ye Sign of ye Naked Body & Coffin

From a trade card of a Fleet Street undertaker. 1710

When I walk along London’s streets and pass a funeral director’s shop front, I am compelled to peek through the window. Can’t help it, must be done. Funeral homes in the States are rarely shop fronts, my father’s was set in a rambling old house on a residential street, so I find it fascinating to read the advertising on the windows, to note that an undertaker has set up shop next to a pub, or a newsagent. When I peer through the glass I never see anything very interesting, the interior always looks a bit blah. Most of the time I can’t see anything at all, which I guess is how it should be, but I wonder if they could be just a bit more inviting.

My father or one of his employees would stand at the door and wave to people passing, or open the door and say things like, “Why hello there Bill, how the world are you?” That’s the kind of thing one could do in a small town. Bill always answered with, “Glad to be coming through your front door instead of the back.” Funeral home humour, you gotta love it.

I feel uneasy about the way funeral directors advertise these days. It all seems so transparent. The use of caring words, phrases, and lyrical descriptions intended to give us hope that the process isn’t going to be as bad as we anticipate. Advertising used to be more direct.

When undertaking became a specific trade in the 18th century the businesses advertised aggressively and vigorously. In Hogarth’s Gin Lane one can just make out a shop sign in the form of a coffin hanging dismally in the air above the undertaker’s premises.

I guess it’s appropriate, if not necessary, for an undertaker to announce his presence to the locals.

And perhaps they can’t be blamed for offering you a complimentary household product that will remind you that they’re always there, lurking in the background.

My father did his share of advertising. I wish I’d had enough sense to keep the pens and pencils, calendars, balloons and fans that sprouted up like weeds around town over the years. I always began the school year with a satchel full of black pencils with the funeral home’s name boldly embossed in gold lettering. I passed them out to everyone and pretended not to see the rolling eyes, tried to forget the snickering.

To my utter surprise a friend of our family actually did keep a couple of things, one of which I didn’t remember at all. Telephone numbers that begin with letters was before my time. It looks like something you might see in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Behold the potholder.