I went to a family funeral recently. I had been working on family stories, and I was reminded of how much funeral customs had changed in the last century.
My grandfather, my mother’s dad, died in an accident in 1926. He died in a hospital and his body was removed to their home to be cared for. According to my mother, the women in the family washed and prepared the body for burial. Grandma called the undertaker, whose main business was cabinet making and ordered a coffin. A black wreath was placed on the front door as a notice for those who passed by that someone had died. All this was common in the mid 1920s
The body was laid out on the dining table until the coffin arrived. Although embalming was becoming common in the 1920s, it was still very expensive and grandpa was not embalmed.
As was the custom, Grandpa’s family and close friends sat with the body until the funeral. In the evening they played cards. Grandma, Mom and her sister served coffee and sandwiches. When the coffin arrived and it was time for the funeral, the body was moved outside. The funeral was held in the back yard.
When I was checking out some of the things mom told me, I found out something interesting about moving the body. At that time, in some parts of the country, it was considered improper to move the coffin out the regular door where living people would enter and exit. The parlor often had a fake door, with no steps from the outside, that was used to remove the casket and transport the body. It was called death’s door. In poor homes, they might have used a window.
I don’t believe this was common in the part of rural Minnesota, where Grandpa lived. There were no fake doors in their house, and the body went out the front door.
Since Grandpa was not embalmed, lots of flowers were brought in to cover the smell. Afterwards, Mom hated the smell of roses and lilies and requested that there be none at her funeral.
To further complicate things, the insurance company refused to pay death benefits without an autopsy, and so six or eight weeks later, Grandpa was exhumed. The timing depends on the storyteller and I can’t find the record. The whole family attended the exhumation and the service when they reburied the body which had greatly deteriorated.
About the time of my grandpa’s funeral, changes were starting to happen. Not in the small, rural communities where my grandparents lived, but in larger towns and more populated areas. It was during this time in the early 1900s that the professional undertaker came into being. He, it was always a he, “undertook” the job of caring and preparation of the body for the family. Over time, undertakers took on more and more of the roles that we consider part of today’s funeral service. And yes, one big change is the inclusion of women funeral directors in the profession.
Response to 52 Ancestors Weekly Challenge: Changes