Matters of life, death and Dublin undertaking
A book marking 200 years of the Nichols family and their undertaking business isn’t all serious
Gus Nichol, the head of the family business, in the coffin loft
Every culture manages the ritual of death differently, but what is common to all is the wish for solemnity and dignity in the final goodbye.
Undertakers have a unique role in society. They are the buffer between grieving families and the practicalities of death. They are entrusted to manage a hugely significant event in people’s lives, and they only have one chance to get everything right.
It is therefore no surprise that many undertaking companies are family-run operations, such as the Dublin-based Corrigans and Masseys. Trust is their currency, built up over generations.
The Nichols family have been in business in Dublin for six generations. Their 200th anniversary is this year. To mark this, they have published a book, Past Nichols, The Undertakers.
This liberally illustrated book is rich in Dublin social history. It starts with horses, which pulled hearses back in pre-automobile days.
It is fascinating to be reminded just how many horses lived in Georgian Dublin, and how stables in the city centre were once as common as garages would later become. Horses remained part of the Nichols’s business for 134 years, up until 1948.
One of the vehicles the Nichols family used for business was a black saloon, previously owned by archbishop John Charles McQuaid. Such was the fearsome reputation of the archbishop that people continued to genuflect at the car after the undertakers had bought it, thinking that it contained the notorious archbishop.
Cook Street, off the south Quays, was once known as Coffin Street. In 1836, there were 16 coffin-makers there, with coffins on display outside the workshops. People would go directly to the makers to choose one. The book tells us that nobody stole them, because they were “unpawnable”.
In later years, the Nichols family expanded the business and carried out funerals for “Anglo-Irish titled families, all around Leinster and farther afield”. These families provided wood from their own estates to make the coffins.
In the 1940s, funerals were staggeringly expensive, costing “the equivalent of 20 weeks’ wages”, which must have caused hardship to many.
Today, according to the book, more than 10 per cent of all funerals in Ireland are cremations, whereas in Dublin cremations account for 30 per cent of funerals.
We get some glimpses of the humour undertakers have in order to deal with the dreadful challenges of the job, such as burying children.
Gus Nichols, the present head of the family business, recounts how he once lost a birthday present. He was driving a priest to a graveside to give the prayers. Before he exited the car, the priest took what he thought was a bottle of holy water to pour into the grave. It wasn’t holy water, however, it was very expensive aftershave, which Nichols had just been given by his sister.
There is one particularly arresting photo in the book of a row of suited people standing behind a coffin at a 2011 convention of undertakers in Chicago and smiling widely. The caption reads: “The casket was used as a prop at the annual memorial service for deceased members.” It’s hard to know where to begin with the use of a coffin as a prop, but at least it appears there was nobody in it.
Past Nichols The Undertakers: Six Generations of a Dublin Family Business 1814-2014 is out now