Funeral Home Records Tell Stories of the Dearly Departed

The funeral home record for your ancestor is a resource not to be overlooked. The record not only lists the financial detail of services rendered for the last event of a person’s life, but often bio and family info collected for the clergyman’s eulogy. You may find cause of death listed, an obituary, last address… and more…

Funeral homes provide services that conform to the religious or ethnic beliefs and traditions of the departed, family in the time of the deceased. Who performed the service…what music was performed? Was it a closed service? Why? In many communities, funeral homes “specialized” or catered to a particular religious segment or ethnic group. Some provided burial services to the indigent, or for one group of locals, but not others.

Who paid for the funeral? The financial arrangements may hold clues to family members who contributed to the costs. Or did someone, not a family member, pay for all or part of the fees? What was the connection to the deceased or his/her family? Perhaps, an organization paid part or contributed a service or tribute providing a clue to membership in a group important in the life of the deceased.

Military service, honors and achievements, profession, award for best pie at the State Fair, beloved pet could be mentioned in the funeral home’s record….just as a prison record, or something considered a personal failure.

Now to find the funeral home…google it! Don’t know the name of the funeral home? Search the net for the town or county for funeral homes that existed within the timeframe of the death of your ancestor. Consult with the local library or county recorder for information too. Often, funeral home ownership pass down through families with no or little change to the name. Or someone in the community buys the business and the records stay with the owner. In some cases, the records may be archived with an area historical society, library, genealogy society. Some have been digitalized and are available in databases held by such groups or sites online.

Just as an example, the funeral home record of my Great Grandfather, Winfield, who died in Oklahoma City, 1918, holds a tidbit of information of interest. Winfield died of a stroke at age 59 years. His three adult children, a son and two daughters paid two-thirds of the $189.00 funeral expense. The cost and arrangements were standard for the time-casket, embalming, lots of flowers, hearse, limousines and burial. Winfield’s children were of means and ability to pay, but the balance was paid, likely in tribute to one of their members by the Order of the Knights of Pythias.

In my research, I had seen references to Winfield’s association with this organization in the local newspaper of his time. And certainly, I had found in findings about his activities and prolific writings, a man who was liberal, championed the working man and spoke out about against racism.

What was the Knights of Pythias? The following from their website, http://pythias.org tells the story of the organization’s beginning and purpose:

“The Order began, of course, during the Civil War, and its founder believed that it might do much to heal the wounds and allay the hatred of civil conflict. President Abraham Lincoln, being advised of the contents of the ritual and its teaching, said: ‘The purposes of your organization are most wonderful. If we could but bring its spirit to all our citizenry, what a wonderful thing it would be…I would suggest that these great principles by perpetuated and that you go to the Congress of the United States and ask for a charter, and so organize on a great scale throughout this nation, and disseminate this wonderful work that you have so nobly started. I will do all in my power to assist you in this application and with your work.”

The suggestion made by the President was adopted by the United States Congress. An application was made to Congress for a charter, and the Order of Knights of Pythias was the first American Order ever chartered by an Act of the Congress of the United States.

So find those funeral home records. They may tell you more than just the cost of the service! If you are looking for ancestors who died in Iowa, Genealogy Treasures is a terrific resource! GT is a searchable database of Iowa funeral home and cemetery records too. https://gentreasures.com

 

Being Mortals, What Matters in the End?

Death notice, The Star, and North Carolina Gazette, 29 July 1825:

DIED

At the residence of James Rainey, Esq. in Caswell County,

on the 19th instant, Mrs. Anne Samuel, aged 89 years, leaving

behind her near a hundred descendants.¹

Have you read the book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the Endby Atul Gawande? Dr. Gawande is an American physician who has seen from inside the medical system, and from the patient viewpoint, how aging and death is perceived and dealt with in America. He tells us that doctors are not at all prepared to talk with patients and families about illness or dying. Americans are conditioned to think in terms of getting oldsters in “safe” places, following the accepted way in our times.  The aging person, the focus of this “move to safety” does not ask the right questions, or effectively voice their wishes. Families and patients alike defer to the medical system for the answer of ‘what to do with Mom.’ But, in fact, medical intervention, often extends the suffering and mental agony of end of life for the patient and their families.

Dr. Gawande gives us hope in his book. Innovative changes in concepts for institutional living for the aged or infirm (otherwise known as assisted living, nursing homes, or senior communities) place individual autonomy, quality of daily life over simply giving care to the end. “Safe” isn’t the only criteria, but what has meaning for the individual. Other options exist for seniors such as Intentional Communities, cooperative groups for seniors in neighborhoods to make needed services more accessible to those remaining in their homes.

What struck me in reading Being Mortalis that we, the elders need to do some hard thinking, planning and talking  long before one falls and breaks the hip and the kids, who live far away, come rushing in to put Mom in a “safe” place. Without the communication before the emergency, without  planning (whether the kids are willing to communicate or not), one faces a hurry-up decision most likely not to your liking! The responsibility is ours, so is our future. There are options and possibilities to explore. It does matter.

As a genealogist, over and over I’ve seen the family as the caregiver either for an elder or a young invalid or “defective” child (as the 1880 census labeled). Families lived in close proximity or even in the same household. They often worked the farm or small business together. Grandparents helped with children. If help was needed, family was there, friends and neighbors too. As I examine the Census records, it is clear that family members intentionally live close to one another in rural areas, and in towns too. Living in close proximity quite often made it possible for elders to remain in their homes with help close if needed.  Census and other documents also show the elderly living in a household, which may not be a parent living in a son or daughter’s home, but instead with cousins  or other relatives. Sure there were probably some issues with the aged or sick or invalid in the household, but that was then the accepted way. “Heaven’s Gate Nursing Home” wasn’t yet open for business.

Now back to Anne Samuel who died 19 July 1825 at the home of her daughter, Nancy Samuel Rainey in Caswell County, North Carolina. Anne had lived with the Raineys for at least twenty years. She was likely a productive part of the household. She had been widowed in 1777, then went on to run a sizable farm, provide food and materials to the Revolutionary War troops and raise ten children.

One of Anne Samuel’s daughters, Sally, ran her own farm as a widow for about 25 years, with two adult children (widowers themselves) living in her home. When Sally died in 1849, the adult children, now themselves elderly, went to live with a cousin, helping on his farm.

John and Margaret Samuel sold their farm in Kansas in 1885 and moved to be close to their daughter in Bourbon County, Kansas. John was 67, quite frail, was no longer able to farm his land. Margaret, age 63, was losing her sight. When John, a Civil War veteran, died in 1996 at age 79, their widowed daughter, Mattie, moved in with her now blind Mother. Years earlier, John and Margaret had taken in Mattie and her husband in their time of need.

James Gillan, who had lived in many years in McLean County, Illinois, close to his children and other relatives, was taken in by his daughter after suffering a stroke in 1906. He died at age 84 in 1907 at his daughter’s home. James Gillan, himself an Irish immigrant, also helped many relatives come to America and find work in the mid 1800’s.

My father remembered his grandparents, Frank and Abbie McCoy, well as they came to live with his family when they were very old and infirm, cared for to the end by his mother, Lola. Lola’s parents had taken in her young cousin when his widowed mother died. Frank and Abbie had also helped care for their terminally ill grandson.

These are just a few of my kinfolk who lived to the end of their lives in the accepted way of the times. For the most part, families, friends and neighbors were there to help and in turn were helped as well in their later years without the  barriers to quality of life by the medical system and institutions in place now and accepted as the way in our times.

  1. Death notice for Anne Samuel, The Star, and North Carolina Gazette, Raleigh, North Carolina, 29 July 1825, V.X.VI. ReelRaNCS, w-3, North Carolina State Archives.