The Business of Death

The funeral industry arises from a combination of necessity, sentimentality, and vanity. Dr. Kelly Brennan Arehart describes the path of America’s death business, and the early vestiges still with us today.

Learn more: Alas, Poor Who?


Harmony Hunter:  Hey! Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Today our guest is Adjunct William & Mary Professor Kelly Arehart, who’s here to talk with us about the business of death and burial. Death and mourning are such personal experiences to go through. So it’s interesting sometimes to think about the business side of that and how some of the processes and practices get streamlined and are the outcome of practicality and also concerns about faith and religion and remembrance. So Kelly, thank you for being here today and talking to us about this really fascinating topic. 

Kelly Arehart: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Harmony: So we want to start our story in the 18th century in Williamsburg because that’s where everything starts for us on this show. So in the very beginning, I’m saying that with quotation marks, in the beginning of the Revolutionary Period, death practices, funeral practices, I should say, are not really standardized. What are we seeing in the early Colonial Period?

Kelly: When we’re seeing through part of the Colonial Period, especially when we’re getting into the Revolutionary Period, there is some elements that are somewhat standardized in the sense that when the first groups of British settlers come, they’re bringing with them the things that they know. And they’re bringing with them death practices that are familiar to them. So we get into the Revolutionary Period here in the city of Williamsburg, there are a number of things about what they’re doing and the objects they’re using that are going to be very familiar to the people living in England and even living in periods slightly before this one.

Harmony: So burials, or some of things we think of, the standard trappings of a funeral today, an undertaker, a mortician, a service at the graveside. Those things are not standard practice then. When do we so those things begin to evolve, and sort of, in what order?

Kelly: One of the things you begin to see fairly early, is of course the fact that in the 18th century for many, many people, especially if they’re living in the city of Williamsburg, they are purchasing basically a custom built coffin from a cabinetmaker. And we look to the examples here in the city of Williamsburg of Anthony Hay and Benjamin Bucktrout, both of whom at various points actually had contracts with both James and York County to bury the poor who can’t afford to do it themselves. You’re beginning to see people who do a lot of this work.

So we move into the 19th century you’re beginning to see more specialization that cabinetmakers and undertakers begin to sort of separate. That’s not to say, especially in rural areas, that you don’t have people who are cabinetmakers that are also undertakers, but the idea of these two jobs being separate begins to come into play.

The other thing that’s very important to point out is the word undertaker in the 18th century has a very different meaning than it does in the 19th century. In the 18th century, an undertaker is someone who sort of undertakes a job. We might think of them as a contractor today. An example from the city of Williamsburg would be Benjamin Powell, for example. And it isn’t until you get into the 19th century that you begin to see undertaker being used to describe those sort of who provide funerary objects and even prepare bodies after the time of death.

And initially during that transition, they used specific words, additional words to justify the change. So they go from undertakers being contractors, and they start dealing with the dead, they call themselves “furnishing undertakers” and then “funeral undertakers.” And over time, certainly by the middle of the 19th century, it’s understood that an undertaker is someone who deals with death as opposed to a contractor who constructs things.

Harmony: The other term you’ve used is cabinetmaker. That’s another phrase that people might not be familiar with. When we’re talking about a cabinetmaker in the 18th century, what job is that?

Kelly: They may, It’s woodworking. They produce a tremendous number of various objects of furniture, of other wooden things that would be used for the home.  So it makes sense that their job fits, that making a coffin would be part of this. There’s a really great sign in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, the Van Horn Shop sign. He was a cabinetmaker, and very clearly there is a cradle, there is a clothes chest, and there is a coffin. All three are on the sign, so it’s a clear demonstration in the collections that are here at Colonial Williamsburg that immediately makes it clear what it is that this man does.

Harmony: That’s all three stages of life, too, isn’t it?

Kelly: Yeah, which is sort of amazing.

Harmony: It’s a nice summation. So let’s go back to what you said about cabinetmakers taking on the business of burying the poor. Tell me what’s behind this story. Is this a problem for the city? What kind of burials did the poor get?

Kelly: Unfortunately the poor don’t get much of anything. They are provided with the simplest and sort of lowest quality burial receptacles, coffins. There is whatever, sort of the family itself can afford in addition. They of course, if there is family at all, will attend such a burial. But the biggest thing from the undertaker’s perspective is providing these coffins. It’s not necessarily a wildly lucrative contract for a cabinet maker and then undertaker, but the number of them, particularly in small rural areas, take this on as part of their, almost as their duties.

Harmony: So when the tide turns towards more standardization, more professionalization, and more commercialization of burial, what are some of the first signs we see of that business of death, that death industry, sort of rising here in Virginia?

Kelly: Well one of things that you begin to see as sort of they’re making that transition for sort of cabinet makers into undertakers, and a good example of this is, I mentioned Benjamin Bucktrout earlier, Richard Bucktrout, his son. One of things you begin to see that they start charging for is “attendants at funeral.” So the idea that they are there to assist if there’s a problem, that they are there to oversee certain elements.

They also begin to talk about how they charge for conveyance of the body. I don’t believe in the area, at this point that they talk about, second quarter of the 19th century, that in the city of Williamsburg they’re talking hearses, but the idea that slowly but surely, and this is true everywhere, they’re providing more and more services and more and more objects for the funeral itself.

Harmony: Such as?

Kelly:  One of the things is going to be is actually the introduction, I should say introduction of hearses because in New England they have hearses towards the late 18th century. They were actually subscription. The city would purchase them, and people would subscribe to the purchase of it, which you don’t see in other regions. And you begin to see this sort of at the turn of the 19th century.

In Philadelphia, they developed very fine hearses fairly early. By the 1830s, they talk about their good hearse. They about their other hearses. Some of these guys own a fleet of these vehicles, and this is a major introduction. They’d existed in England prior to that. Hearses have a background going back to antiquity, but you begin to see them in America, around that turn of the century, in that first quarter of the 19th century, and to a certain extent, a little before that in New England.

Harmony: And you mentioned objects. What are some of the objects we might think about?

Kelly: One of them is actually the burial receptacle. The coffin begins to slowly change, the shape begins to change. So when we think of a coffin a six-sided coffin is usually what think of, sort of very severe. It’s the one we put up at Halloween, that shape. It begins to soften as we get into sort of the late 18th, early 19th century. The top becomes more rounded, and it begins to sort of obscure the shape of the body so it’s not sort of head, shoulders, down to the feet. It’s sort of this rounded element, sort of from the shoulders, up around the head, which becomes popular in sort of the 1790s.

And sort of through the 19th century that the shape is going to change. In terms of those objects, there are more and more objects as you get through the 19th century. The idea that there’s going to be candelabras, and you’re going to have special carpets that you’re going to put out. For the Catholics, there’s going to be a kneeling bar, and all of these specific objects, which really begin to sort of pop up in greater numbers as you move through the 19th century.

Harmony: So this is telling us a story about the economy as well because these are niceties that people have the money spend on.

Kelly: Yes!

Harmony: So what are we seeing happening with the economy? I’m assuming this means we’re becoming more prosperous. We have more pocket money.

Kelly: Yes, and that is part of it. As you begin to see sort of the American middle class grow in the 19th century, they have, they begin to introduce sort of ideas and morals and expectations of the world in which they live. And they kind of want to make everything in their own image. They begin to develop very elaborate rituals in terms of social calls and behavior and expectations of how people act and interact with each other. One of those expectations that begins to develop is around the funeral, just like around the wedding. And these changes are as you said, in part because they have the money. And the interesting thing is there’s a number of panics through out the 19th century.

One of the things in my own research I looked at is was there a major change in how much people were spending looking at undertaker ledgers. The answer was they’re spending less, but they’re still spending. They’re still spending the money, they’re not getting the top of the line burial receptacle, maybe it’s not lined in satin. It’s lined in flannel instead. And the headstone they order is not quite as fancy, but they’re still making these purchases, because I think as you move through the 19th century, there’s an expectation that the rules of a “decent burial” change. And part of that change is tied to, is actually very much tied to the idea of business growing.

Harmony:  One of the most interesting areas of your expertise is the beginning of embalming. So we are firmly progressed up into the 19th century now. Where did we get this idea, what prompts the necessity for this sort of preservation?

Kelly: There are actually fits and starts of it sort of before the Civil War, because everyone associates embalming with the Civil War, and I’ll get back to that in a minute. There are fits and starts of it prior to that point. A big example of this introduction of embalming, it’s to a medical community, not to a national community is a book that was written in the 1840s.

There is a French doctor by the name Gannal who says he’s come with up with this brilliant way to preserve bodies, which isn’t as great as he thought it was because an American doctor goes over and observes, and comes back and says, “This really doesn’t work!”  So there is an effort prior to the Civil War to do these things. When get into the American Civil War, there are these efforts to preserve bodies, mostly for the purpose of shipping the body back, you know, back home. There are a whole bunch of men who set up these tents sort of at the edge of the battlefield.

Kelly: These tents are at the edge of the battlefield and bodies are brought to them and embalmed. There’s a really famous picture from the Library of Congress of this being done. This becomes the first introduction to the American public that embalming exists, and that it can be effective. Now not everybody who is shipping bodies back is using arterial embalming, the idea of going into the system, into the circulatory system and pumping a fluid through it.

For example, here in the city of Williamsburg, Richard Bucktrout, who I mentioned earlier, after the battle of Williamsburg, is preparing bodies to be shipped. Actually they are Union bodies that he’s shipped from a regiment in New Jersey. He prepares them for shipment, and he uses a very unsophisticated method known as “cracking and packing,” which is the idea of opening both the chest and the abdominal cavity and putting absorbent, usually charcoal inside, just enough to get the body onto a train from here in Williamsburg back to New Jersey. 

Harmony: I had no idea. And when we talk about arterial embalming, without getting too graphic, the body is exsanguinated and then in the circulatory system, the fluids are replaced with what?

Kelly: It depends on the time period that you’re talking about. At the time of the American Civil War, they’re using zinc chloride on occasion, they’re using carbolic acid, and they are using arsenic.

Harmony: One of the most famous examples of embalming is Abraham Lincoln.

Kelly: Yes, Lincoln of course is embalmed shortly after death, and initially people described the body as looking lifelike. Mary Todd Lincoln makes a comment about how lifelike he looks, how sweet the body looks. And they go through this whole thing about how good he looks initially. Many people know he was put on a train. And of course that train went all over the place, and then eventually ends up in Springfield where he ultimately is buried.

By the time he gets to Springfield, he doesn’t look so good anymore. And they have to do a lot of work on him, because his face is described as “leaden and almost brown.” And his eyes and cheeks are sunken. So this is sort of at the beginning of the modern technology of arterial embalming. And it isn’t until sort of the generation after the Civil War that we begin to see some real major changes.  The interesting thing is that the real pioneers in the arterial embalming with which we’re more familiar were not embalmers during the Civil War. Many of them served in the war, and some of them served in medical corps, and they served both North and South, but they were not embalmers during the war itself.

Harmony: So you’ve spent your scholarship looking at the history of American burial practices from the Colonial, to the Civil War, to the present.  When you look at burials today, maybe when you have the occasion to attend a funeral, what do you see, what’s your perspective on today’s, what we think of as modern practices, and the legacy that they follow back to the beginning?

Kelly: There’s a lot of things that stay with us, especially things that are coming out of the mid to late 19th century, in terms of our expectations. One of things that develops in the early 20th century is the idea that funeral homes should be in homes. As funeral homes become more and more common, we get to the 1920s or so, the idea is that they should be in a house. So I’m sure everyone, if you’ve been to a funeral, it’s not uncommon to be in buildings that look like houses. That’s something that is sort of a tradition that comes out of an earlier period. The behavior of the mortician, sort of the expectation that they are kind and they are helpful, but they are not intrusive, comes out of the 19th century.

The hearse, of course, is a continuation. One of things that you see, if you see the little “s” on the side and in the back, that actually comes out of carriages, which was a popular look on carriages. And when they make the transition from horse-drawn hearses to what they call motor-coach hearses, they maintain, especially initially, they maintain a lot of the elements of what a horse-drawn one looks like. And actually initially, they take them and they put them on chassis, then some of them do it themselves, and those pictures are really wild. But they idea that you have this hearse and they have this “S” still is a throw back to these earlier. So there’s little tiny things that you’ll see that you wouldn’t even think of, cause you associate, “Well yeah, that’s what hearses look like.” But it comes from, little pieces come from sort of these earlier periods.

Harmony: Well, Kelly I have just been hanging off of every word that you’ve shared with us today. Thank you so much for being here and sharing this fascinating topic. I’m looking forward to hearing more from you and so glad that you could be our guest today.

Kelly: Well thank you! I really appreciate it!


  1. Is it possible to see the sign in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, the Van Horn Shop sign, which shows a cradle, a clothes chest, and a coffin? Is there a link to it?

  2. Lane,

    It was my understanding that mourners (family) were expected to provide a place for out of town family to stay and to furnish gifts(trinkets, gloves, etc) to those in attendance at the funeral. The family actually spent more on gifts than they did with the undertaker. The purchasing of gifts became so expensive that a law was passed prohibiting this practice. There was a practice of draping a large cloth that covered the coffin. This was called a pall and the distinguished members of the town would carry the pall when not draped on the coffin. They could number 4, 6 or eight and they were called pallbearers. Today, pallbearers are the ones that carry the casket. Back in the 18th century the men that carried the casket were called underbearers.

    David Fuquay

    • Mr. Fuquay,
      Thank you for the information on the pall and the pall bearers. There is a reason why I teach history…the fascination of it.

  3. Is there any evidence of the application of embalming in Colonial America for funeral purposes? It was known in England in the 18th c as performed by the Doctors Hunter.

    • What a great question. Dr. Arehart responds:

      I, personally, have never seen a reference to embalming in colonial America. Embalming techniques of the eighteenth century were very complicated, as they did not yet have the tools to embalm arterially and I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve never seen a reference to it. Additionally, the materials needed to embalm (camphor, myrrh, etc.) were prohibitively expensive in large quantities.

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