The History of the North American Funeral Home

Part One

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This is "Part One" of the required text for this course. After reading this section proceed to "Part Two".

INTRODUCTION

 

I am now over a half century old. I have been actively involved in the funeral home industry for over three and a half decades of my life. During that time I have seen a lot of change in the various funeral homes I have been affiliated with throughout my career. Some of those changes have come about very slowly while others seemed to appear out of nowhere. Nevertheless, change has come to the funeral industry repeatedly over the last century and a half.  

I not only have owned three funeral homes, but I was also a contracted trade embalmer in Southwest Ohio for over two of those decades. I have embalmed nearly 12,000 cases and have worked in well over fifty funeral facilities, not to mention the dozens and dozens of funeral homes I transported human remains into and out of during my career as an embalmer.

One of the most unappreciated benefits of that line of work is meeting the various personalities who work in and/or owned those funeral homes. They really are quite an interesting group of people who generally take their own funeral home’s history very seriously. The vast majority of these practitioners are very invested in who they are and how they got to be where they are, either on their own efforts or including those who came before them.

When I would arrive at those facilities, I would often ask for the notorious “10 cent tour”. Sometimes the tour ended up being worth a thousand dollars, and sometimes I wished I had asked for my “ten cents” back. Needless to say there always seemed to be something that caught my interest and taught me more about their specific role in the funeral industry, and how the industry’s historical development had affected them and their business. At the time, I didn’t realize the tremendous history lessons I was receiving until I sat down one day and reflected on it a few years later.

Once I took the time to reflect on much of my career, it prompted me to compile the information and stories into an account that would yield a discourse of how the funeral home itself has developed historically into the community icon it has become in the current American culture.

It is a community icon that has no close parallel. No matter what city or town you arrive at, if there is a notable population to serve, there is almost always a funeral home somewhere to be found. Each one is unique in personality, style of service and usually its physical construction.

While there are other historical accountings of the funeral industry and the various arts and sciences in and around it, the actual funeral home facility has not been deeply defined by its history and its development. It is not a long historical time line when compared to other aspects of American history, but it is a very unique and interesting account, especially for those who have been committed to serve the public in this distinguished profession.

 

PREPARING TO LEARN FUNERAL HOME HISTORY

 

The history of the funeral home in the mid western United States of America is one of evolution and innovation. The reason we will examine the mid western historical development of funeral homes is because it is the geographical arena where the most dynamic changes occurred in the most concentrated frame of funeral service and practice in the course of our nation’s history. While there have been several years, or even a couple of decades at a time when the traditions of the American funeral remained unchanged, the owners and operators of funeral home establishments were continually examining new possibilities and ways to better serve their clientele.

First let’s define what we mean by the “mid western” United States. For the sake of our historical examination, let’s define the geographical region that spans from the western side of the Smokey Mountains westward to the Mississippi River. Then we will draw a line across the northern borders of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and look at the territory extending all the way north until reaching the Canadian border. It would not be unheard of to also include states like Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota in this discussion. The stories of how the funeral homes in those states were established, is not much different than those of their near eastern neighbors.

As the population of the nation during the 19th century explored and moved into the western half of the land mass we know as the continental United States, the businesses that these settlers had become familiar with back east were established in similar fashion to meet the needs of the new communities they now lived in. The business of “taking care of the dead” was also a very necessary business to be established. That is why we can include into our historical survey these States west of the Mississippi River also.

Along with the development of the funeral home, we must not forget the suppliers of merchandise, funeral specific supplies and materials, and rolling stock (funeral transportation). This aspect of the mid western funeral home history amplifies itself in the same geographical locations that we have established.

At one time during the majority of the 20th century someone could draw a two hundred mile square parameter around the eastern half of Indiana and the central and western parts of Ohio and make an amazing parallel historical discovery. The vast majority of the caskets buried and hearses used by funeral homes throughout the entire United States were manufactured within that geographic area.

Hearse manufacturers bearing the names of Sayers & Scovill and its successor Hess & Eisenhardt were located in Cincinnati, Ohio. The A. J. Miller Co. of Bellefontaine, Ohio would eventually merge with the Meteor Motor Car Company and form the Miller-Meteor Division of the Wayne Corporation in Piqua, Ohio in the mid 1950s. The Superior Coach Corporation was located in Lima, Ohio. The Flxible Company (that’s spelled correctly) was located in Loudonville, Ohio. These companies were all located within a comfortable day’s drive of each other in the State of Ohio.

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 a century.

 

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 storefront.  

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 more profitable.

 

 

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