Literary Undertakers, Part I

The GravediggerJessica Mitford points out, in the opening chapter of her book, The American Way of Death, that the stereotype of the undertaker in Western culture goes back a ways. “The Dismal Traders,” as Mitford calls them, can be traced back to Shakespeare, where in Hamlet, a comical gravedigger is found laboring, or Dickens, in whose Oliver Twist, Mr. Sowerberry exploits mourning family members.

Undertakers have been portrayed as objects of satire and ridicule, two-dimensional figures who are predictable and worthy of scorn. Americans in the early twentieth century were aware of these and other European and British literary variations, and some were clued into the comic possibilities for the undertaker figure, who was at the center of a rapidly developing industry.

But in Life on the Mississippi, an American writer, Mark Twain, provided a pivotal characterization that was to shape the popular imagination for the whole of the twentieth century. Here, a hilarious encounter is described with an old acquaintance who has found his “true calling” as an undertaker.

The description of the chance encounter between Twain and J. B. is preceded by Twain’s observations on New Orleans cemeteries, cremation, and the high cost of coffins (acted out by a poor black family purchasing a coffin for their deceased child). Gary Laderman quotes Twain: “It cost [the father] twenty-six dollars. It would have cost less than four, probably, if it had been built to put something useful into.”

Twain then describes J. B., who has changed dramatically since their last meeting: no longer sad and old-looking, he is bubbling with youth and vigor, for the specific reason that he is raking in the dough as an undertaker.

The conversation goes on. J. B. enthusiastically describes his new job as an extremely profitable undertaking in which success is assured for one important reason: those who need to dispose of dead family members will not bargain. Twain asks, innocently, about what a coffin is worth, and J. B. lets him know the scoop:

There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t ever try to jew you down on. That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t say, — ‘I’ll look around a little, and if I find I can’t do better I’ll come back and take it.’ That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this word which a person won’t take in pine if he can go walnut, and won’t take in walnut if he can go mahogany, and won’t take in mahogany if he can go an iron casket with silver door-plate and bronze handles. That’s a coffin. And there’s one thing in this world which you don’t have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. That’s a coffin. Undertaking? — why it’s the dead-surest business in Christendom, and the nobbiest.

Why don’t the bereaved negotiate over goods and services in this particular market? J. B. says it’s because of competition with their neighbors. The funeral was a gauche display of materialism, class consciousness, and unfortunate sentiment, despite any national pride in the “Gilded Age.”

J. B. goes on to reveal trade secrets. Consumers would pay outrageous sums for the preservation of a corpse, which at the time was mostly done by placing it on ice, though “embamming” was a coming practice. Basically, they wanted immortality for the deceased. It was human nature at the time of bereavement, and the crass undertaker would capitalize on it. “There ain’t anything equal to it but trading rats for diamonds in a time of famine,” J. B. says. By the early decades of the twentieth century, says Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, a image of the undertaker along these lines was prevalent.

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