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Article posted: April 15, 1999
Before There Were Funeral Homes, There Were Furniture Stores
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles
Back in the days when funerals were held at home, the only outside help which a family needed was in supplying the coffin. Since it was made of wood, it was bought at the store that also sold wooden furniture. Some people even built their own coffins, if they had the time and talent.
As funerals became more elaborate, the people who ran the furniture stores branched out, to supply a hearse or the other accoutrements of Victorian mourning.
Eventually the modern funeral home as we know it evolved. It was known as a mortuary or an undertaker's, names which modern practitioners don't like.
My grandmother told me that the first time she went to a funeral home was in 1943, when her great-aunt died. This is surprisingly late.
Most genealogists have probably not used funeral home records as part of their research. It may be we do not know what business our family dealt with. We might not want to ask.
At the recent Gene-O-Rama conference in Ottawa, a panel of experts was asked when funeral homes started keeping records which might be useful in research. No one knew the answer, so I phoned some businesses I knew.
Although undertakers' records from the last century do exist, they are rare. We begin to hear more about them in the years before World War I, and by the 1920s they have become common. This is a rule of thumb to guide researchers.
The oldest funeral home in Kitchener-Waterloo is Schreiter-Sandrock, which began in the 1880s. Their records date from the 1940s. A spokesperson there said she was not sure what happened to earlier ledgers.
Ratz-Bechtel's earliest books date from 1923, with fuller funeral records beginning in 1940.
My family usually uses McIntosh-Anderson in Oshawa. They were founded as a furniture store in 1853, but their funeral home accounts begin in 1924.
The real question is: how accessible are these records to researchers? The answer surprised me. In an age of increasing secrecy, all these businesses expressed an open book policy. They are asked to help researchers and do so, and none of them charge for the work.
I asked Laura Hamilton of the Ontario Funeral Service Association if this was typical of arrangements in funeral homes around the province. She affirmed that it was. Throughout their industry, she said, there was an awareness that funeral home records were a community resource which they were proud to own and they hoped would be used in the future. Hamilton also wanted me to know that funeral directors are terrific people "and they have a great sense of humor too!"
If you know, from obituaries or other sources, the name of the funeral director who might hold family records, do approach them. The material they have may include names of parents and children, causes of death and funeral details which will add to your family narrative. If you do, please remember this is a business with other priorities than genealogy. Treat them with the utmost courtesy.
The Ontario Genealogical Soceity's annual Seminar will be held at the Constellation Hotel near Toronto airport on May 28-30. The emphasis this year is on various ethnic groups: English, German, Irish, French, Loyalists. There will be a huge book fair and the chance to interact with other genealogists. The Saturday session begins with a choice between Internet resources or Barbara Aitken discussing her new book on Ontario local histories. For a brochure write to 24 Shelbourne Ct., Brampton L6Z 1C2, fax 905 846 1637 or phone 905 846 3061.
Ryan's Heritage Notebook...
I expect we all have the same vision of our ancestors who first settled Ontario. The lived in log cabins and went to town in a carriage pulled by a pair of fine horses.
The cabin is right but in fact few settlers owned even one horse. They were too expensive. Initially people walked most everywhere using narrow paths. The roads were rough and full of holes. When pressed, people could hire a horse.
The settlers first experience of land travel in Canada was the voyage from Montreal down the St. Lawrence to Kingston. The first nine miles was overland to LaChine, where most would embark on flat-bottomed durham boats for the river trip.
Rich people could hire a carriage, which was pleasant. Poorer people piled themselves and their luggage in a diligence (stage-coach) or a large wagon.
Pierre Lambert has published a history of stage coaches in Quebec (Les anciennes diligences du Quebec, Editions du Septentrion, $22.95) showing routes and varying kinds of vehicles. Most appear small (for four people at most) although some descriptions state that there were several seats, including some made of leather like a sling, which swayed about for the comfort of the rider. They were pulled usually by four horses, which could be changed at various inns along the way.
While most of the tired travellers continued down the St. Lawrence in the durham boats, stopping by night on the riverbank or in a neighbouring farm or inn, many did make the journey by coach or even walked. One man whose dog was not allowed on the boat in 1819 walked from Lachine to Kingston faster than his luggage which travelled on a boat.
After the long voyage across the sea, most emigrants found the stop-and-start trip on the inland river exhausting. By the time they were firmly on land, in Toronto, they must have felt as if they had been travelling for months. Observers there found the new arrivals looking sick and tired. The pioneer land agent (and medical man) Tiger Dunlop recommended a dose of calomine as a preventative and pick-me-up. It doesn't sound like a good idea.
The Lambert book is a prize for those interested in pioneer travel but since it is in French, many people might not be able to use it. The standard work in English on this subject is Edwin Guillet's Pioneer Travel (University of Toronto Press, $10.95) first published in 1966 and still in print. (Editor's Note: Global has an inquiry in at U of T for cpies fr resale... call 613-257-7878 if interested in a copy)
New history of Lambton County: Historian Glen C. Phillips has written a new pictorial history of Lambton County which comes out in May. It has 150 pictures. Phillips' previous books include a picture history of Sarnia, and reference books on Canadian photographers and bottle manufacturers. Lambton: An Illustrated History costs $22.45 before May 1 (GST and postage included), and $30.20 afterward. It can be ordered prepaid from Cheshire Cat Press, 1110-95 Fiddler's Green Road, London N6H 4T1.
Quinte Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, which covers Prince Edward and Hastings counties, has launched an annual magazine called The Beacon. It contains historical and genealogical articles from throughout their area, as well as interesting advertisements for various heritage businesses. They plan on issuing The Beacon every January, and the cover will always be a lighthouse from the Quinte area. There were 26 lighthouses there, so they are safe for the first quarter of the twenty-first century. The magazine also contains an index to the Searchlight, the Quinte branch newsletter, including queries about family names.
I found the variety of articles quite interesting and the price is right too, only $10. To order yours send a cheque to Quinte Branch OGS, Box 35, Ameliasburgh ON K0K 1A0.
Another New Ottawa Valley Book Coming In May
Another new publication from global Heritage Press, concerning an area close to Pontiac, will be released by GHP on May 28, 1999:
The Pioneers of the Upper Ottawa, by Anson A. Gard. A facsimile reprint of an extremely rare book of historical and family sketches with an extensive new index and introduction by Ryan Taylor. The book was originally published in 1906 and contains thousands of names and accounts from the early settlement period of Aylmer and Hull, Quebec area. The book will be published in hardcover. Send an e-mail to Sandra at Global Genealogy, if you would like to be notified when it is ready or check out Global Heritage Press' web site at http://GlobalHeritagePress.com.
Books By Ryan Taylor
Across The Waters, Ontario Immigrants Experiences 1820 - 1850 - by Frances Hoffman & Ryan Taylor, 1999. Riveting first-hand accounts of the immigration and settlement experience, taken from the diaries and letters of 150 immigrants.
Routes To Roots, The Best of Ryan Taylor's columns from the Kitchener Waterloo Record, by Ryan Taylor 1997
More Family History Research Resources