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Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » “So Once Were We”: Death in Early America » Undertakers and Hearses

Undertakers and Hearses

As the funeral industry developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the work of undertakers or funeral directors included two main components:  corpse preparation and transportation services.  Hearses developed from open wagons to ornate covered carriages, and finally to customized automobiles

A. G. McMichael, [Group photograph including 13 Michigan undertakers], silver gelatin print, Detroit: ca. 1890-1905. David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography.
The terms “embalmer,” “mortician,” “undertaker,” and “funeral director” do not necessarily describe workers who perform the same tasks, though they are often used interchangeably. An embalmer or mortician preserves and prepares the corpse and may perform the work of an undertaker. The antiquated term “undertaker” originally referred to coffin-builders who sometimes assisted with funeral transportation – but who may or may not have embalmed bodies or assisted with funeral preparations. The title “funeral director” describes someone who organizes and manages funerals, and who may perform any or all of the work described above.

Leslie R. Gault, [Exterior view of a furniture and casket business], cabinet card, Ionia, Michigan: ca. 1890s. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.
In early America, coffin construction naturally became the work of woodworkers and furniture-makers. In the 19th century, many casket and furniture manufacturers also took on the work of corpse-preparation and the transportation of bodies.

Left: [Interior view of an undertaker’s parlor], cabinet card: ca. 1870s-1880s. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.

Right: [Storefront of E.C. Blighton, undertaker], cabinet card, [Olean, New York]: ca. 1880s. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.

Hopkins & Wilbur, Dealers in Furniture & Undertaking, printed advertisement, Pittsfield, Massachusetts: 1882. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.
This provocative advertising card uses the “Over the Garden Wall” theme to illustrate its unrelated services in furniture and undertaking.

[Horse-drawn hearse of C.E. Weeks & Company], carte-de-visite: ca. 1860s. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.

C. E. Mapes Photograph Album, Durand, Michigan: ca. 1903-1930. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.
The album of Clarence E. Mapes’ furniture store and funeral parlor includes this image of a horse-drawn hearse. The cross on the window indicates that the hearse was also used as an ambulance.

Mary Marble to Jane Day, New Haven, [Connecticut]: March 18, 1850. Marble Family Papers.

“I went on Saturday to Skinner and Sperry book store to see the portrait of Mrs Fitch’s twins. it is there for exibition a few days, it has just been taken by Ms Hunt they had a daguerreotype likeness of them the children were taken with pink dresses, lilac garters setting down holding there dolls in blue dresses one bonnet lay on the carpet and a basket of flowers tiped one side 2 slates and 2 baskets on the carpet. the likenesses are good. E Trowbridge Hall lost a little girl about 2 years old last summer she has had her likeness taken with the one that is living – they cost 50 each.

We all went down to Collis and Lawrence to see that Splendid Hearse that they built for st. Louis. any one would want to see it to have any idea of it.”

[Italian Hall funeral procession], silver gelatin print, Calumet, Michigan: ca. 1913. David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography.
These four horse-drawn hearses are part of the mass funeral of the victims of the 1913 Italian Hall disaster in Calumet, Michigan. At a Christmas party of striking miners, someone shouted “fire!” causing a stampede that trampled 59 children and 14 adults to death. The light-colored hearses are for the youngest children.

John Martin, [Carriage hearse pulled by an automobile, with sign marked “Kaiser’s Goat”], real photo postcard: World War One era. Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.
The expression “Get the Kaiser’s Goat” appeared in cartoons, cards, and ribbons during the first World War.  In this photograph, a soldier and several children sit atop a carriage hearse showing off ‘Kaiser’s Goat.”