FUNERAL HOMES AND FUNERAL PRACTICES. Pre-canal era. In late May of 1797, David Eldridge, a drover sent out on the Connecticut Land Co.'s second survey, drowned while trying to cross the Grand River. His body was brought to Cleveland and buried around 1 June in a hastily set up graveyard east of Ontario and north of Prospect St. (original plots 97 and 98). Known simply as "the burial ground," it served the city's needs until the ERIE ST. CEMETERY opened in 1826. The first recorded burial in the new cemetery was infant Minerva M. White in 1827.
In Cleveland's pre-canal period, burials followed a frugal, expeditious New England village pattern. Funerals were handled by friends or family members; the funeral service and burial were from the home; and the only outsider called on for help was the cabinetmaker, who measured the deceased and nailed together a six-board coffin. The body was laid out in it for a one-night vigil that gave family and friends a chance to pay respects (and the deceased a chance to awake from a coma or show some sign of life). The next day a service was held, then the coffin was carried to the village burial ground. Interment always took place within 24 to 48 hours of death.
Institutionalization, 1830-1860. When Cleveland went from being a rural village to a trade and immigrant center in the 1830s, funeral practices began to change. Funerals, especially those of transients (and Cleveland was full of transients, owing to the building of the Ohio Canal), began to be routinely handled by crossroads undertakers and cabinet and/or furniture makers. Their skill at coffin-making recommended them for the job. The dual function they served is still evident: establishments such as Stroud-Lawrence Funeral Home and Brewster & Stroud Fine Furniture in CHAGRIN FALLS, founded as a furniture-undertaking business in 1870 (by A. J. Cole), devolved into two distinct businesses only in 1937.
The 1837 Cleveland City Directory listed 13 area cabinetmakers. Their establishments were in the commercial district—Water, Bank, and Ontario streets in Cleveland, and Pearl St. in Ohio City—and all were "available on short notice," a euphemism meaning they made coffins. Twenty years later, undertaking was on the brink of becoming a stand-alone business. Cleveland had an official undertaker: James Howland, who expanded from cabinetmaking to undertaking around 1852, had become the city undertaker by 1855, and held the position until he sold his enterprise, and its links to city hall, to J. H. Brown, an established furniture maker-undertaker, in 1873.
The 1857 Directory listed 16 cabinetmakers (now called furniture makers), 10 of whom were also listed as undertakers. From the addresses, we can deduce that most were side-by-side or front-and-back shops. Fabric and furniture were sold on one side of the store; the other side was devoted to laying-out rooms (cooled with buckets of ice in the summer) and ware rooms. Here, ready-made coffins could be selected—everything from plain pine boxes with nail-on lids ($4-$7) to rosewood and mahogany "cases," with spring release lids that could be opened from the inside, for upwards of $50. Seldom did the early undertaker's establishment include a funeral parlor; funerals were still held in private homes.
Early professionalization, 1860-1890. By the late 1860s, the majority of those entering the undertaking business did not have a cabinetmaking background. Their entree into undertaking was the skill of arterial embalming, known since the 1830s, which most had learned while working as "morticians" during the Civil War: preparing dead bodies for burial or shipment home. At this time, too, it became more acceptable to use someone else's "parlor" for a funeral.
When ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S FUNERAL train made its stop in Cleveland on 28 April 1865, the body had been embalmed for two weeks. Over 100,000 Clevelanders filed through PUBLIC SQUARE to view the remains, and a vogue for embalming began in the city. Embalming got an even bigger boost when Dr. Robert Koch's germ theory research was published. But what really clinched the use of embalming for all funerals was the Baggage Handlers Strike of 1898; railroad baggage car handlers, tired of having bodies explode, demanded and got embalmed corpses.
Thanks to embalming, the period between death and burial could now be extended. This along with Cleveland's booming economy generated an era of stately funerals and the development of Cleveland's first "landscape" cemetery, LAKE VIEW CEMETERY (1869); the transformation of undertakers into funeral directors; and a new listing, Funeral Products, in the City Directory after 1870. Oak and pine coffins disappeared from ware rooms in the 1870s. In their place, rare wood and metal caskets, silk-lined, with padding and silver pallbearer handles, were offered. So were air-tight burial vaults "able to retard decomposition and discourage grave robbers and resurrectionists," manufactured by the Cleveland Burial Case Co.
Directors began to provide transport services—carriage, glass-sided hearse, and omnibus (horse-drawn streetcar)—and lobbied successfully for the extension of the EUCLID AVE. electric streetcar out to Lake View Cemetery's main gate by 1884. They rented camp chairs, bunting, and candles to decorate their funeral parlors, and provided organ or piano music. They sold funeral mementos—memorial books, gloves, and crepe armbands—and also saw to the placement of death notices and rental of a door wreath. After 1899, when private cremation was made available at a crematorium at E. 143th St. and Caspar Road, they provided non-burial services.
Cleveland's burgeoning immigrant population, striving to Americanize, hastened the institutionalization of middle-class burial practices and services offered by funeral parlor directors. Immigrants were also responsible for the opening of several new cemeteries, including RIVERSIDE CEMETERY, on the south side in 1876, and Highland Park, on the east side in 1904 (where the nation's first municipal crematorium-mausoleum was established in 1924).
The boom era, 1890-1940. Cleveland once had more funeral homes than any other city of its size. The immigrant population, at its peak between 1880 and 1920, fueled the funeral home boom that began in Cleveland in the mid-1880s. As they created their ethnic neighborhoods—along Buckeye Road, in Tremont, along E. 79th St., where Mayfield and Euclid avenues intersected—immigrants also created a new phenomenon: funeral homes, pulling funeral parlors out of downtown Cleveland and relocating them in dwellings in their "ring" neighborhoods.
Following a national trend of professionalization in the undertaking business in the 1880s—the Ohio State Undertakers Assn. was formed in 1881, the American Funeral Directors Assn. in 1882—these neighborhood funeral homes were operated by graduates of embalming and mortuary science schools in Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh that also taught marketing. Neighborhood funeral homes consolidated three functional areas into one: the embalming clinic, the family parlor, and the church chapel. Each home was "affiliated" with its neighborhood church and run by a funeral director who was usually a member of that church and had known the deceased personally. The burial rites practiced by each home followed national trends but also incorporated the specific funeral practices of each neighborhood's fraternal, religious, and/or social organizations.
After the 1890s this same pattern applied in the neighborhoods where AFRICAN AMERICANS from the South settled. Prior to that time, most blacks were buried out of white funeral homes by black funeral directors who were employed there. After 1890 the same entrepreneurial spirit driving the creation of white/ethnic funeral homes fueled the creation of black ones in black neighborhoods. Leland French was the most successful of the black funeral home directors of the late 19th century. WALTER J. WILLS, SR. was the most successful in the 20th century. Many of the directors of funeral homes in Cleveland's predominantly black neighborhoods can trace their roots directly to training and/or apprenticeships under either French or Wills.
The major exception to this neighborhood funeral home rule was in the Jewish community. Orthodox and Reform JEWS from Eastern Europe sometimes lived in ethnic communities but were not members of the local churches. First-generation Jews used the services of synagogue-based burial societies (Chevra Kadisha) and members of the second generation patronized the J. D. Deutsch Funeral Home (est. 1887). Both offered Orthodox burial rites—no embalming, special bathing, Psalm reading during the burial watch, and a family-only funeral.
Funeral homes came into their own as formally recognized societal institutions at a time when the funeral home industry was about to decline. In the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century, the number of funeral homes increased rapidly but the death rate began to go down (thanks to improved sanitation and germ theory research). In the 1880s the average downtown parlor held 200 funerals a year; by 1920 a neighborhood funeral home held only 50 or 60 a year.
That decline became even steeper after 1920. As ethnic groups moved out of their original neighborhoods, their funeral homes moved with them as "branches." For example, when the ITALIANS living in the Murray Hill area moved to COLLINWOOD and then to the Hillcrest area, the DiCicco Family's funeral home followed them; when the CZECHS, who had lived around E. 55th St., migrated to Brecksville with a layover in WARRENSVILLE HTS., a branch of the Nosek family's funeral home went along. After more than half of the community had moved, the old home closed and the branch became the main home. Branching lasted only two generations, however. With the move to the suburbs, the ethnic populations that had supported more than 200 Cleveland funeral homes until the late 1940s began to disappear.
A beleaguered industry, 1950-present. There is a saying among funeral home directors that a funeral home lasts three generations: the first generation starts it; the second generation (. . . & Son) makes it prosperous; and it dies with the third generation. This has been true in Cleveland. Although many ethnic neighborhoods still have funeral homes, more than half of the establishments that were listed in the 1935 Cleveland City Directory (the year the Cleveland Funeral Directors Assn. was formed) were gone by 1994.
Most did not close down willingly. Many were "absorbed" between 1950-70. For instance, between 1952 and 1970, Brown-Forward Funeral Home (which traces its roots back to 1825) absorbed DeVand & Co., Bennet-Sharer, and Young-Koebler. Absorption quieted things down for a decade. Then in the early 1980s, merger mania swept through the remaining establishments. Driven by a dwindling market and the need to cut costs and utilize resources more efficiently, scores of funeral homes consolidated into hyphenated entities: DeJohn-Flynn-Mylott-Froelk in 1986; Saxton-Parker-Daniels in 1987; Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz-Miller-Deutsch, Inc. in 1991.
These mergers have thinned the ranks of funeral establishments, but have also strengthened the bottom lines of those remaining. But projections for the future are not rosy. Falling death rates, out-migration of those most likely to die, and the growing acceptance of cremation (12% in Cleveland in 1994) as a burial substitute mean more mergers are in the wind.