Trevor Hayley


Funeral and Life Memorial Celebrant

A Caring Presence for you and your family so you can Celebrate a Life

Servicing Greater Adelaide, Fleurieu, South Coast and Adelaide Hills Regions of South Australia



Funerals and memorials – the words we use

Funeral and Memorial Thoughts #4

The funeral industry world has some ‘interesting’ words, and in our common usage we tend to just accept them as the norm. For instance, the word ‘wake’ is used for the informal event / drinks / celebration of life that happens after the ceremony, which seems quite a strange word, given what has just happened. So with this blog, I thought I would look at the origins of some of the commonly used words, and yes, ‘wake’ will be one of them.

But before I proceed to some of these words, I thought it might be useful looking at some of the terms and phrases the funeral industry uses. Let’s start off with the ‘first call’ which refers to the initial phone call the family has with the funeral director, where critical information is gathered. When the body is eventually collected by the funeral director, the deceased is ‘transferred into our care.’ The funeral staff member in charge of arrangements on the day of the funeral, is called the ‘conductor.’ Therefore, myself as the celebrant, is not seen as the person who ‘conducts’ the service, but more the one who ‘officiates.’ A ‘service in entirety’ means all of the proceedings will be in one place, often with the coffin being taken for cremation. The slides that are often shown during a ceremony are known as a ‘visual tribute.’ At the end of any ceremony there are always the ‘announcements’ where either the celebrant or the conductor will give instructions, of what is happening next, including the ‘lounge’ which is the after ceremony light refreshments. The call of who makes the announcements, will be up to the conductor, and the ‘who is saying’ being a question I will always ask. A ‘funeral’ will have the coffin present, while a ‘memorial’ will not, being more on occasion where stories are shared, perhaps on a more informal basis.

Although the term is now funeral director or arranger, in the past they were referred to as ‘undertakers.’ Historically, coffins were made to measure by carpenters who would ‘undertake’ to build them, hence the name. Before there was refrigeration (that is how bodies are ‘stored’ now, very respectfully), flowers were placed around the coffin to mask any unpleasant odours. These days, coffins are lined with plastic to prevent ‘leakage’ (the less said about that the better).

Funeral director premises are now almost always referred to as ‘funeral homes’. There is something quite comforting to grieving families about the word ‘home.’ In  the past they were referred to as funeral ‘parlours’ which comes from the practice of the front room in English homes, being used as a place where bodies were traditionally laid awaiting burial.

Hearses (the coffin carrying vehicle) are the pride and joy of any funeral director, and having driven one, they can be a bit of a trick to get around tight corners, or roundabouts. The word is derived, through the French herse, from the Latin herpex, which means a ‘harrow’, or an implement for ploughing land. The funeral hearse was originally a wooden or metal framework, which stood over the coffin, and owing to the numerous spikes to hold burning candles, looked like the teeth of a harrow, and was later called a hearse. This then became a natural progression to the vehicles used today.

Pall bearers are always given special instructions by funeral directors on the day. Carrying a coffin with a person inside, while ensuring it is safe and respectful, can be tricky to coordinate. The stronger people will be given the head end to carry as it is heavier. Traditionally the ‘pall’ would be a heavy cloth that would cover the coffin. Sometimes in modern days, the ‘pall’ could be a flag. Whether there is a covering or not, ‘pall bearers’ is the term used for those who carry the coffin to this day.

‘Six feet under’ refers to the six foot depth that coffins need to be dug into the ground. It is this depth to leave the requisite four and a half foot clearance from the coffin to the surface. The precision to which these holes are dug is quite extraordinary. A cemetery will refer to all of the burials and cremations on their sites as interments. The word ‘cemetery’ comes from old French ‘cimetiere’, which meant, graveyard, which in turn originated from the Greek ‘koimeterion’, meaning ‘a sleeping place.’

And finally what is with the term ‘wake’.  It  is believed to have originated from the practice of creating sufficient racket to determine if someone was really dead or could be woken up. Who would have thought, the word had such ‘practical’ implications.

All industries have their own language. The police have ‘perp’ and ‘homicide’ as examples. The medical profession have many, including a full range of ‘……..oscopies’ or “……opsies’ or ‘……….ologists’. In tax there is ‘Division 7a’ , ‘Part 4a’ , ‘CGT’ and ‘Small Business Concessions’. Likewise in the funeral industry, words have been developed in order for the perfection required of the industry to be carried out. Just by saying and keeping to the terms, everyone is on the same page, so that all runs smoothly on the day.

The commentary in this blog is intended to be general in nature. It is just some observations from one fellow traveller in life to another. If anything in this blog raises issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or consult with a trusted medical professional.

Photo by Stephanie Klepacki on Unsplash




Trevor Hayley
Servicing Greater Adelaide and Regional South Australia

Phone: 0409 107 372


ABN 73 737 609 724

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