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

 

Then We Saw It, Now We Don’t…

Sadly, cemetery grave markers disappear. Finding an ancestor’s burial is further complicated by an inconsistent or even nonexistent system of burial records. Here in central Iowa, the township clerk is the person charged with maintaining cemeteries and the records. Some do, some don’t.

Gillan home2, Colfax, ILRaycemeteryIn July 1979, my family and I, travelled to McLean County, Illinois to do a bit of ancestor sleuthing. My Gillan branch lived in the area 1865 till James Gillan’s death in 1907. Stopping by the post office in this small midwest town, I was told the old home still stands and that there was a cemetery on that property as well. Directions in hand, my patient husband, young sons and I drove to the Gillan home in Martin township, then on down the road to the cemetery.

Gillan, Sarah-grave-Colfax, ILL

Sarah Gillan’s Gravestone

James Gillan had given a corner of his property, establishing a small cemetery, called Plymouth, in 1880. When his wife Sarah died in August of that year, she was buried there. One hundred years later, I showed up. In 1979, Plymouth Cemetery had fewer than ten gravestones, most broken, some unreadable. It was overgrown, obviously not maintained. We did find the grave stone for Sarah Gillan, broken from its base, but with chalk and paper deciphered the inscription.

Recently, I discovered that Findagrave.com has no listing for Sarah Gillan. Plymouth Cemetery is listed with nine burials including “Gillan unknown,” and this note left by the Findagrave.com submitter:

We found this broken tombstone in this remote cemetery in Martin Twp., McLean County, Illinois 4-2-2009. As I researched the Gillan name, I have learned the Gillan family owned property 4-5 miles south of Colfax, that is just about where this cemetery is located.

I contacted the person who submitted the information about Plymouth Cemetery to Findagrave.com and told her of my visit to the cemetery in 1979, when gravestones were there, sent her my photos and the documentation for Sarah Gillan’s burial.

Adding to the picture proof of Sarah’s burial in Plymouth Cemetery, I have a copy of her death certificate which states where she was to be buried. Then there’s the Centennial edition of the history of the area, picked up at the local library in Colfax, Illinois which contained a newsy entry on James and Sarah Gillan. Since I was kinfolk, the librarian honored me with a copy!

Cemetery, funeral home records, death certificates, obituaries and more should always be consulted whether you actually find a gravestone or not! If you are researching ancestors here in Iowa, you now have a fabulous, valuable resource on the website,  Genealogical TreasuresGT’s databases of actual records from area cemeteries and funeral homes provides you with an invaluable resource of information about your kinfolk. Several databases are now available here on GT, with many, many more to be uploaded over the next few months…take a look…find out more about your Iowa ancestors!

Getting to Know Archibald….

Published Boston, 1817

Archibald Samuel, born about 1749, is my 4th Great Grandfather. And he is my “brick wall.” My research has uncovered many facts about Archibald from the 1780’s to his death in 1832 in Caswell County, North Carolina. Archibald was a prominent part of the establishment of Caswell County in 1777, a property owner, obviously of means, a lawyer, County Commissioner, Sheriff, husband, father – all these life details found in deeds, books and various old documents. Even with much documented proof of his occupation and community activities,  the mystery remains as to where he was born, his parents’ names or how he is related to the other people of the Samuel surname in the county!

The search for ancestors often yields only the outline of their lives…birth, marriage, death, maybe occupation or military records too. When we happen on evidence of the person they were, their interests, beliefs, interactions, maybe sense of humor, it is rewarding indeed.

And so it was with Archibald Samuel when I discovered his purchase of a set of books in 1817. I found reference to this purchase in William S. Powell’s book,  When the Past Refused to Die, History of Caswell County, North Carolina, 1777-1977, as follows:  “In 1819, seven sets of the ‘State Papers and Publick Documents of the United States from the Accession of George Washington to the Presidency‘ were purchased in Caswell County. Only fourteen subscribers throughout the state bought this twelve-volume set. Those who added this useful source book to their libraries were John Daniel, James Daniel, Fred W. Pleasants, Archibald Samuel, James Sanders, Joseph Sanders and Charles Wilson.” (p. 408)

Archibald Samuel lived through the American Revolution and is said to have served in the Army. He lived in an geographic area where battles were close by, most of the men of the area were patriots, many served as Officers in the military and were loyal to the cause. Archibald was also involved in his community as legal professional, and the business and development of his county. It can be assumed that Archibald Samuel was well read and as a patriot himself, an admirer of George Washington. He was no doubt delighted in purchasing, owning and reading this 12 volume set of books*. Did Archibald have a library in his home in Milton, North Carolina?

I wondered if the book set, State Papers and Publick Documents of the United States from the Accession of George Washington to the Presidency, might still exist today, shelved in libraries today. Yes! Found it on “Open Library” and is available for reading in a variety of formats. WorldCat has it catalogued and it is available for inter-library loan.

Archibald bought his set of these volumes in 1819. Likely, they were the second edition printed and published in 1817 “under the patronage of Congress, including confidential documents, now first published.” (1817 edition published by T.B. Watt and Sons, Boston). I can picture Archibald Samuel, sitting by his fireside with candles burning, reading his books. I wonder if he made notes in the margins….

*You, too, can read State Papers and Publik Documents of the United States from Accession of George Washington to the Presidency: Exhibiting a Complete View of our Foreign Relations Since that Time…..”   You can access and read this book at Hathitrust Digital Library:   https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044106526460;view=1up;seq=13

 

The book is great reading and informs well of the thought and culture of the post Revolutionary War era, the organization of the new government, replete with political wrangling and personalities of the founders too. As you read this book, digitalized form, think of Archibald reading his book by candlelight in 1819 in Milton, Caswell County, NC.

 

 

 

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.

Going to College…back in the day…even girls!

Eva Gillan, 1885

Eva Gillan, 1885

In 1870 America, there were only 500 public high schools with enrollment of about 50,000 students (U.S. population was almost 40 million in 1870 as per census data). At that time, enrollment had opened to accept females, mostly to be trained as teachers. Reading, writing and arithmetic curriculums were also expanding to train working class youth in skilled trades to meet the needs of a country fast changing in the second phase of the Industrial Revolution.  more

While secondary schools were growing in many states, many did not have courses that prepared students for college, thus students could not pass entrance exams. Many colleges in that era, offered “preparatory schools,” to fill the gap, but also to expand their college student enrollments. Families of means sent their children to such college based academies, particularly when those schools were close to home.

Eva Gillan, at age 16, was in the Junior class, 1879-1880, of the Preparatory School of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. In the junior year, the curriculum included arithmetic, English grammar, geography, Latin, algebra, English analysis, U.S. History, elocution, English composition, physiology, and criticism.

Two of Eva’s brother’s, David and James also attended Illinois Wesleyan University. James was a freshman in the Preparatory courses during the same period Eva attended. James continued his studies and was later listed in census records as “professor of education,” then a few years later on the Board of Education in Omaha, Nebraska. David Gillan, graduated in 1881. In the Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in 1929, David is shown as having achieved a B.A., and M.A. [1]  David H. Gillan, served as a Methodist Minister in southern California for twenty-five year; he also established a date farm there.

The Academic and Teachers Course, as the preparatory school at Illinois Wesleyan University was called, gave the following description of the course in the university’s 1879 catalog:
“This course is arranged with reference to a thorough preparation for college; also to qualify young men and women for teaching in common and graded schools, and further, to furnish the basis of a business education to those whose time will not allow them to complete a full college course.” [2]

Eva Gillan and two of her sisters, Mary J and Addie Gillan, attended Illinois State University, 1880-1882. In records available for those years, Eva completed course work in reading, spelling, arithmetic, geography, diction, writing, history, drawing, theory and practice (probably related to teaching). [3]

James and Jane McClure Gillan, parents of Eva, Mary, Addie, James M. And David H. Gillan were strong advocates for education for both males and females, as evidenced by sending daughters to college as well as sons. James and Sarah were immigrants from County Antrim, Ireland, both educated and literate. James was instrumental in the establishment of schools in McLean County, Illinois.

Years later, Eva Gillan Samuel, enrolled her three children in the preparatory school, Academy (1907) of Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. She found the high schools in Kansas then did not prepare her children for further education as her father as discovered back in 1879. From the Baker University Catalogue of 1906-1907, in explaining the existence of an academy at Baker University, ‘many localities do not provide academic opportunities for students which prepare them for college course work;” further the statement cites lack of libraries, literary societies, lecture courses and elementary knowledge of grammar, arithmetic, physiology, US history, government and geography required to pass entrance exams for college. The Academy at Baker University had four courses of study: Classical, Philosophical, Scientific, and Literature and Art. Graduation from the Academy ensured acceptance into the Collegiate Department without further examination.’[4]


[1] Illinois Wesleyan University Alumni Roll, published in “Illinois Wesleyan University Bulletin,” Series XXVII, no. 2, June, 1929; Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[2] Annual Catalogue of the Illinois Wesleyan University, 1880-81, Bloomington, Illinois, Bulletin Printing and Publishing Co., 1881, Illinois Wesleyan University Library Archives and Special Collections; copy provided to Bonnie Samuel, June 2015.
[3] Letter from Gardner VanDyke, Registrar, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, 9 Feb 1971 to Bonnie Samuel, Des Moines, Iowa; citing records found in archives for the attendance of Eva Gillan.
[4] Kay Brandt, Reference Librarian, Baker University, Baldwin City, Kansas (BRADT@HARVEY.BAKERU.EDU, 12 March 1997) to Bonnie Samuel, Albuquerque, New Mexico; providing copy of partial 1906-07 Baker University Catalog describing the Academy, pp. 76-81; an email with info on the Academy and findings of enrollment of Raymond, Ferne and Beula Samuel.