The Undertaker (An Essay by F. W. Boreham)

(Once again, I must apologize for not writing in a long time. Essays, tests, and exams have rightly been taking up my time, and while I have at least half a dozen incomplete posts in my drafts, I haven’t gotten around to completing them. For now, I will be sharing this exceptional essay by one of my favourite authors, F. W. Boreham. I will be putting up one of my own pieces soon, but might toss a few of these good ones in as filler so as to keep giving folks something interesting to read.)

We have been very unjust to the undertaker. Our literature has passed him by with a sneer. What novelist has chosen an undertaker as the hero of his fine romance? What novelist has even chosen an undertaker as the villain of the piece? We depict him merely as an object of derision; a creature made up of simulated gravity and crocodile tears; a thing that is neither lovesome nor loathsome, but just lugubrious. Charles Dickens did more than any other man to fling a glamour of romance about those walks of life than had lost their reputations. But even Dickens collapsed when he came to the undertaker. We all know Mr. Sowerby, among whose coffins poor little Oliver Twist used to sleep. ‘Mr. Sowerby was a tall, gaunt, large-jointed man, attired in a suit of threadbare black, with darned cotton stockings of the same colour, and shoes to answer. His features were not naturally intended to wear a smiling aspect, but he was in general rather given to professional jocosity.’

Professional jocosity, mark you! And we are not left without specimens of Mr. Sowerby’s gloomy wit. Mr. Sowerby had the contract for burying the paupers who died in the workhouse — a course to which the said paupers resorted on the slightest provocation.

‘“The prices allowed by the board are very small, Mr. Bumble!” complained the undertaker.

‘“So are the coffins,” replied the beadle, with precisely as near an approach to a laugh as a great official ought to indulge in.

‘Mr. Sowerby was much tickled at this; as, of course, he ought to be; and laughed a long time without cessation. “Well, well, Mr. Bumble”, he said at length, “there’s no denying that, since the new system of feeding has come in, the coffins are something narrower and more shallow than they used to be; but we must have some profit, Mr. Bumble.”

“‘Well, well,” said Mr. Bumble, “every trade has its drawbacks. A fair profit is, of course, allowable.”

“‘Of course, of course,” replied the undertaker; “and if I don’t get a profit upon this or that particular article, why, I make it up in the long run, you see— he! he! he!”’

With that sepulchral giggle we may take our leave of Mr. Sowerby, and we are glad to see the back of him. I only introduced him in order to show that even Dickens could see nothing good in the under-taker.

Whilst Dickens was pillorying poor Mr. Sowerby on one side of the Atlantic, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, on the other side, was adding The Poet at the Breakfast-table to the growing pile of American literature. The breakfast-table is, of course, the breakfast-table of the boarding-house; and the poet, after the fashion of boarders, is talking about the landlady. Her prosperity, it seems, does not entirely arise from the profits of the boarding-house. ‘Her daughter had married well, to a member of what we may call the post-medical profession, that, namely, which deals with the mortal frame after the practitioners of the healing art have done with it and taken their leave. So thriving had this son-in-law of hers been in this business that his wife drove about in her own carriage, drawn by a pair of jet-black horses of most dignified demeanour, whose only fault was a tendency to relapse at once into a walk after every application of a stimulus that quickened their pace to a trot; which application always caused them to look round upon the driver with a surprised and offended air, as if he had been guilty of a grave indecorum. The landlady’s daughter had been blessed with a number of children, of great sobriety of outward aspect, but remarkably cheerful in their inward habit of mind, more especially on the occasion of the death of a doll, which was an almost daily occurrence, and gave them immense delight in getting up a funeral, for which they had a complete miniature outfit. How happy they were under their solemn aspect! For the head mourner, a child of remarkable gifts, could actually make the tears run down her cheeks — as real ones as if she had been a grown person following a rich relative, who had not forgotten his connexions, to his last unfurnished lodgings.’

Elsewhere, Dr. Holmes tells us that he himself might have been a Christian minister if the visiting clergyman had not looked and talked ‘so much like an undertaker.’

I need say no more. If Charles Dickens and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the literary princes of two continents, adopt this vein in speaking of undertakers, the comments of the smaller scribblers can be readily imagined. The undertaker, I regret to say, cuts but a sorry figure in the republic of letters.

And yet there are a few characteristics of the undertaker that are well worth thinking about. His name, for example. What delicacy could be finer than the delicacy that denominates this man an ‘undertaker’? Imagine the arrival on this planet of a thoughtful and observant visitor from Mars. He walks down one of our principal streets and reads the signs over the shops. He comprehends at a glance that the draper sells drapery; that the jeweller sells jewels; that the shoemaker sells shoes; that the fruiterer sells fruit; that the baker bakes; and that the hairdresser dresses hair. And then he comes to the undertaker! What does the undertaker do? Clearly, he undertakes; but undertakes what? For the matter of that, we are all undertakers. The king undertakes to govern; the preacher undertakes to preach; the doctor undertakes to heal; the farmer undertakes to farm. Why, more than any of these, should this particular man be called an undertaker? There is a question for you; a question that a very small child can ask, but that a very wise man cannot answer.

It is part of the reticence that we practise in relation to certain themes. Carlyle makes merry at the expense of poor Louis the Fifteenth, who ‘would not suffer death to be spoken of; avoided the sight of churchyards, funereal monuments, and whatsoever could bring it to mind. It is,’ says the sage, ‘the resource of the ostrich who, hard hunted, sticks his foolish head in the ground and would fain forget that his foolish unseeing body is not unseen too.’ Bishop Alexander tells of a man who was resolved to keep from his children the knowledge of death. ‘He was the governor of a colony, and had lost in succession his wife and many children. Two only, mere infants, were left. He withdrew to a beautiful and secluded island, and tried to barricade his daughters from the fatal knowledge which, when once acquired, darkens the spirit with anticipation. In the ocean-island, death was to be a forbidden word. If met with in the pages of a book, and questions were asked, no answer was to be given. If some one expired, the body was to be removed, and the children were to be told that the departed had gone to another country. ‘It does not need much imagination,’ adds the bishop, ‘to feel sure that the secret could not be kept; that some fish lying on the coral reef, or some bright bird killed in the tropic forest, gave the little ones the hint of a something that touched the splendour of the sunset with a strange presentiment; that some hour came when, as to the rest of us, so to them, the mute presence would insist upon being made known.’

We smile at the French king and the colonial governor; but, having smiled, we proceed to do as they did. We say, ‘If anything should happen to me’; and we call the man into whose hands we should then fall ‘the undertaker’! It is one of the niceties of human speech; one of the delicacies of phraseology; it is part of the compact into which we have all entered to talk about certain things without mentioning them. On some subjects we are all tongue-tied.

I began by saying that we have been very unjust to the undertaker. That is so. There is no valid reason why we should write of him in terms of ridicule, and refer to him in terms of reticence. The undertaker has nothing to be ashamed of. I was looking the other day at a great picture. It was entitled ‘The Burial of Moses.’ It represented the wild, weird mountain scenery amidst which the great leader was laid to rest. Above one of the crags an eagle is soaring. If I were an undertaker, I should have a copy of that engraving framed and placed in a prominent position in my dining-room. It would remind me that a divine hand had once done the work that I was called to do. Underneath the engraving, of course, would appear the august and majestic record: ‘So Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and He buried him in the land of Moab, over against Beth-peor; but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day,’

And had he not high honour,
The hillside for a pall,
To lie in state while angels wait,
With stars for tapers tall:
And the dark rock pines, like tossing plumes,
Over his bier to wave,
And God’s own hand, in that lonely land,
To lay him in his grave?

And yet, on the other hand, I am bound to admit that the undertaker is a fungus, an excrescence, an innovation; he was not in the original programme. I can never read the story of Enoch’s translation, of Elijah’s flight on the wings of the wind, or of the glorious ascension of our Lord Himself, without thinking that these were models of what might have been, what should have been. The distinction of Enoch was that, in a dark age, he recaptured the glory of the world’s beginning. He discovered how men were meant to live: they were to be the comrades of Deity, so he walked with God. He discovered how men were meant to go home, so he went that way. He; had no need of an undertaker.

Indeed, it is the way of heroes to dispense with the undertaker’s services. Their bones lie bleaching upon some distant desert, or fall upon some confused battlefield, or toss with tangle and with shell in the dark caverns of the ocean. I remember that, when last I strolled through Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s, I was impressed by the number of monuments erected to men whose bones were never enclosed in any coffin. In the great Abbey there stand scores of monuments like that erected to the memory of Sir John Franklin, on which I read the famous epitaph written for him by Lord Tennyson :

Not here! the White North hath thy bones, and thou,
Heroic Sailor Soul!
Art passing on thy happier voyage now
Towards no earthly Pole!

No, there was no room for the undertaker in the original scheme of things; some of earth’s most valiant sons seemed to have an inkling of this, and they contrived to do without him.

My last word on the undertaker is suggested by Mark Rutherford. Mark is taking a Sunday morning stroll through the slums round Drury Lane.

The hideous sights! the disgusting sounds! the loathsome smells! the universal squalor! And then he comes upon an undertaker’s shop. ‘The undertaker had not put up his shutters. He had drawn down a yellow blind, in which was painted a picture of a suburban cemetery. Two funerals, the loftiest effort of his craft, were depicted approaching the gates. When the gas was alight behind the blind, an effect was produced which was doubtless much admired. He also displayed in his window a model coffin, a work of art. It was about a foot long, varnished, studded with little brass nails, and on the lid was fastened a rustic cross stretching from end to end.’

The cross upon the coffin!

‘This may have been nothing more than an advertisement,’ adds Mark Rutherford, ‘but from the care with which the cross was elaborated, and the neatness with which it was made to resemble a natural piece of wood, I am inclined to believe that the man felt some pleasure in his work for its own sake, and that he was not utterly submerged.’

The cross upon the coffin! What pleasure could the undertaker have found in laying the cross upon the coffin?

‘The cross,’ exclaims Mark Rutherford, ‘in such dens as these, or, worse than dens, in such sewers! It is a symbol of victory, of power to triumph over resistance and even death!’

And so, amidst the most debasing filth and wretchedness and squalor, Mark Rutherford came upon the undertaker. And the undertaker pointed him to the Cross and lifted his heart from gloom to glory. Yes, the undertaker did it, and an angel from heaven could have done no more.

Frank William Boreham

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