Austin's Blog

 

A journey back through the history of funerals

October 27th, 2021    Author:

Funeral rites are as old as human culture itself, dated to at least 300,000 years ago, but how have funerals evolved more recently and how are they changing going forward?

Not just an undertaker

Austin and Sons Limited, as we were formerly known, was originally established in 1700 in Graveley, Herts, when the firm then traded as both builders and undertakers. In these times it was not unusual to trade as both – it was actually both traditional and commonplace because builders possessed all the necessary skills and manpower required to do the job of an undertaker. For instance, they had skilled carpenters for making coffins, labourers for grave digging, generally suitable premises and a strong workforce who could double as pallbearers.

In about 1800 we moved to premises in Letchmore Road, Old Stevenage. Here family members resided adjacent to the builders yard and funerals were arranged and carried out from here. The Austin family continued to be prolific builders in the area for the following 150 years or more until the late 1970s when the firm became solely funeral directors.

The first commercial undertaker

London occupies an important place in the history of funerals and the first commercial undertaker set up in business in the capital around 1765. Most of the key funeral-related organisations can trace their origins to the capital; the Marylebone-based physician Sir Henry Thompson founded the Cremation Society of England in 1874, while the British Undertakers’ Association, the British Embalmers’ Society and the British Institute of Embalmers also began here. Of course, the capital has been the backdrop to many high profile funerals over the centuries.

The word ‘funeral’

One of the first known uses of the word ‘funeral’ is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English work The Knight’s Tale, in which he refers to a ‘funeral servyse’ after a character passes away. It was published in 1386, so the word has a long history in the English language.

Funeral flowers once had a different purpose

Today we have flowers at a funeral to show our respect for those who have passed and also to convey messages of support for the family. Traditionally flowers – and candles – were used to mask unpleasant smells from the bodies at funerals and wakes, as well as rosemary, which is naturally very fragrant and, as an evergreen, associated with eternal life. Of course, due to advances in mortuary care, flowers no longer have such an important job to do, but they have nevertheless remained at funerals for centuries carrying some important symbolisms. If anything has changed more recently it is perhaps the volume of flowers at funerals due to the increased popularity of giving charitable donations instead to help make a difference and save wastage. This is something that actually relates back to Elizabethan times when money was given to the poor during the ‘feast of mourning’ after someone had passed.

Obituaries for all

The word ‘obituary’ comes from the Latin ‘obit’ meaning ‘death’. Evidence of obituaries go as far back as the 1600s and from the 1800s it was customary for important public figures to have their death announced publicly, often written in poetic verse. Nowadays, most people’s deaths are announced either in newspapers or via social media with details of the funeral.

The Wake

Most funerals in the UK are followed by a wake either at the family’s home or somewhere like a pub. This practice goes back centuries and referred to the period of time before burial, when family and friends would keep a constant vigil over the body as it lay in wait at the home, keeping the body safe from evil spirits – or even body snatchers. Of course, with science not as advanced as it is now, it was also a time to make sure the deceased was in fact dead and was not going to wake up!

Funeral processions

Most UK funerals will have a procession led by the hearse and followed by cars carrying close family. It’s a common sight on our roads and people will usually pay their respects by driving slowly behind or stopping to acknowledge the procession as they walk by. In earlier times the coffins would have been carried by horse and cart corteges, but funeral processions date back much further to ancient times around the world. In Roman times they were a loud and busy affair where professional mourners were paid to form part of the procession, because the noisier and larger the procession, the wealthier and more powerful the deceased person was regarded to be.

Mementos of the deceased

The Victorians had some fairly macabre ways of remembering their loved ones, including using their hair in jewellery or ornaments, as well as memento mori, meaning, ‘remember your mortality’, which involved taking photos of the deceased portraying them in lifelike settings that reflected their personality. However, there are nowadays lots of companies offering ways to keep our loved ones’ ashes close to us, as we explored in last month’s blog, including setting them in jewellery, turning them into diamonds and even painting them into portraits. An old tradition reinvented perhaps!