Casket companies such as Batesville, Aurora, Springfield Metallic, Crane & Breed and Astral
Industries (to name a few) were all located in the southern Indiana and in the southwestern region of Ohio. They shipped their
products by railroad, truck and boat out to the entire nation. These companies and others like them were all very progressive
in their approach to manufacturing caskets for the funeral home industry.
Even embalming chemicals and other mortuary supplies found their roots in the same geographical regions. The Champion Chemical
Company was founded in Springfield, Ohio (just west of Columbus, Ohio) in 1878. The Frigid Fluid Company, located outside
of Chicago, Illinois in Northlake, has not only manufactured embalming chemicals, but has also produced a vast line of innovative
mortuary equipment over the years. The Ferno-Washington Company located in Wilmington, Ohio has been manufacturing mortuary
equipment, specializing in cots and preparation room tables for many decades. These companies and many others in the great
mid west have accounted for a large portion of the mortuary supplies and equipment manufactured and used in the United States.
And so as the funeral home evolved historically and sought new innovations and technologies, their
suppliers were needed even more. History indicates that they set up shop in obvious close vicinity to these funeral homes
so they could fulfill the needs of the ever changing and developing funeral home business.
It was a cooperative team of suppliers and practitioners that created a solid foundation for funeral
homes to be transformed into better equipped and better supplied facilities to serve the needs of grieving families for over
FROM EMBALMERS TO FUNERAL HOMES
To understand the history of the American funeral home one must understand the history of mortuary
embalming and the care of the dead in our nation. Prior to the Civil War arterial embalming for preservation was virtually
unheard of. There were no mortuaries or dedicated businesses strictly designed for the care of the dead. Embalming might have
been practiced by some medical doctors on anatomical specimens and even an occasional political dignitary, but it was generally
not thought of as a marketable service. As the industrial age grew during and around the time of the Civil War, so did the
need for new technologies and services.
The increasing national press coverage of the Civil War also sparked a need to bring the dead home
from their various battles for proper burial. This in turn created a market for the primitive arterial embalming processes.
Individual embalmers (mostly surgeons who had some education in human anatomy) became the marketable service. Because of the
increasing demand they would train their assistants and often these assistants would eventually become practicing embalmers
on their own.
Pre Civil War government records indicate the body of President William Henry Harrison was embalmed
in 1841 by a Washington DC undertaker named John Williams. Another record indicates that a New York undertaker named John
Patten embalmed the body of Martin Van Buren in 1862. Still other historical records tell us of another embalmer man named
Dr. Thomas H. Holmes. Dr. Holmes, a native of New York practiced his embalming skills in Washington DC during the Civil War.
He eventually returned to New York and established his own pharmacy where he sold his own brand of embalming fluid and a version
of “root beer” that he had created.
While embalming may have been practiced occasionally outside the realm of anatomical education,
prior to the Civil War, most funeral directors (undertakers) outside of the major metropolitan areas had never heard of arterial
embalming or made the service available. The Civil War and particular the press coverage of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln
changed all of that.
Slowly over the next half century and into the first two decades of the 20th century
the desire by the general public for this service
drew the undertakers of that era into the practice and use of the evolving art and science of embalming for preservation.
They would often travel to the larger cities where classes would be held to teach these various mortuary practices. These
classes or seminars would last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days, depending on who the instructor was. Often the
instructor would be promoting his own formula of embalming fluid and injection equipment.
These educational events gradually brought embalming into the public’s perception as a marketable
service. After the beginning of the 20th century, embalming was advertised in funeral home handbills and newspaper
ads along with the other services and merchandise that a particular funeral home would promote.
THE EARLY PROTOTYPES
The funeral home as we know it today did not express its prototype image until shortly after the
ending of World War I. The earlier prototype facilities would have hardly been recognizable when sitting next to their contemporary
descendants. They were often housed in personal homes with a small sign next to the front door, or in a less than obvious
Most funeral directors of the early 20th century were practicing more than one career
or business. Many less urban funeral directors were operating furniture / carpet stores, cabinet and carpentry businesses. In
the major metropolitan cities they often operated livery stables. Often times in the rural parts of mid west America an undertaker
would first and foremost be presented to the general public as a carpenter / salesman who would make everything from furniture
to shelving and cabinets, using his skills to also build a variety of coffins that other family members could select from
for the burial of their loved ones.
When these funeral directors didn’t build their own coffins and caskets, they would usually
have a very limited selection of available funeral products for families to select from. This is because of the amount of
space caskets consume.
Some of these earlier funeral directors might offer a family to browse through a picture book of
caskets and other funeral merchandise, especially
if there were casket manufacturers in their general locality, or if they were close to the major railroads where they could
receive prompt shipment of standard line manufactured coffins and caskets.
Some early funeral homes and funeral directors might also maintain a retail lumber yard or a hardware
store so they could buy necessary casket and coffin construction materials at wholesale cost, thus making their businesses