Monday, August 21, 2017

The Butcher, The Baker, The Undertaker by Paty Jager

Silver City, ID cemetery
As usual with my writing, I wrote a scene and then went, what did they do back then? Which led me to researching about undertakers and burials in the old west.

That means this post isn't about the butcher or the baker, it's all about the undertaker. This was usually a man who spent most of his time as the local carpenter or builder. The tools of his trade were lumber, hammer, saw, and nails. Most of the smaller towns had townsfolk who had multiple jobs. The undertake was one of these. Unless there was an epidemic or a raid by Indians or outlaws the undertaker didn't make coffins all day long every day.

Most small communities or towns usually had a group of women who would "lay out the dead". This meant they would clean them up and dress them in either the deceased's Sunday best or a nightdress. Then they were placed in a family parlor or place where the community could come by and pay their respect.

Sweet smelling flowers were in abundance in the parlor to overpower any smell that might be coming from the decaying body. Before the discovery of embalming, most bodies were not left out of the ground more than 3 or 4 days due to the smell.

Before the discovery of formaldehyde bodies were soaked in arsenic or alcohol to preserve them long enough for family to gather for a proper burial. There was a note of a woman who preserved her husband in a tin container full of whiskey and kept him under her bed.

Formaldehyde was discovered by a Russian chemist in 1859. Aleksandr Butlerov. He made the fluid by disolving a gas in water and adding an alcohol base. So the earlier methods of preserving a body with alcohol weren't too far off.  Formaldehyde stabilizes the bacteria in a body that causes decay.

The downside to formaldehyde is the fact it is dangerous to the Undertaker. It can cause lung cancer, bronchitis, and death.

Embalming became a way to preserve the bodies of wealthy men and officers during the Civil War. These men would be sent back to their families and given proper burials.

The methods discovered to preserve bodies, postponed the decay of a body and families could hold off on burying their loved ones until all the family could arrive. This started the move toward elaborate funerals and the undertaker now had more of a business than making coffins.

The information I dug up about funerals in the old west was interesting. they would gather before the burial to eat and tell stories about the deceased. The coffin would be on sawhorses and people would gather around it. then the preacher would give a service and the pallbearers would carry the coffin out to a waiting wagon and the procession would walk to the church and cemetery for the burial.

I found a couple of  "funeral etiquette" statements.

It was considered improper to remove a body through the door the living crossed to enter the parlor or room where the deceased was "laid out". For this reason some homes would be built with an extra parlor door that didn't have steps or a porch. This was the door used to carry the coffin and deceased out of the house.

And the body should always be carried out of a building head first. I didn't find a reason for this one.

As always happens with my research, all I needed to know was an undertaker's exact job description in the old west and I ended up finding other interesting tidbits that worked well for this post.

Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 32+ novels, novellas, and anthologies of murder mystery, western romance, and action adventure. All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters.

This is what readers have to say about the Letters of Fate series- “...filled with romance, adventure and twists and turns.” “What a refreshing and well written love story of fate and hope!”

Photos: Paty Jager

1 comment:

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Eye opening! We're so removed from death in comparison. I can't even imagine "laying out" a loved one. I'm sure there was community support to guide the bereaved through the process, but still what a grim task that must have been. And to have the corpse in the house!!! I live in asuburb of Chicago where the houses are close packed, but someone told me you can find the original 19thc farmhouse in the middle of the newer constructions. I noticed one the other day and saw there was an outside door with no porch or steps leading to the ground level. I thought it was odd, but now I wonder if it was the casket door. I feel like I've seen that before on older houses.