Funeral Home History
The Funeral Home Industry was founded in the early 19th century America providing coffin making and the services of undertaking. This care of the dead became less of a family affair and more of a business. During the Civil War, embalming became a more popular practice and with people becoming familiar with what a mortician could offer, funeral homes became more popular.
PBS has an interactive timeline called, Dying in America: A Chronology that provides information about death customs in America from the early 1800s to the present day. Information on cemeteries, undertakers, Victorian customs, and war are included in this timeline. One of the interesting facts it reveals is that the requirement for states to collect death statistics in America came out of the Civil War and the lack of records documenting dead soldiers.
Several interesting sites may help you better understand the funeral home industry in your state of interest.
The History of Colorado Funeral Enterprises by City or Town by Donald M Chase, provides information about undertaking and such in early Colorado.
The Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois has a website that includes a gift shop, information on their collections and historical resources. Its tour includes a circa 1928 embalming room, an 1870 home funeral, recreation of Lincoln's coffin, and mourning clothing. You can request research on funeral customs or history. The first hour is free, after that the cost is $25.00 an hour. This is a great resource for learning more about the funeral customs of our 19th century ancestors.
The National Museum of Funeral History located in Houston, Texas, includes online exhibits of a 1900 casket factory, 1921 motorized hearts, and Civil War Embalming. An online gift shop has a small collection of items such as clothing, jewelry and even a die cast model of a 1960s Hearst. The museum's motto is "any day above ground is a good one!"
Funeral Home Records
Funeral home records usually follow a template that provides standard information. Records may show few details or the minutia involved in planning a funeral down to what flowers were sent and any clothes or beautician services purchased by the deceased's loved ones. Other details like who paid for the funeral might help identify family members and their addresses. Ministers who are listed as performing the funeral service might provide a clue as to additional church records that may be available.
Unfortunately, funeral home records are records of a private company and being such they do not have to archive them or share them. Because family owned funeral homes now are increasingly being purchased by large funeral home corporations, older records often are destroyed. In the case of a funeral home that has been bought out, inquire with local funeral homes as to who may have the records. But don't be surprised if those records may not exist anymore.
Where can you find funeral home records? Start with the funeral home itself, if you have that information. You may find the information for the funeral home from your ancestor's death certificate, cemetery records, obituary, or funeral notice in the newspaper. When requesting records, remember that the funeral home is not really there for genealogists looking for records; they are dealing with those who have recently lost a loved one. The best approach is by letter, e-mail or phone call. Showing up unexpectedly while they are dealing with families probably won't help you.
Be patient when requesting information. These records are private records and as a private business, the funeral home can choose when, if ever, and with whom to share them. Some funeral homes may cite confidentiality. I had this happen in one case for a record I needed from the 1960s. I explained that I had the death certificate and that I was just looking for the name of the person who paid for the burial. The employee ended up providing me with that information, but only after she explained that those old records were large, and stored in a difficult to reach place.
The Family History Library has some funeral home records that have been microfilmed. From the catalog home page, conduct a place search for the state or country in which you are interested. Then chose the county by clicking on the button at the top right hand side, "view related places." Conducting a keyword search for the phrase "funeral home" will also provide you with a list of resources.
More and more funeral home records are being placed online by genealogical or historical societies, libraries or archives, or by the funeral home itself. Try Googling the name of the funeral home or the place and the phrase "funeral home" or mortuary. You may also want to try local and state archives, libraries and other repositories to see what death records, including funeral home records, they have.
Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.
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