Notes on the Old-Fashioned Home Funeral

Some thoughts about the home funeral

Some thoughts about the home funeral

When the family Bible was passed down to me, I discovered a black flattened rose and a piece of black lace within the pages of that book. When I asked my aunt about these tokens, she responded, “Oh, those are from grandma’s funeral.” She began to tell me about how my great-grandmother’s casket was draped with roses and about the black lace dress that she wore to her grave.

That’s when I learned about how my father’s side of the family conducted their funerals. In every death from the time the house was built in 1900 to when my great grandfather died in 1953, the viewing for the body was held in my grandmother’s parlor, or ‘front room.’

The front room of most houses at the time were not used for television or any other entertainment except, perhaps, for the occasional piano recital. My grandmother’s front room contained two couches, a coffee table and a piano, along with a side table that held said Bible. It was in this room where the dead lay in state for loved ones to visit before the burial. For all intents, this room served as the family funeral parlor.

While I learned much about my great-grandmother’s death and funeral from this exchange with my aunt, other questions remain. These questions were brought to mind with an article that was published this year in Funeral Home News. In this piece, the author interviewed Douglas Ferguson, a man who worked in the Prince Edward Island, Canada, funeral industry since the mid-twentieth century.

Ferguson recalled that when he took ownership of the former Claude Jelley Funeral Home in O’Leary in 1958, that nine out of ten visitations were conducted in people’s homes. At the time, he recalls that people felt it was disgraceful to leave a body at the funeral home. He also mentions the “parlour,” much like the one in my grandmother’s home.

But, Ferguson also brings some other points to light, things I never considered:

“I’ve seen them go into houses and put beams underneath to hold the floor. If you put 50 extra people in a house, you know the weight that’s there,” said Ferguson, the senior member of the P.E.I. Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association.

Sometimes, because of the way the home was laid out, carrying the casket in and out, was no easy undertaking. “So you had to go in through a window. Take a window out, shove the casket in and carry a battery for light,” Ferguson commented.

I had to think about the width of my grandmother’s front room door when I read those comments. How did they get my great-grandmother’s casket in and out of that house? Did they need to supply supports for the front room floor?

Fortunately, my aunt still is among the living and her memory remains clear, so I’ll pose those questions to her and report back with my findings if she knows the answers. But, for those of you who are considering a funeral at home, you might think about these issues as well.

In the meantime, you can read more about Mr. Ferguson and his lasting legacy on his community, as he seeks to serve families in their times of need as he recounts how he and his family lived above the funeral home he purchased in 1963 (shades of Six Feet Under!).

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