A visit to the oldest surviving undertakers in the city
Under the shade of a twisted old tree on Mount Road survives a company that has lain to rest many a soul. Blue wooden doors open to a narrow passage where multiple slabs of granite and marble lean against stone walls. Workers are busy carving inscriptions while woodwork goes on at another end. In another room, freezer boxes are stacked up between two white Roman columns. In the passage is parked a black Omni, its headlights out and seats toppled, with painted white letters in front ‘J. Fenn and Co.'
Though the history of J. Fenn and Co. dates back to 1854, not much is known about John Fenn, the man who began it. “He was an Englishman who started this concern for the British regiments here,” says L. Deenadayalan, who now runs the company with his brothers L. Janardhan and L. Anantharaman.
One Vembuli Naicker, who had initially worked as a sculptor of headstones, became a contractor for J. Fenn. The business had taken off well by then. John was concentrating on the undertaking part of the business while Vembuli took care of the tombstones.
After John's death, his wife Georgina Fenn continued the business for a year or so before she passed on. As the couple was without an issue, the firm was taken over by the Administrator-General of Madras. “After Georgina's death, Vembuli was given the business in 1892 on the condition that the goodwill be maintained,” says Deenadayalan. “We've been on Mount Road ever since the firm started. But the firm was spread across five red-tiled buildings that housed the stables, office, workshop and the hearses.” It was eventually reduced to their current two-storey workspace-cum-office due to a split in the family.
After Vembuli, his son V. Krishnaswamy took over in 1899 after which his son K. Govinda Naicker, who trained himself in the Government School of Arts and Crafts, established the firm's reputation for their elaborate workmanship. Govinda Naicker also introduced motorised hearses in Madras, replacing horse-drawn carriages with Essex motors in 1931.
“We're the oldest undertakers and funeral directors in South India,” says Deenadayalan, the fifth generation running the firm, “We have seen clients who have come to us over generations. Initially, it was just the Christians. But after the 1980s, people across religions began to use our ambulance, embalming and mini-morgue services.”
It was J. Fenn & Co. which installed the pedestal for the eternal flame at C.N. Annadurai's memorial at the Marina, and made the tombstone for J.J. Goodwin, the secretary and stenographer of Swami Vivekananda. “In those days, the tombstones and their inscriptions were done by hand. We'd take a big rock, reduce it to the needed size, polish it by hand and then have it erected by our workers.”
While technology has certainly intervened in the working of this 158-year-old firm, with them now offering freezer boxes, ambulance services and more, the air around this office, with its narrow staircases and peeling limestone paint is reminiscent of another age. “Nowadays, every other driver calls himself an undertaker. Of course, the city is no longer what it was and has become an ocean. When loved ones pass away, people are often confused and ask around for services rather than approach us directly. These middlemen charge them a lot more for the same services we offer and they only realise it later,” says Deenadayalan. “We can't do something like that because as a firm, we have our own ideals and ethics. That's the reason we've survived so long.”