Sunday, June 21, 2009

At The Sign of the Naked Boy & Coffin

One of the best trade cards I've come across! This is part of the trade card of William Grinly, coffin maker, dated 1745. The text below the image (cropped out) reads:
At ye lower Corner of Fleet lane at ye Signe of ye Naked Boy & Coffin you may be Accomodated wth all things for a Funeral as well ye meanest as those of greater Ability upon Reasonable Terms more particularly Coffins shrouds Palls Cloaks Sconces Stans Hangings for Rooms Heradlry Hearse & Coaches Gloves wth all other things not here mentioned by Wm. Grinly Coffin Maker.

This touches tangentially on some research I've been working on. Throughout the sixteenth century and into the late seventeenth century, the College of Arms controlled the management and form of funerals for the English elite. This control included adhering to the very strict dictates of class and social position, and policing the amount and type of funeral trappings permitted to particular individuals.

From the late seventeenth century, undertakers began to take over the funeral business for both the elite and the increasingly large middle class. This transition from the College of Arms to private undertakers was not exactly peaceful, and there are examples of published complaints of folks being buried with trappings that far exceeded their social class. This transition took place first in London, and then in the major provincial centers.

The undertaking trade, solely a profit driven enterprise, was slow to develop in the smaller towns and rural areas of England. In these areas, the more traditional ways of disposing of the dead remained in use well into the nineteenth century. These more traditional ways (which likely never involved the College of Arms in the first place, though I may stand to be corrected) were conducted by the family, with minimal or no involvement of an undertaker. They included minimal ostentation, the family carrying the deceased to the grave, and spending money more on the wake and feasting than on the trappings of a funeral.

Image is from:
Reeve, Jez and Max Adams (1993)
The Spitalfields Project Vol. 1 - The Archaeology: Across the Styx. Research Report 85. Council for British Archeology, York, England. Available online via the Archeology Data Service. WorldCat link.

Information on the early undertaking trade in England is from:
Fritz, Paul S. (1994-95) The Undertaking Trade in England: Its Origins and Early Development, 1660-1830.
Eighteenth Century Studies 28(2) (Winter, 1994-1995): 241-253


Bavardess said...

What a cool image - no question about what they for a living! The way beliefs and rituals around death change over time and according to class etc. is a rich area for research. I have done a bit in the later medieval period (14 - 15thC) but I'd love to go back and study it in more depth.

Digger said...

There's something about the image that reminds me of a tarot card. And I agree, mortuary studies are fascinating!