From the Undertaker's Point of View

Date Published: 
August, 1902
Original Author: 
H. D. Litchfield
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 16th Annual Convention

I have been asked by one of your committee to say a: few words relative to the relationship of undertakers to cemeteries; and being desirous to be plainly understood I have committed to writing what has occurred to me, and with your kind indulgence will read the same, hoping that in case you do not agree with me, that you will take the "will for the deed," and understand that these expressions are the thoughts of one and not of many, among whom so much diversity of opinion is likely to exist.

Gentlemen, I realize the task I have before me, and know that the whole thing is a hard problem to solve, but I have given it some thought and hope that no one will chide me for speaking my mind.

Different states have different laws and the same with cemeteries, which have different rules and regulations. It is an easy matter for an undertaker to enter a cemetery with which he is familiar, but such is not the case when one enters a strange cemetery. But before we proceed any further; let's see what the law of this Commonwealth is regarding the appointment of undertakers.

Section 44 of Chapter 78 of the Revised Laws of this Commonwealth says:

"The boards of health of cities and towns shall annually, on or before the first day of May, license a suitable number of undertakers who can read and write the English language. Such license shall be issued upon such terms and conditions as the board of health may prescribe and may be revoked at any time by the board if its terms or conditions of any requirements of the law relative thereto have been violated by the undertaker. An undertaker who has been so licensed may act in any city or town."

Now that is the law under which the various boards of health issue to an undertaker his license, and he is duty bound to exercise due care, or his license will be revoked and the business which possibly he has been years in building up, will have to suffer. I am not finding fault with that law, because it is also a protection to anyone who conducts his business properly. But how is it with the gentlemen who serve in the capacity of Superintendents? They are appointed by a cemetery commission and are required to live up to certain rules and regulations made by that commission. Therefore, gentlemen, I wish you to clearly understand me, that while not complaining of the rigidness of the rules by which we are governed, I think that those in charge of cemeteries should use a great deal of leniency toward him, with whom he comes in contact so frequently, namely the undertaker.

It is well known that families have peculiar ideas relative to services at the grave. I can call to mind a case where a family had a quartette standing on the lot singing, while the remains were being removed from the hearse, and during the lowering into the grave. The mourners formed a procession which moved down the path some distance to the lot, and as the remains passed from their sight they returned to the carriages and were driven away, the quartette still singing. There have been other cases where the family remained on the lot while the grave was being filled, and a quartette singing until the last sod was placed on the grave. Many other cases occur to me, one in particular, when the family expressed the wish that the casket should be placed upon the bier and remain there until the carriages containing the relatives and friends had driven by, and the interment left entirely with the undertaker, who was expected to see that the same care and tenderness toward the departed was exercised as if it was his own. The above facts are mentioned to show that, as I first stated, the peculiar ideas of the family notwithstanding those in charge of the cemetery, must be respected and their plans carried out and if they are not, the undertaker is often censured.

Now one word in connection with those associated with the cemetery whose duty it is to open and close the graves. While it may seem a little hard, still I am strongly of the opinion that those men doing that work should be required to dress more neatly while in the presence of the mourners, and not as is common, appear like the regular laborers of the cemetery. It should be the bounden duty of the Superintendent of Interments to attend entirely to the lowering of the remains into the grave, and absolutely refuse to allow strangers, not accustomed to such work to interfere in so important and solemn an undertaking. And let me here state why I have formed this opinion. A case occurred to. me where I spoke to the Superintendent as to the manner of lowering the remains into the grave, and he feeling that I was exceeding my authority was quite indignant and did what he thought proper, and met with a serious accident, which virtually reflected upon me and yet I was entirely blameless. If pall bearers accompany the remains, as is often the case, their duties should cease at once upon arriving at the lot, and the responsibility should fall upon experienced and competent men who are familiar with that duty. There is a question which arises here and is often asked: Where does the undertaker's authority cease? I maintain that his duty is completed the moment the remains have been received by the men employed in the cemetery, and I contend that he has performed his part, and anything which may occur after that devolves upon the cemetery authorities. It is claimed by some superintendents that as the funeral procession enters the cemetery, it then becomes their duty to take charge of the same, while others feel that they are not responsible until the remains are lowered into the grave. I suppose it would be almost impossible to fully agree upon all these points, but I have thought that it was well to present them for your consideration.

Another, and what I consider a very important feature, comes to mind, and that is in regard to ordering graves for interments. I certainly believe that it is the duty of the family and not the undertaker to attend to this. First, because oftentimes the representative of the family may not be thoroughly familiar with the lot and although having received his instructions where the body shall be placed, from the relatives, sometimes makes a mistake, and then the undertaker comes in for reproval. Probably many instances can be cited where mistakes of this kind have occurred and owners were positive that the right directions were given. Telegrams are sometimes sent, saying that the interment should be at the right or left, and it is afterwards discovered that a mistake has been made which it is then too late to rectify. This has been done by reason of those giving the directions, by standing in different positions and not at the time giving the matter serious thought, yet having in mind that you or I were perfectly familiar with the exact location intended.

One word about brick graves; I believe that the price received for the same, varying from $23 to $26 and upwards, ought to cover the entire expense without extra charge for the use of the evergreen or boughs. These things are for the interest of the cemetery, and certainly would stand to its credit if attention were given to it, as the cost is trifling and would undoubtedly be appreciated by many families. This to my knowledge is done in some cemeteries and not in others. It also comes to me as a suggestion, that if a tent for use in stormy weather be provided, for which a nominal, charge could be made, it would meet with the approval of the relatives and friends. These are also found in some, but not in all cemeteries. All things like these carry with them a great deal of weight and certainly attract people to such cemeteries, when they wish to purchase a lot.

And now, gentlemen, comes what I consider a very important matter, and one which should be carefully weighed in all its bearings. I say very important because it refers to some of the financial matters connected with our vocation. It ought to be the duty of the cemetery officials, when an order is given for opening a grave or tomb, to request of the party a deposit for the interment fee. I never could see why this should devolve upon the undertaker. He does not own any part of the cemetery and why should he be called upon to pay, say a fee ranging from $5.00 to $30.00 and upward for something in which he is not immediately interested, and then be called upon to wait, perhaps a year or more before his accounts are settled. When a new lot is sold, payment is demanded before an interment can be made yet the interment fee is entirely overlooked, and often when the matter is spoken of, the reply will be, "The undertaker will make the payment" when he arrives at the cemetery. I claim that when the interment fee is demanded of the undertaker, some one is exceeding his authority, and doing something which he has no more right to do than an undertaker has in attempting to have a bill of his goods charged to the cemetery. It may seem somewhat singular, but those familiar with what an undertaker has and does go through must realize that they are very often imposed upon. Parties will go to the cemetery, order the opening of a grave and will be informed that the expense of the same will be met by the undertaker, and first he knows of it is when confronted with a bill upon his entrance there, while the owners will drive by and go to the station and say nothing to anyone leaving the file unpaid, when the entire expense has already been paid, except the interment fee which they have stated they would attend to themselves. I. trust that the time is not far distant when this manner of doing business will be absolutely ignored by the undertakers and that they will refuse to meet the demands for these fees without an order from those interested, that the same will be paid; and I now reiterate what I have said before, that I believe the cemetery officials have no legal right to charge the undertaker one single cent, without his knowledge or order. Think this matter over carefully, gentlemen and judge for your selves whether I am right or not.

I believe that there is one little item that I have overlooked and of which I meant to have spoken when I referred to the appearance of the men employed to assist at the grave. It is this: There should be a little more care exercised in the handling of the straps in lowering the body into the grave, I feel assured that none but competent and experienced men should be allowed to handle the casket containing the remains. The work is of great importance and should anything occur, serious results might come there from.

Gentlemen, I think I have fairly reviewed our case. I have tried to be impartial and confine myself entirely to facts and there is not an instance which I have cited but which has come under my personal observation. My remarks may have to some seemed rather brusque, but I have only tried to make myself plain, as my sole object has been to give you as nearly as possible the undertaker's, side of the story while at the same time show you, to some extent, how the cemetery officials should, in order to harmonize, make some changes in the present mode of doing some of the work. What I have tried to do is to give you plain, unvarnished facts, without touching the feelings of anyone and I hope I have succeeded in trying to be just as well as generous.

There is always an opportunity for advancement, and it is certainly the aim of every business man, while trying to advance his own interests to extend at the same time his hand toward his fellow man, with a fraternity of feeling which will bind us together. I thank you for your close attention and only regret that a better selection has not been made to present the undertaker's side of the case. I feel assured that even if the suggestions made by me are not all carried out, that they will not be entirely overlooked, and some benefit will come from them. For the Association I have none but the kindliest feelings and hope that they may succeed in all their undertakings, and realize that unanimity of feeling which should prevail with us all.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the16th Annual Convention
Held at Boston, MA
August 19, 20, 21 and 22, 1902



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