Funeral practices in the United States moved from personal residences to funeral homes in the late 19th century. Until that period, families laid out their own dead, wakes were held in houses, and burials — by necessity — swiftly followed deaths. Undertaking was professionalized in the 1880s as embalming became common, coffins became more elaborate, and other services were offered to mourners. Funeral homes were often founded as family enterprises, remaining so for generations. These businesses built close ties to their neighborhoods, and clientele often came from particular religious, ethnic, or racial groups within their communities.
Funeral home records were created as business accounts. While some of these records have been transferred to historical societies or libraries, most are still held by the businesses that created them. Burns Library holds one such collection. J.D. Fallon & Son ledgers (MS2003-061) are from a funeral home in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. It includes four ledgers of funeral transactions covering the period 1907-1943.
Like many undertakers of their time, Fallon & Son used pre-printed ledgers specifically designed for their work, with each page a template to record the details of the transaction. Depending on the thoroughness of the funeral parlor in completing the template, records could include details:
- About the deceased: name; address; date, place and cause of death; birthplace; age at death; gender; race; marital status; occupation; parents’ names and birthplaces.
- About the funeral: type of casket; service date, time, and place; apparel supplied; candles and flowers; conveyances (carriages, hearse, cars); chairs; newspaper notices; name of church; type of service; date of interment.
- About the business transaction: deed information; arrangements to have the body moved or grave opened; name of person making arrangements; itemized charges and payment information.
In addition to providing an avenue for understanding the social customs of communities, these types of records are useful for genealogical and historical research. One ledger entry adds shades to the story of the Owen F. Cummings family. John Cummings, age eight, died of diphtheria and was buried January 4, 1907. His mother, Bridget, was buried fifteen days later. Online genealogical sources provide more information about the Cummings. Bridget’s death certificate gives “acute dilation of heart, one week” as her primary cause of death, with a contributing cause of “intense grief, three weeks.” Her Boston Globe obituary also provides an account of her death – seemingly of a broken heart over John’s death.
The ledger entry begins with the name of Owen F. Cummings, a stone mason who came to Boston from Vermont with his family in the 1890s. Owen arranged for the funerals of his wife and child through the Fallon funeral home, located a few blocks from the rented apartment where he now lived with three of his four grown children. Eldest son, Eugene (age 25), no longer lived at home at the time of John’s death, because he was studying to be a Jesuit at Woodstock College in Maryland.
The Fallon record shows that Owen bought the deed to a cemetery plot from New Calvary Cemetery at the time of John’s death. Expenses for the two funerals totaled $131.40 (approximately $3700 in 2019). It took the family 11 payments over more than 4 years to settle the bill. With its detailed entry, the record of the funeral and payment adds a layer of information that cannot be seen in other sources.
At a broader level, records like these may be used to uncover evidence of the social customs of the communities they served. An example can be seen in the doctoral dissertation Revelations from the Dead: Using Funeral Home Records to Help Reconstruct the History of Black Toledo by Camillia Z. Rodgers. Using statistical analysis, Rodgers uses data about individuals from funeral home records similar to Fallon & Son’s to build a profile of a community’s development between 1912-1917, adding to the historical record of an under-documented community. Although small in scope, the J.D. Fallon & Son collection likewise provides a lens with which to look closely at individual experiences, and, more comprehensively,at the customs of a Boston neighborhood in the early 20th century.
- Shelley Barber, Outreach & Reference Specialist, John J. Burns Library
- Ancestry.com. Accessed August, 2019.
- Case Western Reserve University. “Funeral Homes and Funeral Practices, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.” Accessed September, 2019.
- ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Boston Globe—1872-1987 (accessed August, 2019).
- Rodgers, Camillia Z. “Revelations from the Dead: Using Funeral Home Records to Help Reconstruct the History of Black Toledo.” PhD diss., Graduate College of Bowling Green State University, 2011.