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.


  1. In my small suburban town I don't remember ever seeing any kind of advertising or promo for a funeral home. Even the signs in front of the old traditional style homes were so subtle they were just about invisible.

    Ah yes! The old telephone exchange names before the numbers. I started at CLEARWATER.., moved up to PLAZA in the city, then ended up at BUTTERFIELD. I hated losing those exchange names to plain old boring numbers.

  2. Hi Savvy,

    The competition between my father's funeral home and the one other "white" funeral home in town was so fierce that they came up with all sorts of ways to promote themselves.

    BUTTERFIELD! Such a famous exchange. Who can forget Liz Taylor's character's exchange - an entire movie based on it and titled from a phone exchange.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi Kate, I decided to treat myself to your post during lunch today.

    Rolling eyes and snickering doesn't sound like much fun. The potholder is too much!

    It sounds like your Dad advertised pretty modestly. Like Pat (Savvy), I don't recall seeing much in the way of advertising for funeral services in the places I've lived, mostly in New York metro and San Francisco Bay Areas. But I'm sure it's out there and I've just ignored it.

    One thing I AM aware of is burial plots and funeral services being sold to seniors moving to certain retirement communities such as Sun City Arizona. I attended a funeral there, at Sunland Memorial Park and Mortuary, about 12 years ago for the 2nd to die of a couple who'd purchased a double-capacity mortuary slot and associated services on moving there to retire. Here's a link to the photo gallery of the :

    You can see that it would fit in nicely with the surrounding neighborhood golf-course and manicured lawns and homes. There was something about it fitting in like that, and of the selling of funeral services to new retirees as just another aspect of moving there that really bothered me. I guess it's ok -- they were certainly adults and made their own decisions, but for me, it would be too unsettling to combine the excitement of a new home with plans for my future burial place -- in the same spot!

  4. Hi Susan,

    The link didn't work, but I think I can imagine it! Yikes! I've not seen or heard of anything like that, although I'm not surprised. I find that very unsettling, too.

    Thank you for reading. I appreciate it.