I adore undertakers. Unlike dentists or buses or boyfriends, they’re always there when you need them: even if you call in the middle of the night you will be answered by a human, not an answer-phone message. Funeral directors (as they prefer to be called) are surely the only businesses in Britain never to greet a customer with the words: ‘Sorry love, we’re just closing.’ They are unfailingly courteous and full of good sense. They listen reverently while you recite your woes; like a therapist, but without the side effect of making you hate your family. In an age when even consultant surgeons dress in trainers, there is a pleasing dignity in the formality of their dress. I think of them as the equivalent of midwives, essential couriers on the journey from one world into the next.
First and foremost, they take a corpse off your hands. If, like me, you have seen your fair share of dead people, you will know how welcome is the arrival of the undertaker. It doesn’t take long for dear old Aunt Peg to morph into a convincing prop from the Hammer House of Horror. You really don’t want dead people in your living room. Or not unless you’re a serial killer admiring your handiwork, as Dennis Nilsen was wont to do.
Human bodies are not so very different from a lamb chop. (Actually, they go off much more quickly, because of being full of blood and digestive matter and offal.) But a dead human is about a thousand times the size of a cutlet. They don’t fit in a domestic fridge. If you own a chest freezer, the likelihood is that it’s already full of old lasagnes and frozen peas. In the old days, when people had walk-in larders with slate shelves, it might have been OK to move last year’s medlar jelly aside in order to make room for your dead grandmother. Thomas Hardy’s heart was thus stored, pending its burial in the grave of his first wife. At least it would have been of manageable size, but consider what had to be done to get it into that pantry. Undertakers spare you the horror of all this.
In so doing, funeral directors give to the living something of inestimable value. The removal of the dead allows us to love and thereby mourn them. Planning the funeral permits us the comforting sense that we are doing one last thing for the deceased, and an undertaker will help you every step of the way. They do all the tricky stuff like dressing the body and obtaining the death certificate and burial or cremation papers, so you can concentrate on the nice things, like flowers and hymns. Bible reading or poems? Champagne or tea? Musicians, photographs? On all these points your funeral director will advise. It’s like party planning. Actually, it’s more like putting on a rave, because you have no idea how many people are going to turn up, how long they’re going to stay and how drunk they might get.
Come the day, the undertakers do countless helpful things: take the names of all the congregation, hand out orders of service, make a note of who has sent flowers. Last but not least, they know how to carry a coffin — and lower it into the ground — without grunting or toppling. This is very much more difficult than it looks. There’s a reason they call it dead weight.
The clichéd idea that a funeral director will try to nudge you towards the more costly caskets is plain wrong. They’re not in it for the money. When some friends’ little girl died, the family went all out and had a glass coach and plumed horses to transport her body to the church. It was a fantastic send-off, as the darling child deserved. In due course they rang the funeral directors to settle their bill. It had been an honour to help the family through such a sad and difficult time, said the undertaker: there would be no charge. The American writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch says that his firm routinely charges only the wholesale price of the casket when a child has died, providing its own services for free.
Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One and Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death thought it was funny and smart to jeer at undertakers. Their puny satires now seem snobbish and brittle. A self-avowed communist, Mitford was especially indignant that undertakers should profit from their labour, a bizarre notion which still lingers. No one thinks nurses or bin-men should work for nothing: why should funeral directors? Anne Enright, in her Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering, describes a far more authentic response. Accompanied by a young funeral director, Enright’s narrator visits the body of her brother, who has drowned himself in the sea: ‘He touched my arm while I stood by the body and he led me away. He is the person who comes after you have seen the worst thing… Azrael… I love the undertaker.’ That’s right.