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The Society is collecting funeral home records. Some records are at the St. Louis Genealogical Society office and St. Louis County Library Special Collections. The period covered varies by funeral home and ranges from 1879 thru 2002.
By the seventeenth century, English and European families cared for their deceased in the home, washing and dressing the body, which was then laid out before burial. Family members paid a local carpenter to build a casket, dug the grave, transported the remains to the gravesite, and conducted the memorial service, usually with the assistance of the local clergyman. These traditions came to America with its earliest settlers and continued virtually unchanged until the mid-1800s.
The most significant advance in modern burial procedures was made by the French physician Dr. Jean-Nicolas Gannal, whose background as an apothecary assistant led to his experimentation with different chemicals that might be used to preserve the body. In 1838 he published his findings in a breakthrough publication, History of Embalming and of Preparations in Anatomy. In that same year, Dr. Richard Harlan, a physician in Philadelphia, traveled to Paris where he visited Dr. Gannal and received a copy of his newly-published book. Dr. Harlan was so impressed with Gannal’s work that he requested (and received) permission to translate the book into English and publish it in America in 1840.
At the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, the ages-old burial procedures began to change. Cabinetmakers began building coffins to be displayed and sold in furniture stores. Livery stables, which owned horses and wagons, offered transportation services to gravesites. And church sextons assisted in locating and preparing graves within their burying yards. The Union Army included embalmers in the field and established regulations for their practices. Following the war, Army embalming surgeons traveled throughout the country to teach livery operators, cabinetmakers, and sextons the art of embalming.
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln brought the value of embalming practices into public view. Lincoln was shot on the evening of 14 April 1865 and died the following morning. His body was embalmed at the Executive Mansion in Washington, D.C. From there, over a period of nineteen days, the American public viewed the president’s remains as his funeral train wound its way from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, where he was buried on 3 May.
Virginia was the first state to pass embalming laws in 1894. Following the Civil War and up to about 1930, embalming was done in the home of the deceased. The undertaker and his assistant brought a portable wooden table, known as a cooling board, as well as necessary instruments, such as a gravity bottle, hose, and formaldehyde. After the embalming operation, usually done in the bedroom, the body was dressed, placed in a coffin, and taken to the front parlor of the home for visitation. The undertaker then provided transportation to the gravesite.
Undertaking and Funeral Homes in St. Louis
In St. Louis, undertaking practices echoed those outlined above, with the earliest services being provided by area livery stables. The earliest of these firms to offer undertaking services in St. Louis were the Wm. H. Donas livery stable at 2809 North Grand in 1807 and John Decker’s livery stable at 12 North Nineteenth Street in 1810. Many others soon followed. James A. Thomas offered a “Coffin Warehouse” at 5 North Second Street in 1840. Five years later, William A. Lynch opened his business as an “undertaker and cabinet maker” at 132 Thirty-Fifth Street.
The first St. Louis business to incorporate the title of “funeral home” into its name was the Schrader Funeral Home, which opened its doors at 14960 Manchester in what is now the St. Louis County community of Ballwin in 1868. It was founded in that year by Frederick Schrader, a carpenter and cabinet maker, who had emigrated from Hanover, Germany, to St. Louis in 1846. That family business remains in operation today as St. Louis’ oldest family-owned funeral home.
Locally, funeral homes came into use in the mid-1920s. Spacious in their time, they offered arrangement offices, casket selection rooms, and visitation parlors. However, some visitation in family homes continued until the 1940s and, occasionally, still today. With the birth of these full-service funeral homes, funeral directors took responsibility for all details of the service for the deceased and family.
Over the years, literally thousands of private businesses have offered undertaking services to the St. Louis community. Because each of these businesses is a private firm, the scope and location of whatever records they may have kept is, to say the least, problematic. When the owner of an undertaking firm died or closed the business, that firm’s records were often kept by the family and eventually lost or destroyed. If a firm was bought, the earlier records transferred to the new owner. But tracing who owned what is sometimes nearly impossible.
St. Louis Genealogical Society · #4 Sunnen Drive, Suite 140 · St. Louis, MO 63143 · 314-647-8547