The American Funeral
by Rob MOORE Licensed Funeral Director
EARLY TRADITIONS – Since the earliest beginnings of man on this planet, other humans have buried bodies of dead humans. Archeologists have found shallow graves dug by hand or crude tools. In later dated graves, they have found flowers carefully placed on the body of the deceased. In more recent human history, they have found ancient graves into which tools, hunting weapons and food baskets have been carefully placed. For thousands of years, humans have believed that a dead human body deserves decent and respectful treatment.
In the 17th century in Europe care of the deceased was undertaken by the family. They washed and dressed the body, laid-out the body of a period of time in the home, dug the grave, conducted a service acknowledging the life that had been lived by the deceased, and finally, they buried their loved one. Bodies were not embalmed. This European tradition came to America with the original Pilgrims and became the foundation for the American funeral tradition.
THE WAKE – Methods of confirming death were crude. Stories of burying life persons were not uncommon. In an attempt to prevent premature burial, families would sit by the body for several hours or a few days watching to see if the person awakened. This became known as the “wake”. In the Jewish tradition, this became a religious ritual known as the “watching”. They even have special benches used exclusively for this ritual purpose. During the wake or watching, families would be joined by friends. Today, this tradition is carried on in the form of the “viewing” or “visitation”.
OUTSIDE SERVICES – In the late 18th century the care of the dead began to be handed over to persons outside the family: cabinetmakers, church sextons and owners of livery services. Each professional had something special to offer. The cabinetmakers crafted coffins. Furniture stores sold coffins and related funeral merchandise. The church sextons laid-out and managed graveyards next to the church, and the livery operators had wagons in which to carry the deceased to the graveyard. It is from these four professions that most family owned funeral service businesses began in the United States. Embalming was rarely utilized.
EMBALMING – Dr. GANNAL of France introduced a method of embalming using the arterial system of the body and a concoction of chemicals that provided some form of preservation. Although not widely accepted or used, the idea caught the attention of enough practitioners that it was kept alive until the Civil War.
During the Civil War Thomas HOLMES, an entrepreneur, advanced the concept of arterial embalming and improved the preserving chemicals to the point where embalming could be employed on a wide scale at a reasonable cost. He approached the U.S. Government and obtained exclusive rights to embalm Union soldiers so they could be shipped home for burial in their home communities. Not one to miss an opportunity to make money, HOLMES employed salesmen to canvas homes in both the North and the South to sell coupons for embalming to the families who had sons fighting in the war.
As armies gathered for the typical huge Civil War battles, HOLMES and his crew would set-up camp nearby overlooking the battlefield. At the conclusion of the battle his men would search the thousands of dead bodies for embalming coupons. Those found with coupons would be carried to the nearby embalming tents for preparation and shipment back home to their families. Thus began the tradition of embalming in the United States.
Although available, many families did not take advantage of embalming, and there were no laws or regulations requiring it before burial. That changed with the sanitation movement that swept through America. Following epidemics in large communities – often due to water supplies contaminated by unembalmed bodies buried in a nearby churchyard, communities and states began to pass laws requiring embalming before burial. Virginia passed the first embalming laws in 1894. In many communities, the burial grounds were moved to the edge of the community and away from the water supply as an additional precaution.
UNDERTAKERS – In the mid-19th century those persons selling funeral merchandise began to undertake additional services – they became known as “undertakers”. Beyond merchandise (coffins, etc.) they provided laying out services, coffining, funeral direction and transportation. Coffins were made of wood in the shape of a human body – wide at the shoulders, narrowing toward the feet. Few coffins had any external hardware. Today we provide caskets, a rectangular box made of metal or wood with a cloth interior and exterior hardware.
FUNERAL HOME ORIGINS – Although families were most often responsible for the care and burial of their family members, they needed a source of funeral merchandise. Most often, they would go to town to the local furniture store and purchase a wood coffin. At that time, coffins were considered another piece of furniture or cabinetry. If you examine a photo of the inside of 19th century furniture store you will often see coffins standing on end at the back of the furniture store ready for purchase just like a piece of furniture. As time passed, these stores expanded their funeral offerings to include door badges, rental chairs etc. This is why many of the nation’s funeral businesses began as furniture stores. MOORE Funeral Home began as MOORE & FERGERSON Furniture & Undertaking next to the Lark Theatre on Main Street in Brazil in 1885.
Another common origin for funeral business is the livery service. Throughout America liveries provided assistance with funerals by offering transportation. It was an obvious extension of their existing business utilizing their teams of horses and buggies. By adding a horse drawn hearse, they found themselves in the funeral business. MILLER and Sons Funeral Home began as MILLER Livery on S. Franklin Street in Brazil in 1898.
Wakes and funerals continued to be conducted in the family home.
FUNERAL PARLORS/HOMES – Immigrants arriving in America took up residence in the large cities and lived in small apartments. When those families experienced the death of a family member, they had no parlor in which to hold the wake. In response to that need, businessmen in the large cities opened funeral parlors that families could rent for their wake and funeral. In the outlying communities like ours, the tradition of home based wakes and funerals continued until the early 1900’s when undertakers began offering their homes for wakes and funerals – so came the American funeral home.
TRANSPORTATION – Earliest American funerals utilized family and friends acting as pallbearers to carry the coffin to the graveyard. Then came the use of simple wagons – soon replaced by fancy carved wood horse drawn hearses – black for adults and white for children. Here in Clay County the MOORE family sent one of their horse drawn hearses to Whitestown, Indiana, where the hearse box was removed from the buggy frame, attached to a motorcar and returned to Brazil for use as Clay County’s first motorized hearse. My grandfather told me that we had to keep the horse drawn hearse for a few more years because some families objected to having their deceased family member carried to the cemetery in one of those new motor machines.
CLAY COUNTY FUNERAL SERVICES – Like most communities, Clay County experienced an explosion of undertaking business – most often in existing furniture, cabinetry or livery businesses. Currently there are five funeral homes in Clay County with only MOORE Funeral Home remaining under the ownership and management of the original founding family.
· SHERFEY & KIDD furniture and undertaking opened in 1868
· Jessie DECKER undertaking – where GASWAY sporting goods bldg. is located
· Philip WOOLF (from Center Point)/Mr. STIGLER on National Ave. & Sherfey St. 1889 to 1890
· DAUGHTERY & LEAVITT livery & undertaking on S. Meridian St.
· MOORE & Son Funeral Home – Wm. W. MOORE & George B. FERGERSON Furniture & Undertaking established 1885 next to Lark Theatre on Main St. · Moved to 118 National Ave. between Clay Co. Historical Museum and Eagles Lodge in 1916 –
· MOORE Funeral Home moved to SMITH family Victorian home at 142 N. Washington St. in 1946 – existing building doubled in size in 2001
· Four generations of ownership and management – Wm. W. MOORE Sr., Wm. W. MOORE Jr., Robert (Bob) T. MOORE and currently Robert (Rob) D. MOORE
· George R. SCHULTZ 1896 livery and undertaking –
· Charles R. SCHULTZ and Richard A. LAWSON in 1901
· LAWSON & MILLER in old M&M Restaurant bldg. in 1902
· Emanuel MILLER Livery & Undertaking on S. Franklin in 1898
· LAWSON & MILLER separated in 1906
· MILLER & Son Funeral Home / Emanuel MILLER and sons Harlan and Nick in 1906
· MILLERs moved to W. E. CARPENTER home in 1942 — closed in 1985
· FRENCH’s reopen MILLER & Sons Funeral Home as FRENCH Funeral Home in 1995
· MILLER Memorial Chapel opened by Bob MILLER & Tom MILLER in 1980
· LAWSON and Son Funeral Home 1926
· Richard A. LAWSON and son George R. LAWSON
· LAWSON – SLACK Funeral Home when Phil SLACK became owner
· Betty SLACK continued as owner following Phil SLACK’s death
· FRENCH’s purchased LAWSON–SLACK Funeral Home in 2000
· Carbon – SINER and WOODS– SINER bought out James WOODS – until 1902 –SINER & PELL (Wm. H. PELL) – until 1911 – Wm. H. PELL& son Robert PELL furniture & undertaking –until 1949 — Closed
· Harmony – John THOMAS or THOMAS & THOMAS south of National Road near Odd Fellows Building.
· Poland – Ben SCHOPENHORST and Orval SPELBRING – Hardware, furniture & undertaking
· Cory – Allie GLICK – bought out by Bill FOX
· Bowling Green – William TAPY Furniture & Undertaking 1862
· Harry MOON and BEAMER 1913 – Charles RENTSCHLER bought them out in 1923
· Andrew MILLER late 1800’s
· Philip WOOLF started in CP WOOLF Bros. Furniture & Undertaking then moved to Brazil 1889 – 1890
· Center Point – Charles RENTSCHLER bought out WOOLF Bros. and changed name to RENTSCHLER Funeral Home 1905-1934 – Brent RENTSCHLER 1934 – 1961 – Fred RENTSCHLER 1961 – 1969 – Bought out by Phil SLACK & closed
· Clay City – Charles HURST – sold to Brent RENTSCHLER – sold to Ben SCHOPENHORST and changed name to SCHOPENHORST Funeral Home – sold to Max PIERCE – sold to Phil SLACK (Betty SLACK) and renamed LAWSON–SLACK Clay City Chapel – sold to FRENCH’s in 2000 and renamed SCHOPENHORST Funeral Home.
The Modern Funeral Home — Today’s funeral home bears little resemblance to the early “funeral parlors”. The modern funeral home incorporates new facilities in compliance with state and federal regulations, and while the traditional funeral services and merchandise continue to be provided, the modern funeral home offers many additional services – before, during and after the funeral. Examples include pre-planned funerals, funeral trusts and continuing care through bereavement care programs.
Our family believes that a funeral is not a great financial investment; it is a sad moment in a family’s history. It is not a hedge against inflation; it is a rite of passage. It is not a retail sales event; it is an effort to make sense of our mortality. It has less to do with accounting profits and much more to do with actual losses. It is not an exercise in salesmanship; it is an exercise in humanity.