U.S. Undertakers in the 1800s

May 16, 2012 | 2 comments

In the 19th century, most undertakers made furniture or cabinets. They expanded their lines to include wooden coffins or caskets. The difference between a coffin and a casket is the shape – coffins taper at the feet and head, with a distinctive six-sided configuration.

Then these entrepreneurs offered to “undertake” services for the grieving families, hence the term undertaker. They would place the body in a casket, take it to the cemetery, dig the grave and fill the grave (or supervise that activity), and perhaps place a marker.

The advent of embalming, and its use during the Civil War, forever changed the funeral industry in the U.S. Dr. Thomas Holmes, one of the founding fathers of embalming, experimented with various fluids while working as a doctor and coroner’s assistant in New York City during the 1840s and 1850s. He’s also considered as the inventor of the injection pump for the arterial method of embalming.

The movie The Shootist, is set in 1900 Reno, Nevada, a time of great change in U.S. and the funeral industry. The undertaker, Hezekiah Beckum, played by John Carradine, makes an offer to John Bernard Books, a renowned shootist played by John Wayne. Books has advanced prostate cancer. Ironically, this was John Wayne’s last film, after which he died of lung cancer.

The Shootist Undertaker

John Carradine plays undertaker Hezekiah Beckum in the film, The Shootist

Beckum offers this proposition: “I’m prepared to offer you embalming by the most scientific methods; a bronze coffin guaranteed good for a century, regardless of the climatic or geological conditions; my best hearse; the minister of your choice; and the presence of at least two mourners; a headstone of the finest carerra marble, and a plot in size and location befitting your status, sir; and perpetual care of the grounds.”

Books asks, “How much?” Beckum replies, “Why nothing sir, for the privilege!”

Books responds, “No, I mean how much are you going to make on the deal? Aw, Beckum, you’re going to do to me what they did to John Wesley Hardin.  You’re going to lay me out, let the public come by to gawk at me for 50 cents a head, 10 cents for the children. When the curiosity peters out, you’re going to stuff me in a gunny sack and stick me in a hole, while you hurry to the bank with your loot.”

In the deal they strike, Beckum gives Books $50 for the honor of making the final arrangements.

John Wesley Hardin

The deceased John Wesley Hardin, 1895

In another scene in The Shootist, Books, like John Wesley Hardin, says that he never killed anyone who did not need killing and that he always shot to save his own life.

Hardin, a notorious outlaw and gunslinger, did kill a great number of men (27 to 42 – exact figures are in dispute). He went to jail for killing an officer, and got out 17 years later in 1894. Hardin was gunned down while shooting dice, shot through the back of the head.

John Wesley Hardin’s funeral took place on August 21, 1895 in El Paso, Texas. It cost $77.50 and was paid for by Beulah M’Rose, a prostitute who Hardin took up with in his later years and helped co-write his memoir.

The El Paso Herald noted that hundreds of curious people filed through the funeral parlor to get a last look at the famous outlaw. It didn’t mention if the undertakers charged the public for the privilege.

(Cited from the book John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas by Leon Claire Metz.)

A Good Goodbye