“An Undertaker is an illwiller to the human race”: The Rise of the “Dismal Trade” and Subsequent Criticisms, 1850-1890

Kelly Brennan Arehart

Nineteenth-century American undertakers created a new industry, but at great cost to themselves. White, Protestant, middle-class Americans clamored for funerary goods that would demonstrate class membership and “bereaved consumers” came to rely on a new group of tradesmen to provide funerary objects.  But bereaved consumers were uncomfortable with the materialism that encroached upon the sacred ritual. Undertakers’ willingness to bury the dead for monetary compensation aroused suspicion among a middle-class public committed to isolating themselves from untrustworthy, profit-motivated hacks. Criticisms of their competence, motivations, and actions sprang from the pen of writers and critics looking to protect the middle-class public from those thought to be fiendish ghouls. Even as they relied on them, bereaved consumers and social critics vented their pent-up anxieties on undertakers – simultaneously making them winners and losers in the development of the funeral industry.