Undertakers: The Funeral Business in Brooklyn 1884

Coffin Making-Sextons-Embalming-Decoration-Burial Expenses
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"Brooklyn has, perhaps as many funeral decorators as any other city in the Union," said a
well known undertaker to an Eagle Reporter, a few days ago.

"How is that?" was asked. "Well," replied the undertaker "almost every man who can raise
sufficient money to start him, goes into the business without knowing the first thing about

There is scarcely a church in this city which is not decorated on the exterior with a
gold sign, announcing that the sexton, whose residence is given, is also in the undertaking
business. The signs are gotten up exquisitely and cost quite a sum. But there is one thing I
cannot understand, and that is, how the sexton of a church can attend to his duties and also be an undertaker. The men who do legitimate trade suffer by the way in which the sextons do business. The manner of laying out a corpse is something of a science. Of course an undertaker has to present a neat and respectable appearance when he enters a house. He must never express sympathy with the family of the deceased, or he is liable to be misunderstood. The science of decent burial has undergone so many improvements within the past twenty-five years as to entitle it to some recognition at this time."

"There are no undertakers in this city," said Mr. John H. Newman, of Court street, "who manufacture their own coffins. That is a business in itself in which machinery is principally used. Coffins cost from $15 to $50. and caskets, which are taking their places, from $65 to $400. The cost depends a good deal on the inside trimmings in which silk, velvet and other expensive articles are used. The handles of caskets are generally of silver. In New York State the metallic caskets are very little used. The South is the only section where there is a great demand for them. With drowned persons preservation is generally required. The caskets are lined with lead."

"Does it take much to start in the undertaking business?"

"Quite a large sum," said Mr. Newman, "and to conduct the establishment properly good judgment is always necessary."

"Do you ever have any trouble with the relatives of deceased persons?"

"In former years it was the custom for relatives to take entire charge of the corpse, and all the undertakers' work was confined to furnishing the coffin and hearse. At the present time the undertaker is given entire charge of the remains, and as a result there is very little confusion at funerals."

"What do you think of the business now being carried on by sextons of churches?"

"Their business is of a very peculiar character. When one of the members of the church dies the sexton goes to a wholesale house in New York and turns the whole job over to it at a good figure. He incurs no expense whatever, and actually injures legitimate business. I don't do any business with them, because I consider them outside the pale of the profession. The carriage manufacturers are making improvements in the hearses and carriages. The former cost from $1,200 to $1,500, and carriages $1,000. In this city it is the custom to have back horses attached to a hearse, and for children's funerals gray horses are used. In the case of contagious diseases the law compels an undertaker to have the remains disinfected and placed in a tight sealed coffin, and interred within twenty-four hours after death. it also provides that the funeral shall be private, no children being allowed to go near the remains."

"Do undertakers employ women?"

"Yes, and I can tell you they command good salaries. When a female dies and we receive an order to prepare the remains we send for our woman. She goes over to the house, prepares the corpse and has it all ready for us in a very short time to place in the ice box. Of course, these women have experience."

Mr. Newman said that some time ago the body of Dr. Talcott, who committed suicide by jumping from the Albany boat, was embalmed in his warerooms.

"How was it done?" was asked.

"First the body was washed out with alcohol. An injection of chloride of Zinc and alcohol into the brachial and femoral arteries was then used. The idea was to introduce the chloride of zinc simply to coagulate the albumenoids in the body. This process was said by Dr. Lowell, who studied the subject very carefully, to be the only one which was permanent in its effect. The process of embalming today is, however, very simple. It is an injection of a fluid whose action is not permanent. Embalming, properly speaking, is supposed to be one of the lost arts."

Mr. Harper, of Court street, said: "Iron caskets will never take the place of chestnut, oak, or walnut. The iron generally corrodes, and the caskets are not generally used in New York or Brooklyn. They are also too heavy to conveniently handle. In the South they are in use on account of the climate. In regard to embalming there is only one man who has got that down to a science. In Winter embalming can be relied upon, but in Summer it cannot."

"Have there been any changes in the management of funerals?"

"There have been many. There is more style at large funerals now, and the coaches used are of the best quality. The relatives of deceased persons don't take any hand in the preparation of the body, leaving everything to the undertaker."

"From one to five dollars is generally the amount given by persons who buy coffins on the installment plan," said Mr. Frank Henderson, of Myrtle avenue. People as a general thing who bury a friend are superstitious about paying the funeral expenses immediately, as they fear that if this were done another death might occur very soon. As to embalming there is very little of it done in this city, because relatives of deceased persons have an idea that the body has to be mutilated, in order to accomplish the desired result. A body that has been embalmed presents a more natural appearance than if it were placed on ice. By the process now used there is no chance of a person being buried alive, nor is there any danger of contagious disease being spread. In the South embalming is carried on a good deal more than with us. Cloth covered caskets are now taking the place of coffins. The metallic caskets are heavy. The corpses nowadays are dressed very richly. Dress coats are used for men, and for women black sacques. In the management of funerals not a great many changes have taken place, and
the business is in just as good condition as ever."

Mr. Thomas Dugan, who resides in Clermont avenue, is the sexton of a New York church. According to his own statement he has been in the undertaking business for a number of years. He said: "The business is not what it was years ago, and a great many persons getting into it do not understand anything about it."

"Has there been any improvement in the manner of preserving bodies?" asked the reporter.

"Very little," replied Mr. Dugan. "Some years ago the embalming process was a failure, because the people were not educated up to it. The relatives of deceased persons did not favor the process. It might be said in justice to the people that of late years they are
beginning to understand the benefits that are derived from embalming, and before long it will be a matter of custom. As for cremation the people will never let it take the place of the prevailing mode of interment. The proper thing to do when a person dies is to lay the body out on a table for a few hours, and care should be taken not to have anything near it. Explanatory of my reason for this rule I will tell you an incident which occurred a few years ago. At the death of Mrs. Bagley, in New York, a lady who was at her side at the time of her supposed death, would not allow the undertaker to put the body on ice. When asked the reason
for this she said Mrs. Bagley was only in a trance, and that to put her on ice simply meant that the body would be frozen. For two days that body laid in the parlor, and doctors of every name and fame were called in and pronounced the woman dead. At the funeral services, just as the coffin was about to be closed the same lady who had refused to allow Mrs. Bagley to be put on ice, noticed a twitching in one of the eyes. Mrs. Bagley was lifted out of the coffin and placed on a bed. In a few hours she revived, and is at present in good health. Now had this body been placed on ice at the time it was to be dead it would have been frozen in
just one hour. The people of this country seem to think that when a person dies the first thing that should be done is to place it on ice. This wrong and the above incident explains why it is so. The odor of death should be first perceptible before ice is brought into use.

By the way things look now in the business it is my opinion that all the persons buried are not really dead. In the management of funerals of late years some measure of reform has been brought about. The relatives now send for the undertaker and give him entire charge of the body, and that ends the matter. Of course there are a great many incompetent persons in the business who seem to succeed a great deal better than the old and experienced men. Sextons of late years are becoming quite prominent as undertakers. In this city there are a great many churches and just as many sextons who are undertakers. These men, although inexperienced, place their names up in the most conspicuous part of the church, and are supposed to do all the work incidental to interring the departed brethren. It is surprising how they can carry on the undertaking business when they have no stores. To put the management of funerals into the hands of one of the incompetent sextons simply means that where he is there will be
confusion and disorder. In this city there are churches who won't allow their sextons to be undertakers, and consequently they have to pay them large salaries. Other churches do not pay salaries at all, and as a result the sextons become second class undertakers."

Continuing Mr. Dugan said: "It would be a good idea to do away with the business which the second class sextons were carrying on. Years ago, the cabinet makers used to make coffins, but there was such a general war against them that they had to give it up. In those times the rich people were buried in coffins made of San Domingo mahogany, but it is very hard to get any of that material nowadays. In the old times coffin a were made by hand, and were very solid, lasting for many years. In most of the large manufacturing places coffins are now made by machinery. The improvements that have been made in their manufacture are most surprising. The boxes in which our ancestors were put under ground had the foot narrow, while the head was wide. The coffins of these latter days are made to resemble a casket as much as possible. Coffins and caskets are now expensively lined. The best satin is generally used for this purpose, and the gown for the corpse, a much needed improvement, is a modern invention."

Mr. Dugan objected to the decoration of a rich man's coffin. "Why should the corpse be buried in a casket with a gold plate and gold handles?" he asked. "If Greenwood Cemetery were not properly guarded would not thieves enter it and steal these trimmings?"

Among undertakers there is considerable talk as to the best means to adopt to get rid of the installment plan. A great deal of money is generally lost in this way, and it is mostly the rich people who do not pay up. Before a funeral takes place the ground where the body is to be interred has to be paid for in advance. Mr. Dugan said he had a bill against a man who resided in this city for the burial of his wife. When he went to his house a few months after the funeral, he was confronted with wife No. 2, who said that the bill would not be paid, as her husband did not like his first wife, and consequently did not propose to pay the cost of her transportation to the cemetery. "I thought differently," said Mr. Dugan, "and I was about to commence proceedings against him when he paid up, but not before he had emphasized his objections to the amount of my bill. A few years ago some gentlemen tried to introduce the iron metallic coffins into the market, representing them as air tight. The coffins can never be made air tight, as has been proved on more than one occasion. Coffins and caskets cost from $15 to $500; embalming a body from $12 to $15."


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Undertakers: The Funeral Business in Brooklyn 1884
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle July 20, 1884
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