Chris Woodyard presents some less usual mortuary professions for the ladies. Beginning with the funeral stenographer. From the late nineteenth century onward, it was considered bad form to read a funeral sermon from notes; hence the need for someone to take down the more-or-less extemporized eulogy…
– Chris Woodyard –
Chris is a writer, folklorist, and historian specializing in the popular culture of Victorian death, mourning, clothing history, and the spirit world. Her latest publication, The Victorian Book of the Dead, presents a myriad of Victorian funeral customs including such oddities as crape threats, tombstone censors, mourning cigarettes, and widow humor. She is the author of 11 books on historical and contemporary ghost-lore and blogs on the grim and gruesome at Killer Budgie.
Her costume history and social ephemera blog may be viewed at Mrs Daffodil Digresses
A QUEER JOB
There is a quiet young woman in a quiet, unobtrusive gown who has become quite a familiar figure at funerals. She is well known to the undertakers, at least. She always sits in the background with notebook and pencil, and her nimble fingers jot down verbatim the addresses and prayers that are uttered at the coffin’s side.
This young woman, it is said, up to a year ago, was a stenographer in a big mercantile house down town. She lost her place on account of the hard times and the consequent curtailing of the office force. She haunted the employment agencies at the various typewriter concerns for a time, but there were thousands of others doing the same thing—looking for a job. Her money was running low and she grew discouraged. Like many women she had a penchant for going to funerals, but she had not been able to indulge in this morbid fancy while regularly employed. She went to a big church affair one day, and took along her notebook and pencil, thinking she would take down the addresses just for the sake of practice. As the people were filing out a man asked her what she had been doing, and she falteringly admitted that she had been taking down what was said, so as to keep from forgetting her stenography. The man in question proved to be a friend of the family of the deceased, and said that if she would write out the prayers and addresses, putting in the hymns in their proper place, that he would pay her well for the transcript. She got $15 for this. It then occurred to her that here was a way of earning a living better and more profitable than anything else in her line.
She began to watch closely the obituary columns of the daily papers and to make calls on the undertakers in the neighborhood where she lived. It was not long beer she got another job, through going after the business in this way. Now she has about all she and her assistant can do. She charges from $15 to $50 for her services.
So far as is known she has little if any competition, and sometimes her earnings run as high as $125 a week. Strangely enough, however, she has been cured of her morbid fondness for funerals, and feels like giving up her curious way of earning a living for something less profitable, but more prosaic. She fears chronic melancholia. Daily People [New York, NY] 16 January 1910: p. 7
The young lady could have assuaged her fondness for funerals by becoming a professional mourner, as these funeral fans were jocularly called:
Get No More Free Rides, Says an Akron Undertaker.
“The professional mourner will get no more free rides at funerals conducted by us,” said an Akron undertaker, the other day, to a Democrat representative, with satisfaction beaming from every line of his countenance.
“Professional mourners! Free rides!” exclaimed the reporter in astonishment. “What do you mean? Tell us about it.” “Well, it’s this way,” said the undertaker. “At every funeral of which we have charge, we find three or four women, or maybe more, (professional mourners, we call them) who are in no way related to the family of the deceased, who had never perhaps even seen the person whose obsequies they are attending, and yet they are found occupying seats in the very front row, usually shedding tears copiously, and always dressed in black. When the time comes to go to the cemetery they are again found in the front rank and in spite of us, secure seats in the carriages provided by the relatives of the deceased for intimate friends, enjoy a free ride to the cemetery and back, and get all the choice morsels of news, which later is related to friends, all decked out with furbelows and embellishings with all the details of human grief and heartbreak which they have witnessed, worked in. To these people nothing is sacred, nothing too holy for them to gossip about.
“All this has been remedied, however, and the next time a professional mourner attempts to get a ride in one of our coaches a disagreeable surprise awaits her, for we have adopted a card system by which the names of the persons whom the bereaved relatives desire to have seats in the carriage is given to us. These persons are furnished with cards, and only those presenting cards to the driver will be allowed to ride.” Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 15 March 1902: p. 1
There were, in some cities in Europe and America, true professional mourners, both male and female, who were paid to look lugubrious. They had unions, went on strike, and there are records of some being arrested for pushing their services too aggressively at the graveside.
Female pallbearers were not unknown, particularly in the case of young persons, whose friends were often asked to be pallbearers. To give just two examples: “The pallbearers will be six girls dressed in white.”  “The coffin was being carried into the church by four young ladies, who according to the wish of the deceased, had been selected as bearers.”  We can see one pallbearer dressed entirely in white and several others with white garments in Death of Her Firstborn, by Frank Holl.
A few women found work as grave diggers, something so rare that it called for comment in the newspapers. (Mrs Daffodil has written about Elizabeth Thorn, who dug graves under dire conditions after the Battle of Gettysburg.)
WOMAN GRAVE DIGGER
London, Oct. 2 Miss Janie Beeching, grave digger of Lewes, prefers to work at night instead of by daylight. She goes to the cemetery after dinner and digs graves by candlelight. Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader 2 October 1919: p. 12
WOMAN GRAVE DIGGER
A woman as a grave digger! The idea seems almost impossible, but in the town of Lewes, England, there is a lady who fills of the office of sexton. Everybody knows her, and until recently she dug all the graves in Lewes cemetery. Now, at the age of 60, she contents herself with filling them up and attending to the mounds and flowers. Mrs. Steele, the name of the sextoness, if one can use such a term—is a very healthy old lady, and she has been heard to say that she will never leave her post until it is her turn to have a grave dug for her. May the time be far distant. It is a wonderful sight to witness the old lady use the spade. Omaha [NE] World Herald 4 September 1898: p. 21
If one didn’t have the stamina for grave digging and had an artistic bent, there were work-at-home design schemes:
A NEW INDUSTRY
“Lady wanted to draw, at home, original designs for coffin furniture.” The above rather ghastly advertisement appears in one of the London dailies, so that those who happen to have artistic wives or daughters pining for an opening for their talents will probably now find their homes littered with suggestive sketches of “caskets,” specially and severally designed for railway directors, Primrose League dames, members of Parliament, and others. Whether the said sketches will be calculated to promote the cheerfulness of the domestic home is quite another matter. Press, 2 August 1889: p. 3
Many milliners specialized in widow’s hats and veils. Women were also employed to design and manufacture burial robes, which were often lovingly described in the same seductive terms as fashionable clothing for the living. The one difficulty was finding shoes for the dead, but an innovative Joliet dressmaker built a thriving business on funerary footwear:
SHOES FOR THE DEAD
A Novel Industry in Which Chicago Supplies the Whole World.
That there is nothing small about Chicago has been so frequently demonstrated as to need no reiteration…But that Chicago supplies an article in the production of which it has no rival in the world may be news to many readers. It is an article for which there will be a ceaseless demand so long as people die and are buried in the prevailing style. To the present funeral, if it is carried out in the height of fashion, belongs a burial shoe. It is as necessary as any other part of the garments worn on the last journey by young or old of either sex.
The fact that the rigor mortis made the feet of dead persons so unwieldy as to necessitate a foot-gear several sizes too large for a long time painfully impressed a Joliet dressmaker, a Miss Loomis. She went to work and constructed a shoe which not only did away with clumsy leather encasements, but, in true feminine style, she brought her ingenuity to such a point that the corpse of a person may be buried in number 2s while the wearer in life required number 4s. Of course the invention was promptly patented, and in the course of time a company was incorporated which supplies two-thirds of all the manufacturers of and jobbers in funeral supplies throughout the United States, and sends the product of the Joliet dressmaker’s inventive genius even across the ocean.
The shoe consists of knitted pieces of wool or silk, which are inserted at the heels and at the insteps, making it possible ot cover the rigid “understanding” of dead persons not only with a snug fit but in becoming style. In a block on Dearborn street a dozen or fifteen girls are at work from morning till night of each working day to manufacture nothing but burial shoes of all sizes–from those for tiny babies to the ones for the oldest inhabitants…The firm turns out from fifty to a hundred pairs a day, and they are all taken rapidly, because burial shoes have, since the last year or two, become a necessary part of the outfit of the dead. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 11 September 1888: p. 2
And finally, an ingenious lady in New York who found a gap in a very specialized market and set out to fill it:
Woman With a Business Head Rents Smelling Salts to Visitors at the New York Morgue.
[New York Sun:] The man in the doorway crooked his finger at the wiry little woman in black, who sat on the curbing just outside the morgue.
“See her?” he asked.
“The curiosity-seeker thus addressed said, “Yes. What about her?”
“She’s a genius, that’s what about her,” said the man. “She has hit upon a most peculiar calling, and I’ll bet she will make money out of it, too. She has laid in a supply of smelling salts and rents out the bottles at the rate of 10 cents an hour to people visiting this institution. There are five different parties in here now, and each person is provided with smelling salts rented from this enterprising old lady.
‘I am glad she hit upon the plan. I had been thinking for a good many months in a vague sort of way that some such preventive of fainting ought to be supplied to tenderfeet that come spying around down here, but I never even perfected the project in my own mind, much less put it into execution. But it was different with the old lady.
“What first suggested the scheme was her own experience, when she came down here to look for a friend who had disappeared. She got so weak and nervous that she declared she would surely die if she didn’t get a whiff of lavender salts. She didn’t get the salts, because we had none about the place, neither did she die, but when she recovered she started in business.
“The lady’s profits vary, of course, with the attendance at the morgue. Some days she earns quite a decent salary. Take Tuesdays, for instance. For some reason, which I have never been able to discover, Tuesday is the public’s favorite day for doing the morgue.” The curiosity-seeker looked doubtfully at the woman on the curbing. “I wonder, “ she said, “if I’d better rent a bottle, too?”
“Going in?” asked the man.
“Yes,” said she, “I think so.”
“Then get a bottle, by all means,” was the reply. “It will cost but a dime and will save you no end of nervous chills.” Los Angeles [CA] Times 13 July 1901: p. 15
While the article blames the necessity for smelling salts on the “weak and nervous,” the little woman in black knew what she was up against. A chapter in The Victorian Book of the Dead gives the gruesome particulars of the sights and horrific stenches of the New York Public Morgue, particularly in summer. Lavender would scarcely make a dent….
This post originally appeared on Mrs Daffodil Digresses
Chris’ blog about costume, history, and social ephemera
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