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A Very Grave Undertaking in Etymology

Steve Allen, being incurably curious, asks me and my readers to explain the word undertaker .

“There’s a strange word,” he says. “We all know what an undertaker does, but why is that work referred to by the noun undertaker ? He is involved, obviously, with certain undertakings, but so is everybody else on Earth.”

I don’t know why Steve Allen thinks I have any more time than he does for such inquiries, but of course he has to practice the piano, which I don’t.

Obviously, an undertaker is one who undertakes to embalm, beautify, dress, lay out, arrange services for, and either bury or cremate the dead, or, as Evelyn Waugh called them in his satirical novel about Southern California undertaking, our “loved ones.”

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What Mr. Allen ought to understand first is that the word undertaker is quite out of fashion in the United States. About 1894 it was replaced by the pretentious mortician , obviously derived from the word physician . During the Civil War, notes Henry L. Mencken in The American Language (1945), undertakers used to follow the armies like prostitutes, not to pleasure the soldiers but to embalm them. In newspaper ads they called themselves “doctors.”

At about that time, Mencken observes, casket replaced coffin , and he doubted that “ coffin has ever appeared in an American undertaker’s advertisement or in a newspaper account of the funeral of anyone above the dignity of an executed murderer.”

My Oxford English Dictionary (1971) defines undertaker , under meaning 5. b., as “one who makes a business of carrying out the arrangements for funerals,” and cites its first use in print in 1698--"The furnishing of funerals by a small number of men called undertakers.” Mortician is not listed at all, the English being less given to euphemisms than we.

It was inevitable that in the United States, once the word undertakers had become inescapably identified with their dismal business, they would change it. Mencken notes that in 1917 200 eminent American undertakers organized as the National Selected Morticians, “and began to strike out for a general reform of necrophoric nomenclature.” They urged the use of patient or case for body, funeral car , casket-coach or ambulance for hearse , and negligee , slumber-robe or slumber-shirt for shroud .

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Mencken also notes that the word graveyard long ago gave way to cemetery (but cemetery too is now rather suspect.) “Graveyards are graveyards no longer, in all the progressive parts of the United States, but memorial parks , burial abbeys or mortaria . They flourish especially in Southern California, and those of Los Angeles are heavily patronized, for one of the inducements they offer is the chance to store the beloved dead cheek by jowl with a Valentino or a Jean Harlow.”

Today, mortician itself seems to have become tarnished and has given way to the simple funeral director . Evidence of this may be found in the Yellow Pages. There is no listing under either undertaker or mortician . The numerous practitioners of this art may be found alphabetically under Funeral Directors. Most of the establishments under that heading call themselves mortuaries; a few are called funeral homes; several offer memorial parks; some admit to cemeteries. There are of course no graveyards (except in poetry).

In listing its numerous establishments, Forest Lawn notes that it offers mortuary, churches and flower shops “in sacred cemetery grounds,” but its several cemeteries are listed individually as memorial parks. The listing boasts “In time of need we’re all you need,” a paraphrase of the more succinct “everything in one place.” South Los Angeles Mortuary offers “Everything with one call.”

Crippen Mortuary makes the intriguing pledge: “All cremations done singularly.” One wonders what a singular cremation might be like.

One service is named ingeniously Aftercare--perhaps foreshowing the future. Will aftercare replace mortuary, funeral parlor, cremation and memorial park , as they have replaced undertaker and graveyard ?

The trend is certified by Webster’s New World Dictionary, which defines both mortician and undertaker as simply, “a funeral director,” and adds that undertaker is “a somewhat old-fashioned usage.”

Steve Allen need not wonder. The word undertaker , in the sense of one who disposes of the dead, has vanished from our language.


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