Funeral Home Records – A Rich Resource

horse-drawn-hearse-e1500994293513The funeral home record for your ancestor is a resource not to be overlooked. The record not only lists the financial detail of services rendered for the last event of a person’s life, but often bio and family info collected for the clergyman’s eulogy. You may find cause of death listed, an obituary, last address, list of the next of kin, military service, church affiliation, the music to be played and more. 

Funeral homes provide services that conform to the religious or ethnic beliefs and traditions of the departed, family in the time of the deceased. Who performed the service…what music was performed? Was it a closed service? Why? In many communities, funeral homes “specialized” or catered to a particular religious segment or ethnic group. Some provided burial services to the indigent, or for one group of locals, but not others.

Who paid for the funeral? The financial arrangements may hold clues to family members who contributed to the costs. Or did someone, not a family member, pay for all or part of the fees? What was the connection to the deceased or his/her family? Perhaps, an organization paid part or contributed a service or tribute providing a clue to membership in a group important in the life of the deceased.

Military service, honors and achievements, profession, award for best pie at the State Fair, beloved pet could be mentioned in the funeral home’s record….just as a prison record, or something considered a personal failure.

Now to find the funeral home…google it! Don’t know the name of the funeral home? Search the net for the town or county for funeral homes that existed within the timeframe of the death of your ancestor. Consult with the local library or county recorder for information too. Often, funeral home ownership pass down through families with no or little change to the name. Or someone in the community buys the business and the records stay with the owner. In some cases, the records may be archived with an area historical society, library, genealogy society. Some have been digitalized and are available in databases held by such groups or sites online.

Just as an example, the funeral home record of my Great Grandfather, Winfield, who died in Oklahoma City, 1918, holds a tidbit of information of interest. Winfield died of a stroke at age 59 years. His three adult children, a son and two daughters paid two-thirds of the $189.00 funeral expense. The cost and arrangements were standard for the time-casket, embalming, lots of flowers, hearse, limousines and burial. Winfield’s children were of means and ability to pay, but the balance was paid, likely in tribute to one of their members by the Order of the Knights of Pythias.

In my research, I had seen references to Winfield’s association with this organization in the local newspaper of his time. And certainly, I had found in findings about his activities and prolific writings, a man who was liberal, championed the working man and spoke out about against racism.

What was the Knights of Pythias? The following from their website, http://pythias.org tells the story of the organization’s beginning and purpose:

“The Order began, of course, during the Civil War, and its founder believed that it might do much to heal the wounds and allay the hatred of civil conflict. President Abraham Lincoln, being advised of the contents of the ritual and its teaching, said: ‘The purposes of your organization are most wonderful. If we could but bring its spirit to all our citizenry, what a wonderful thing it would be…I would suggest that these great principles by perpetuated and that you go to the Congress of the United States and ask for a charter, and so organize on a great scale throughout this nation, and disseminate this wonderful work that you have so nobly started. I will do all in my power to assist you in this application and with your work.”

The suggestion made by the President was adopted by the United States Congress. An application was made to Congress for a charter, and the Order of Knights of Pythias was the first American Order ever chartered by an Act of the Congress of the United States.

So find those funeral home records. They may tell you more than just the cost of the service! If you are looking for ancestors who died in Iowa, Genealogy Treasures is a terrific resource! GT is a searchable database of Iowa funeral home and cemetery records too. https://gentreasures.com

What to Do with Unclaimed Cremains

Guest blog by Cris Nagla, posted with her permission. Cris and her partner, Dennis Allen, are well known genealogists in the Midwest. They also manage Avon Cemetery in Polk County, Iowa and host a website that provides funeral home and cemetery records, www.gentreasures.com
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Have you ever wondered what happens to unclaimed cremains?  It is sad that families do not claim the cremation of their loved ones.  As child, parent and grandparent how can you not claim your deceased love one?  This just boggles our minds.  We would do anything in our power to make sure our loved ones were taken care of.   Here is a story that will tug at your heart strings.
          On Tuesday July 10, 2018 we were contacted by a lovely lady who had a question about the cemetery.  She wanted to know if we did mass burials.  While this is not heard of very often we did know of at least one in the city of Des Moines.  She went on to tell us how she got involved with a funeral home that had a few unclaimed cremains of infants and one teenage child.  This woman and a group from her church took these unclaimed children and gave them some much needed attention.  They recorded all the information for each of them such as birth and death dates and gave each of them blankets and toys to be placed in the vault with them.  The group then handmade a pine vault for the seven cremains to be placed in.   They made sure it was waterproof, so they would be safe and snug.   After talking to her we told her to give us a few minutes and we would see what we could do to help her bury these babies.  Our first thought was to contact the trustees about donating a spot in the cemetery for them, but we then remembered a retired Des Moines Firefighter that had a bunch of spaces in our cemetery, so we contacted him to see if he was willing to donate one of his spaces for these babies.   He quickly agreed to do so.  Now our next step was to tell the trustees of the cemetery and they said it would be fine if everything was above board and in compliance with the State of Iowa rules.  With everything now in place that left our gravedigger’s fee.  So, we contacted him and tugged at his heart strings a little and told him the story and he agreed to dig the one for the babies at no charge.  Next, we called the lady back and told her everything was set up and we were good to go.  One of the local monument companies is donating a headstone for the children with their names on it.
            Now, you would think the story would stop here but of course not.  While talking to her we learned that the funeral home had additional cremains that need to find a final resting place.   So, we contacted the funeral home and inquired about the remaining cremations.  The funeral home said they had contacted the city of Des Moines about donating a spot in one of their cemeteries and they were told that they would only allow scattering of ashes.  The funeral home preferred to keep the ashes in tack.  So once again we went to the trustees and asked about donating a couple of graves in the cemetery for the remaining cremations.  They agreed to allow us to do the mass burial if all the documentation was in order.  So, we contact the funeral home and told them that we would give them two spaces to bury the remaining cremations.  All of them are going to be in a vault with their information recorded.  Both burials will be taking place sometime this Fall.
            So, a very special thank you to a group of people who took these loved ones under their wings to make sure they had a final resting place.