I See Dead People


If you delve into the genealogical undertaking of your family history, you will eventually come face-to-face with dead people. And if you become as immersed into the field as I, you will soon realize that dead people are just like you and me except for one very cold fact: their dead!

But seriously...gaining a deeper understanding of the historical progression of funeral rituals can help you uncover significant ancestral facts buried within the records of the funeral industry.

I recently received a little blurb of fascinating information on funeral customs from Carolyn Leonard, a chairperson of the Oklahoma Genealogical Society. This in turn, sparked my curiosity to dig for further historical details.

The American funeral industry emerged as a result of the Civil War. Prior to this time, most Americans abhorred any intervention to preserve a dead body. But many wealthy Northern families during the war, were desperate to have their loved one's bodies delivered from the battlefields; providing their burial close to home.

The historical turning point that lead us into our current practice of embalming, was the death of President Abraham Lincoln. As the country mourned the loss of their president, his body was placed on a train for a death procession across America. At each stop, embalmers aboard the train made continuous efforts at preserving the body so the public could view their president; as he was in life.

Prior to the twentieth century, most deaths occurred at home rather than in a hospital. The funeral directors were typically associated with furniture makers and they were called upon to deliver coffins to the deceased family's home. The family members, sometimes including the children, helped prepared their loved one's body, placing the coffin in the home's main room for a viewing.

During the late 1890's when the practice of embalming became common practice, the 'undertakers' would retrieve the body to be prepared in the funeral 'parlor'; then returned it to the family's home for the funeral. This practice evolved into the early 1900's custom of 'calling on' one another to make a proper visit to view the family's deceased. Leading into the use of 'mourning cards' or 'funeral cards'; an often underused genealogical treasure.

Funeral cards were distributed to family, friends and the community to alert invitees to the date and time of the funeral. In Victorian times, the cards were often detailed in elaborate weeping willows, cypress and crosses and invaluable vital facts such as birth, death and place were etched inside the cards.

Recognizing their importance to family historians, may websites and state archives are increasingly digitalizing funeral cards. Ancestors At Rest and Genealogy Today have downloadable mourning cards easily printable to your home computer and with a quick Google search, I discovered that both the Tennessee and Washington State Archives have indexed statewide funeral cards.

Seeking out funeral home records and funeral cards can be an invaluable tool to the family historian; providing vital information when other records are not readily available. Because the truth is; what we are all really digging for in genealogy is dead people...and loving it!

Keep searching for answers,

1)Carolyn B. Leonard
2)Historic Camden County: A lively Look At The History of Death.
3)Death Reference: Encyclopedia of death and dying.