Undertaker

By Maeve Maddox

After reading my recent article on caretakers and caregivers, a reader asks,

How about explaining the particular use of another kind of “taker”—-an undertaker, as in mortician or funeral director. If the business that is being “undertaken” [is] that of burying the dead, why don’t we call other professional services such as banker, realtor, physician, “undertakers” as well?

The easiest answer to this question is that at one time we could have used the word for other service providers, but in current usage, undertaker has dwindled to only its present specialized meaning.

In the 14th century, an undertaker was a “helper.” Wycliffe translated Psalm 53:6 as “The Lord is undertaker of my soul.”

In the 17th century, undertaker had more than one meaning:
an investor
a person who acts as security for someone else in a business undertaking
a baptismal sponsor.

In the 19th century, undertaker could refer to:
a subcontractor
an investor.
a book-publisher
a play producer

Undertaker with the meaning, “one who makes a business of carrying out the arrangements for funerals” was already in use in 1698. By 1884, someone could write, “You look as solemn as an undertaker.”

Such is the human aversion to death that words closely associated with burial tend to be abandoned for other uses.

The noun shroud, for example, started out in English with the meaning of “clothing.” In Aelfric’s translation of Genesis 45:22, God gives Adam and Eve “twa scrod” (two shrouds) to cover themselves. By the 16th century, shroud had taken on the meaning of “white cloth or sheet in which a corpse is laid out for burial; a winding-sheet.”

Note: Shroud in the sense of “a set of ropes, usually in pairs, leading from the head of a mast and serving to relieve the latter of lateral strain” was in use in the 15th century. The ropes “clothed” the mast.

Coffin is another word that started out with a general meaning that had nothing to do with death: “basket.” In a 14th century sermon referencing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the left-over food filled “twelve coffins,” but by 1525, coffin had taken on the specific meaning of “the box or chest in which a corpse is enclosed for burial.”

In the United States, funeral directors came to feel that the word coffin was too creepy for consumers, so they decided to change the name to a more pleasant word: casket.

In its original sense, a casket is “a small box or chest for jewels, letters, or other things of value, itself often of valuable material and richly ornamented.” For example, the Franks Casket in the British Museum is a beautiful little 8th century chest made of whale’s bone and carved with scenes depicting the Adoration of the Magi, the Emperor Titus, Romulus and Remus, and Weyland Smith.

The coffin-to-casket evolution in the U.S. is an example of a pretty word taken as a euphemism for something unpleasant, which in time comes to acquire the same unpleasantness it was supposed to obscure.

At least one meaning that used to be attached to undertaker is still to be found in another “under” word, underwriter. Sometimes public radio announcers refer to their sponsors as underwriters. And in one sense, we are all “undertakers” when we undertake a new project.

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1 Response to “Undertaker”

  • Shing

    Undertaker as a word was probably “appropriated” by the people involved in the business of death. Then other people avoided using the term because it was associated with death and bad luck.

    Probably like what happened with “gay”.
    People used to call themselves gay all the time…

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