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Tales from Kentucky Funeral Homes

Tales from Kentucky Funeral Homes

William Lynwood Montell
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Tales from Kentucky Funeral Homes
    Book Description:

    In Tales from Kentucky Funeral Homes, William Lynwood Montell has collected stories and reminiscences from funeral home directors and embalmers across the state. These accounts provide a record of the business of death as it has been practiced in Kentucky over the past fifty years. The collection ranges from tales of old-time burial practices, to stories about funeral customs unique to the African American community, to tales of premonitions, mistakes, and even humorous occurrences. Other stories involve such unusual aspects of the business as snake-handling funerals, mistaken identities, and in-home embalming. Taken together, these firsthand narratives preserve an important aspect of Kentucky social life not likely to be collected elsewhere. Most of these funeral home stories involve the recent history of Kentucky funeral practices, but some descriptive accounts go back to the era when funeral directors used horse-drawn wagons to reach secluded areas. These accounts, including stories about fainting relatives, long-winded preachers, and pallbearers falling into graves, provide significant insights into the pivotal role morticians have played in local life and culture over the years.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7361-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    As a folklorist, I have a long-standing interest in the importance of oral history, and during the early years of the twenty-first century I decided to record stories told by members of significant professional groups. The stories were published asTales from Kentucky Lawyers(2003),Tales from Tennessee Lawyers(2005), andTales from Kentucky Doctors(2008). I fully realized that funeral directors’ accounts also held important historical content, since they are the final persons to care for friends and community members when death occurs. I have collected their stories here to preserve their memories and to document the funeral practices...

  4. 1 Funeral and Burial Practices through the Years
    (pp. 5-28)

    In the days before electricity and indoor plumbing, many families lacked the money to pay for funeral expenses; but funeral directors understood and were willing to wait until payment came later on. People used horse-drawn hearses and handmade caskets (also known as coffins and burial boxes) made by the deceased prior to need. Early embalming often took place at home, which required putting the body fluids into buckets. Sons sometimes helped their funeral-director fathers prepare for funeral services and burials. Bereaved family members were also allowed to help with the embalming process.

    It was typical in early times to use...

  5. 2 Funeral and Burial Folk Customs
    (pp. 29-48)

    A folk custom is a way of behaving in accordance with family and community traditions from the “old times,” the good old days people often view as ideal. Folk customs are passed on from one generation to the next, and they are usually kept in place by expectations of compliance and by disapproval of violations.

    In early times, it was common for families to prepare for the death of a loved one. It was also common for family and gracious community members to dress dead persons’ bodies, to dig graves, and to provide homegrown flowers for grave sites and Memorial...

  6. 3 Funeral Humor and Mistakes
    (pp. 49-90)

    Humor often helps people cope with sad and difficult situations. Even when they are grief-stricken, bereaved relatives and friends of the deceased find comfort in remembering and retelling humorous stories about their loved ones. Funny stories and remarks also help people work through the stress of funeral services and burials. Funeral directors use humor among themselves, too, as a means of coping with the challenges of their profession.

    The stories in this chapter feature humorous comments and misstatements at funeral services, bodies that move or go missing, deliberate pranks, falls and blunders, and family disagreements. The chapter also includes stories...

  7. 4 Personal Practice Stories
    (pp. 91-160)

    The following personal practice stories are about funeral events in which the funeral directors were personally involved and accountable. They are oral history accounts in which the storytellers experienced what took place, whether good or bad. By sharing their stories with other funeral directors, employees, and the general public, they are letting the world know about the wonderful ups and downs of the funeral service profession.

    The stories involve embalmings, grave site selection, suicides, homicides, and military funeral services. Some mention snake handling, bedbugs, and animals in the funeral home. Others give accounts of apprenticeships, of driving ambulances and hearses,...

  8. 5 Memories of Family Funeral Businesses
    (pp. 161-173)

    The stories in this chapter are about funeral businesses conducted by parents and grandparents, primarily males, across the years. Most of the storytellers grew up listening to and working with their parents and grandparents, and they share fond memories here.

    Their tales are often humorous and filled with interesting historical details, some about particular funeral practices and events and some about Kentucky cities and towns. One person tells about his father’s role in embalming a parrot; another tells the inspiring story of her mother’s decision to go to mortuary school and earn a license for the family business. The stories...

  9. 6 The Bereaved
    (pp. 174-190)

    The stories in this final chapter focus on bereaved family members and friends of the deceased. In the course of providing services, funeral directors are in a position to witness a broad array of human emotions and human behavior, some of which is downright startling. The tales that follow range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious, as funeral directors report their attempts to comfort the afflicted, tolerate grandstanders and busybodies, and prevent family feuds. Most often these skilled and compassionate funeral professionals succeeded in helping their Kentucky neighbors pay tribute to their loved ones and continue their own lives.


  10. Biographies of Storytellers
    (pp. 191-200)