Why the French for undertaker is ‘croque-mort’ (bite the dead)?
An undertaker in France is called a ‘croque-mort’. ‘Croque’ meaning to nibble or bite and ‘mort’ meaning dead. It is thought that the word comes from the middle ages when undertakers used to bite the toe of the deceased to check that they were definitely dead.
In France the word ‘croque-mort’ is given to employees of funeral parlours who transport the dead to the cemetery. The earliest recorded instance of the word was in 1788, but it may well date back much further..
The French word ‘croquer’ can mean to ‘crunch’, sinking one’s teeth into something with a sharp noise, or to eat something crunchy or make a noise when breaking something.
In La chanson de Roland, an 11th century epic poem and the oldest surviving major work of French literature, Charlemagne bites the toe of his nephew Roland who is lying dead, in the vain hope that he will jump back to life, crying in pain. He also does this because he fears that his nephew will be buried alive.
During this time many people feared that the dead would come back to life and cause mischief in the world of the living. A fear that has been around in varying degrees over the centuries since then, and became one of the great fears of the 19th century.
Alternative possible origins of the word ‘croque-mort’
French often recycles the same word with many different meanings, so historians argue that the word croque-mort may have other origins.
Croque-mort as in ‘steal from the dead‘
‘Croquer’ can also mean to steal, as some funeral parlour employees were known to steal jewels, gold teeth and wedding rings from the deceased.
Croque-mort as in ‘eat the dead’
The word could come mean that the coffin or the earth ‘eats’ the dead. This is similar to the word ‘sarcophagus’; originally a greek word meaning to ‘eat the flesh.’
Croque-mort as in ‘hook the dead’
Some historians argue that the origins of the word croque-mort come from the time of the plague in the middle ages. There were so many dead that the undertaker used a hook or ‘croc’ to assemble the bodies (think ‘bring out your dead’ in Monty Python’s Holy Grail).
Croque-mort as in ‘make disappear the dead’
Croquer can also mean ‘to make disappear’, as the job of the undertaker is to get rid of the dead body.
Si sai encor moult bon estoire, chancon moult bone et anciene: Studies in the Text and Context of Old French Narrative in Honour of Joseph J. Duggan by Sophie Marnette, John F Levy, et al.