to provide the most elaborate funeral possible for their deceased family member, in order to ensure the departed went to their grave in accordance with their standing in the community. Many funeral furnishers and undertakers used that pressure to manipulate their clients into spending much more than they should in order to give the departed a "respectable" funeral, oftentimes making them feel that they would be violating a sacred trust if they disapproved of any of the elaborate arrangements the funeral tradesmen "suggested" to them. There were many cases in which a dishonest and greedy undertaker or funeral furnisher brought a family to bankruptcy with the excessive charges they essentially forced on them for the funeral of a loved one. Though it would become even worse during the Victorian era, these deceitful practices were well under way during the Regency.

A bereaved family had some protection if the deceased had left a will and appointed executors for their estate. In most cases, the principal executor would handle the funeral arrangements, and even if they were a member of the family or very close friend, and therefore also suffering the loss of the departed, they were generally mature, experienced men whom a funeral tradesmen would be less able to gull into approving truly outrageous funeral "necessities." Those most at risk were families who had lost someone who had not left a will or appointed an executor. Women in such families were particularly vulnerable if they had to arrange the funeral, as many of these funeral tradesmen had a very ingratiating and apparently compassionate manner, while pressing the bereaved lady to do "what was expected" for the departed. Of course, "what was expected" was determined by the funeral tradesman himself. And the woman, wishing to do her best for the final rites of a loved one, would often agree to whatever might be proposed. However, there was one group on whom the funeral tradesman barely had to exert his wiles at all. These were the families who were laying a family member to rest and intended the funeral of the departed to help to increase their social standing in the community. Most of these bereaved families would be quite eager to approve any arrangements the funeral tradesman might suggest, no matter how outrageous and expensive, so long as they believed it would reflect well on the family’s social status.

However, it must be made clear that not all of these funeral tradesmen were dishonest and rapaciously greedy. There were some, who, due to their own good characters and/or to ensure repeat business, did their best to provide a high quality funeral at a reasonable price. The majority of these funeral tradesmen tended to be well-established and at the very top of their profession, typically funeral furnishers, though there were also some honest undertakers. These funeral professionals had spent years establishing a solid rapport with various large and prominent families in their area and they counted on repeat business from those families. Those trusted relationships would do more to sustain their business over the long haul than making a fast buck by cheating some unsuspecting widow out of her life savings. But those further down the scale in the funeral trade were less likely to take the long view, particularly if they did not often do business with well-established families. They usually took anything they thought they could get, while planning to do the same to the next vulnerable and unsuspecting client whom they were able to lure into their clutches. From the late eighteenth century, right through the Regency, there were even a few instances when an undertaker sent a message to a condemned prisoner of means awaiting execution for a capital crime, in an attempt to get the right to handle the prisoner’s funeral.

A number of the lower orders of undertakers attempted to corner the business of the various "burial clubs" which had been instituted by the many tradesmen’s societies and guilds. These burial clubs were intended to allow their members to put a few pennies away each week or month in order to ensure they could have a decent burial and leave something behind for their families. A common practice among the more unscrupulous undertakers was to finagle a way to become a member of a particular burial club. Once they had done so, they were usually able to manipulate those who managed the club into giving them exclusive rights to handle all the funerals for all of the members of the club. Sadly, these undertakers managed to spend all of the deceased’s funds in the burial club on the funeral itself, so there was seldom, if ever, any money left over to go to the family of the departed.

The first known tradesman who made his living solely from the death of others is believed to be William Boyce. He was a coffin-maker whose trade card of c. 1680 is part of the collection in the Guildhall Library in the City of London. In the opinion of most scholars of funerary history, Boyce is believed to be the first full-time coffin-maker in London, with premises at the White Hart & Coffin, near Newgate. On his trade card he offered not only custom-made coffins, but also "Shrouds Ready Made And all other Conveniencies Belonging to Funerals." Since no coffins of his making have ever been positively identified, it is impossible to know if he ever tricked any of his customers by selling them a coffin which was not made to specifications. But plenty of coffin-makers did exactly that, well into the nineteenth century.

From at least the late Middle Ages, elm was believed to have a number of powerful, even magical, properties, one of the most important of which was that it was known to survive very well when submerged in water, even for very long periods. For this reason, elm became the preferred wood for the making of coffins, as it was believed it would protect and preserve the body which it contained. However, it was also believed that elm coffins offered the best possible protection when the sides, the top and the bottom were all made of solid planks the full width of each part of the coffin. The use of narrow elm planks laid side by side and/or planks which had knot-holes, resulted in coffins which were considered to be very inferior. The use of wood other than elm was considered to be even worse. But all coffins made, well into the Victorian era, except for those for the poor, were covered with fabric, a fact of which all coffin-makers were well aware, as were undertakers and funeral furnishers. Which meant it was a simple thing to defraud bereaved families by passing off inferior coffins as solid elm. No one who purchased a coffin for a loved one would see it until it was completely finished, including its cloth covering, and was brought to the home of the departed. The bereaved family members would never think to inspect the coffin, a fact on which funeral tradesmen counted. And clearly, many of them took advantage of that fact. Numerous archaeological excavations in many churchyards and crypts in England over the past few years have shown that there was a great deal of fraud in the making of coffins. The coffins that these archaeologists have unearthed have long since lost their fabric coverings, and very few of them were made with the wide elm planks which the people who purchased them assumed they were getting. Perhaps the one consolation is that none of these families knew they were laying their loved on to rest in an inferior coffin.

Some clients also wanted a lead shell or inner coffin, but those had to be bespoke. Since few coffin-makers knew how to handle lead, a plumber was usually contracted for the job. There were two typical varieties of this lead shell, the "box" type and the "smooth wrap" type. The so-called "smooth wrap" lead shell was made by literally wrapping the smaller inner wooden coffin with a sheet of lead, the lower portion of the inner coffin was wrapped with a very large sheet of lead, and the lid was covered with a smaller sheet of the same material. Once the lead was wrapped tightly around the inner coffin, it was secured with tacks hammered through the edges of the lower box and the lid. The lead sheets were smoothed so that they fit tight against the inner coffin and lid, then all the joints and the tack-heads were soldered to ensure the lead inner coffin was water-tight. The so-called "box" lead inner coffin was made by cutting lead sheets to cover each surface of the coffin, all were tacked in place, and the joints and the tack-heads were soldered to ensure the resulting inner coffin was water-tight. Since this inner lead coffin would be placed inside the outer coffin before it was taken to the home of the deceased, the family would have no chance to inspect it. A number of very poorly-made lead inner coffins which were clearly not water-tight from the day they were made have been found in the various archaeological investigations which have been conducted in churches across Britain in recent years.

Fraud and shoddy workmanship were also rampant in the production of burial shrouds. During the Regency, as had been the case for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a shroud was a loose-fitting, full-length garment with long sleeves, which was open down the back. Some corpses were dressed only in a shroud before they were laid in their coffin, but most had been dressed in their own clothing first and then put into the shroud. It was not uncommon for people to specify in their will, or in a letter to a family member or friend, the garments in which they would like to be buried. Some of the better quality shrouds, particularly those made for women, had ruffles across the bodice, while most shrouds made for men tended to be more austere and simple. As with all garments made at this time, shrouds were all made by hand. Most were made by lower-class women who did piece-work for undertakers and funeral furnishers. Since they were paid by the piece, these women did not spend a lot of time making regular seams with fine and even stitches, nor did they even worry about using thread which matched the fabric of the shroud. They just stitched the shrouds together as fast as they could, typically with long, but sloppy stitches. Before the mid-eighteenth century, in most cases, family members made the shroud, as well as washing and dressing the departed, so they took care to ensure good workmanship. But by the Regency, most corpses were washed and dressed by women who had been contracted by the funeral tradesman who was organizing the funeral. Thus, the family of the departed were not likely to see the shroud and would therefore never know it was not a well-made garment. Scholars who study funerary textiles have recorded a great many shoddy and coarsely-made shrouds in graves which have been excavated. Like the many inferior coffins which were made at this time, the only consolation is that the families of the deceased were not aware that their loved one went to their grave in a shabby shroud.

Shoddy coffins and shrouds were actually only the tip of the iceberg of the fraud practiced by many funeral tradesmen. The bulk of their profits came from the acres of black cloth which were required for a funeral. Things like black gloves, hatbands, scarves, and hoods were purchased outright by upper -class clients, as they were usually gifts to funeral guests. But the pall which covered the coffin on its journey to the graveside, the black mourning cloaks provided to the principal mourners, the various black cloths used on the horses and vehicles in the funeral procession as well as the many yards of black cloth which were used to drape the room in the house where the coffin was on view, and the interior of the church during the funeral service, were typically hired, as the client would have no need of them once the funeral was over. The mark-up on both the purchased and hired items was outrageous. One funerary scholar conservatively estimates that most funeral tradesmen realized at least a 100% profit on the items they sold to clients, but that their mark-up was more than 300% on the items they hired out since they were able to hire them to several clients in succession. The funeral tradesmen at the top of the scale would have maintained an inventory of enough palls, cloaks and black cloth to supply four or five funerals at any give time, those lower on the scale perhaps enough for three or four funerals. Naturally, with use, all of these items would begin to show wear and tear after a time. When they were no longer fit for a high-status funeral, the funeral furnisher or undertaker would sell his used black supplies on to lesser funeral tradesman, thus further reducing their replacement costs for new black supplies. Funeral tradesmen lower on the scale would not be able to take the same exorbitant mark-ups, but they still got much more than their investment out of their black supplies. And for lower-class funerals they had additional options for the multiple use of their black supplies since hatbands and scarves were more often rented than purchased by less affluent clients.

There was also often fraud when the client was billed for the many fees which had to be paid to the church and others for the funeral and burial. Surviving records show that many funeral tradesmen added a hefty percentage for themselves when the client was billed for those fees, which had been paid by the funeral furnisher or undertaker on behalf of the bereaved family. And in most cases, this was quite unbeknownst to the bereaved client, who would not consult those to whom the fees were paid, and who tended to trust their funeral furnisher or undertaker. This level of fraud was more common in urban areas than in was in the country, but even in rural villages and hamlets, some of those involved in the funeral trade did take advantage of unsuspecting and bereaved clients.

And despite all of this, perhaps the greatest evil perpetrated by these funeral tradesman was the destruction of the ancient communal support system for the bereaved family. Since at least the Middle Ages, the greatest cost of a funeral was the lavish feast of food and drink which was provided to the mourners after the burial. Certainly the promise of a good meal drew many to attend the funeral of someone who had died in their community, but this same gathering also provided consolation and support to the bereaved family and helped the whole community to grieve together and come to terms with their loss. But funeral tradesmen did not sell food or drink, so there was nothing in it for them to perpetuate this ancient practice. Gradually, they began to dictate a new mode of funeral practice which eliminated the post-burial meal in favor of the expanded use of the many ostentations trappings which the funeral tradesman could sell or rent to his clients. However, scholars of the history of funeral customs do believe that these funeral tradesmen would not have been able to engineer this change in funeral practice unless society was willing to see the change take place. But it must be noted that well into the nineteenth century, this change only held sway in major urban areas. It remained the practice in most rural areas in England for the bereaved family to provide a meal for the funeral guests after the burial. The main difference was that these meals were no longer served in a local inn or public house, as they had been in previous centuries, by the late eighteenth century and through the Regency, the bereaved family hosted these meals in their own homes.

During the later decades of the eighteenth century, society found yet another way to banish the bereaved from their midst. By then, black had become the primary color of mourning, which had the effect of clearly distinguishing the bereaved from the rest of the community. By the turn of the nineteenth century, proper etiquette decreed that those in mourning were prohibited from venturing out into society for a specified period, thus separating them even further from the support of their community. And this excessive use of black was a boon to funeral tradesmen, reinforcing their ongoing assertions about the need for all those black hangings and garments, which, of course, they wanted the customer to buy or rent.

Though deceit and fraud was rampant in the funeral trade during the Regency, there were a few tradesmen who were honorable and reputable and did not cheat their clients. These tended to be well-established firms who understood that they would be much more likely to get repeat business from families who had confidence in their fair dealing. But there were a number of funeral tradesmen, mostly on the lower end of the scale, who were always scrambling for business, and with little hope of return custom, they fleeced every client they could, for as much as they thought they could get. The worst of these tended to be in large urban areas, since rural funeral tradesmen typically worked amidst a community of people who knew them well, making it more difficult for them to take advantage of their clients, even if they were so inclined.

Dear Regency Authors, if you need a truly reprehensible villain for one of your upcoming stories, might a greedy and dishonest undertaker be a candidate for that position? Do you have a poor woman who does piece-work to support herself and her family? Perhaps she sews shrouds for a local undertaker. Does the bankrupting or near-bankrupting of a family figure in your story? Rather than having the husband or son gamble away the family fortune, might the family be exploited by an unscrupulous undertaker who manipulates them into spending more than they can afford on the funeral of a departed loved one? Then again, if you need to get a character into the home of someone suspected of spying, where a death has recently occurred, it would be an easy thing to bribe a dishonest undertaker to allow anyone to take the place of one of his regular watchers who keep vigil with the body on the nights before the funeral, thus giving this person access to the house while the family sleeps.

For further reading:

Behrendt, Stephen C., Royal Mourning and Regency Culture:   Elegies and Memorials of Princess Charlotte. London:   Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

Cox, Margaret, ed., Grave Concerns:   Death and Burial in England 1700 to 1850. York:   Council for British Archaeology [Research Report 113], 1995.

Gittings, Clare, Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England. London:   Croame Helm, Ltd., 1984.

Gittings, Clare and Jupp, Peter C., eds., Death in England:   An Illustrated History. Manchester:   Manchester University Press, 1999.

Houlbrooke, Ralph A., Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480-1750. New York:   Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jalland, Patricia, Death in the Victorian Family. Oxford  : Oxford University Press, 1996.

Litten, Julian, The English Way of Death:   The Common Funeral Since 1450. London:   Robert Hale Ltd., 1991.

Metcalf, Peter., and Huntington, Richard, Celebrations of Death : The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. New York:   Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Schor, Esther H., Bearing the Dead : The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria. Princeton:   Princeton University Press, c1994.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to The Regency Way of Death:   The Tricks of the Funeral Trade

  1. Fascinating, thank you! the idea of shrouds made by outsiders is a new one on me – I had always assumed that the custom of making your own shroud as part of the Bottom Drawer being a surviving country custom in my grandmother’s day would have been a survival from previous eras, one made 12 nightgowns throughout one’s teens and a 13th to be buried in, along with the underlinen, 3 pairs of sheets and pillowcases and a counterpane to take into married life as all new linen, sewing for this from about the age of 9. Certainly both my gran and my great aunt were buried in the elaborate shrouds they had made for themselves.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for sharing your grandmother’s customs. My grandmother did much the same, but here the States, all those items were put in a “hope chest,” which, at least in my grandmother’s case, was made for her by her father. From about the age of 8, she began making things to put in it. Not only did she make nightgowns and other intimate garments for herself, she also made household linens which she would take to her new home upon her marriage. Since she grew up on a farm, she made dish towels out of empty flour sacks, on which she embroidered small designs in the corners. She also crocheted dish clothes and doilies and she even made some lace-edged handkerchiefs. When she was older, she made several sets of bed linens for which she crocheted lace edgings and she even embroidered a tablecloth, a matching sideboard runner and a full set of napkins. But so far as I know, she did not make a shroud for herself, though I think such things had gone out of fashion in Iowa by the time she was growing up, in the late 1910s.

      Your grandmother’s customs, which you said came from the country, would tally with much of the information I found. There was quite a divergence between town and country customs, so it would make sense that she would be more personally involved in preparing her own burial garments, as country folks were much more resistant to giving over control of the burial of their loved ones to impersonal tradesmen. Good for them! It sounds like both your grandmother and great-grandmother were excellent needle-women.



  2. The use of linen in paper as a reason for the law makes perfect sense, wool and cotton don’t make half such good paper and don’t actually rot down properly to do so, wool hasn’t the strength and cotton just never disintegrates [I make my own paper for fun] so I should have thought of that… I still use my great aunt’s treadle sewing machine that she inherited from her aunt who was a milliner in the 1890’s so the sewing definitely runs in the family! My ancestresses used washed flour sacks to make pillow cases from as their father was a master baker and such sacks were plentiful. So much social history out there!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      In the 1660s, between the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, there had been so many deaths, and thus burials, that there was a severe shortage of linen rags, especially in London. Most people had buried their dear departed in a linen sheet or table-cloth, thereby pulling all that linen fabric from the cycle of wear that would have eventually sent it to ragman and then on to the paper manufacturers. And, you are quite right, wool is good for a lot of things, but it makes lousy paper. So, by passing the law, Parliament kept lots of linen out of graves, while providing stimulus to the wool industry. Most people did go for a wool shroud because it was cheaper, though there were a few folks who chose to be buried in silk.

      BTW – If you are interested in the history of paper, the definitive work is Dard Hunter’s Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. Hunter was a master paper-maker as well as an historian of the craft and his book is still the best there is on the topic.

      I have an old treadle machine, too, and I love it. Since it does not have a bobbin, it makes a chain stitch, with the chain on the bottom side of the fabric. I have used it to do chain stitching on a couple of quilts and a few garments over the years when I did not have the time or inclination to do hand embroidery. It is very relaxing to sew with a treadle machine.

      Treadle on!


  3. Pingback: The Regency Way of Death:   Furnishing the Funeral | The Regency Redingote

  4. Many thanks! my wishlist grows once more… my treadle has a shuttle-shaped bobbin and only does straight stitching though I acquired a box of attachments that might, or might not, fit it – if I can figure out what they do with aid from the internet….. I also have a hand cranked Jones ‘by appointment to Queen Alexandra’ which I use for everyday sewing. I love its bobbin winder, so simple and elegant, wheel to worm with a heart shaped cam. Wonderful engineering and you can take them apart to mend yourself on the rare occasion something goes wrong, unlike modern ones.

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