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A Look Back: The Undertaker Business in Springville

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By Jolene Hawkins

Looking back to the occupations of the undertaker, and in one in particular for our area was A L Pingrey, who ran a furniture and undertaking business starting in 1892. Now you may ask, why furniture?  Well, think about it.  The undertaker usually made the casket.  To make the casket, they would use six boards, and one must be able to work with wood and have the pieces fit together nicely, and maybe even add a liner to the inside.  So making a cabinet, or table and chairs, was easy for them as they had the tools and the materials, along with the space they needed to make items and display them. Mr. Pingrey would display his furniture on one floor and the caskets on another floor.

In the early 1800s, undertakers were not called for the deceased, but the family would take care of the deceased, the body was laid out, washed and dressed in a shroud of winding sheet, made of muslin or wool. Afterwards, the deceased was placed in a simple pine coffin, often constructed by a family member of a neighbor.  During this time, the body would remain at home in the parlor for one to three days while relatives, neighbors and friends would “watch” over the body round the clock.  That is where the term “wake” comes from—they were waiting to see if the deceased would wake up. Depending on the weather, large blocks of ice may have been placed beneath the coffin, with smaller chunks distributed about unembalmed body. Ever wondered why flowers are around the caskets?  Sometimes they kept the body until it started to decay and smell before they buried them, thus ensuring they were indeed dead.

Dr. Thomas Holmes began promoting the innovation of embalming, during and in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Families wanted their sons, fathers, brothers, uncles and such buried near their loved ones, not in what they considered a fore long place and the railroad was able to transport them home.  During the Civil War, you could hire someone to travel with the body and mourn over the body—for a charge, of course. Families were willing to request that service to get their boys home.

At the Lucy Bensley Genealogy Center, there are records of several undertakers from 1892 to 1918. Now within those years, we have Adelbert Pingrey, and Lee H Pingrey, who were both undertakers and conducted funerals. We also have transportation of a deceased person that were used for the trains.  By reading these records, you can find out a lot of information. For example, on Nicholas Hoch records from Pingrey, we can see he is the son of Frank and Katherine (Lambert) Hoch, so we now know the maiden name of the mother as well as the names of the parents.  He was 1 year, 5 months 19 days old when he died on June 3, 1916.  Now we can check to see if the measles or the flu was going around at that time of the child’s death and was that a possible cause of death?  Sometimes the cause of death would be documented and where they were buried.   

The records from Smith funeral home also included casket cost, where they died, such as at home, on the farm, in a hospital, who was with them when they died and sometimes even a brief family history.  When you read the transportation records, in what different town they died in, which train line transported the body, what they died of, who claimed the body, cause of death, what the name of the undertaker was, and of course family names as well. So a wealth of information can be attained when you are research your own family genealogy.

As you read through the ads and articles from the local newspapers, we can see where undertakers/furniture ads would sometimes claim to have two phone lines, one for the furniture business and one for the undertaker funeral business.  The undertaker phone line would be answered first. We have so many great records for people to read through while doing the research.  You can follow us on Facebook for daily posts regarding history of the town and people of Springville. Stop by 23 North Buffalo St. in Springville, call us at (716) 592-0094 or email us at lucybensleycenter@gmail.com.

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