Early Funerals

By Melody Moorehouse

Death is not a pleasant subject for anyone to dwell upon but many changes in burial customs and services have occurred in Grant 
County in the last 100 years and people often take these improvements for granted, according to Elwin Goolsby, county historian 
and director of the Grant County Museum.

Eventually every pioneer family was faced with the inevitable death of a friend, a loved one or a neighbor. Death rates were 
especially high among the young, he said. The people gave of themselves to those needing sympathy, respect and understanding. 
This practice was followed in every town and crossroads settlement in the county. When a death occurred, friends and neighbors 
immediately began to console the bereaved and help bury the dead.

Many of the tasks involved in the grieving and burial process are considered tradition but developed years ago out of necessity. 
Funeral homes or parlors were not common and the deceased most often was prepared for burial at home where the body was maintained 
until the funeral service and burial.

The original purpose of sitting up with the dead was to watch for a sign of life, Goolsby said. The tests that were conducted to 
prove death were primitive and were sometimes unreliable. It makes me wonder how many people may have been considered dead but who 
were unsuspectingly buried alive years ago. People in the community would take turns sitting with the body to watch for any signs. 
Later this became a tradition instead of a necessity. People are now embalmed and once you’re embalmed, well it’s pretty much over.

Embalming and burial services were not available or too expensive for most poor rural families and the burden of preparing the body 
for burial was placed upon family and friends, who Goolsby noted were already faced with the death of a loved one.

Death and preparing the body for burial was a pretty tedious process, he said. We take this for granted today because now we have 
others to do these tasks for us. Years ago the family had to do this themselves. They had to wash and shave the body, if he was a 
male. He might have been ill for several weeks and been unshaven during that time. The body had to be dressed and a casket had to 
be built. This was quite an ordeal for family members who were alrred with camphor. Then we’d take a wet rag and wash and dress’em 
and lay’em out, Wilson comment. We’d keep a wet rag on their face where they wouldn’t turn so quick, you know. We couldn’t keep one 
out of the ground for over two days cause we didn’t have nothing to embalm’em. People didn’t think nothing about it!

I can tell you right, when old Uncle Duck Crouse died, me and his grandson, we had to lay him out, shave him, and put his clothes on 
and put him in a coffin. That’s right, laid him right down on the floor in a wagon seat. We got us a tub of water and shaved him. We 
bobbed his hair and fixed him up the best we could. You couldn’t make’em look natural like you can now.  I don’t want to go over 
those days at all. Don’t want any part of them, Wilson stated.

When it came time for the funeral the casket would be removed from the house by friends and neighbors and placed in a wagon, or in 
later times on a flat-bed truck, and carried to the church and cemetery. The grave would have been dug earlier by family or friends.

This difficult job was considered a special privilege and a solemn occasion for those involved, Goolsby said. In most cases the 
funerals were simple and unassuming and were sometimes attended by only a few people. Wilson described in museum archives the funeral 
service of a little girl who died in 1928: This was way back early. Some of us went to town and got a little old casket, didn’t cost 
much, and there wasn’t a preacher to preach the funeral or nothin. Just two or three sang their little old song the best they could, 
and one fellow in the bunch, he prayed and that was all. The child was buried in Philadelphia Cemetery.

Although store-bought caskets were available by the early 1900s they were considered a luxury and Goolsby noted most early families 
in the county built their own or found a good carpenter. Wilson provided further information regarding how the old caskets were made: 
They’d get rough lumber from a sawmill and take an old hand plane and plane it. They’d take it and cut it to fit the shape of the 
casket and then they’d take and saw that lumber crossways so they could bend it. Then they’d take hot water and pour on that lumber 
so you could bend it without breaking. And when they’d done that, they’d take it and make it in sort of a V shape; the foot was a 
little more narrow than the body part. And then they covered that with some kind of cloth. Then they took some nice cloth and covered 
that. They made the lid and stuff that cloth with some cotton or old rags to make it stand up, you know, the lid part. They’d get some 
ribbon and lace and put that all around the casket edges. They make some nice bows to put on the casket out of the ribbon. When they 
got that far along, they’d make a wooden box that the casket would fit in. Then they’d go to town and get’em some screws and handles 
and stuff to screw the lid down. It wasn’t a hard job to make a casket, not back then. You could buy a ready-made casket for $30-$40 
if you had it.

Goolsby noted the caskets were wider at the shoulder area  a feature that made it easier to fit the body into the casket. Early coffins 
were designed to widen at the shoulders and taper to the feet and this was done for a reason, he said. The human body fits better in 
this shape and years ago you wanted the body to fit as comfortably as possible for transport from the home to the church and to the 
graveyard. The body wouldn’t jiggle and would remain more intact this way. Additional information regarding the making of caskets was 
provided in museum archives by Juanita McCool Bailey:

Old Mr. Hubbard made caskets here when I was a little girl. He lived in a side room built onto McCool’s Cafe on Oak Street. I remember 
that he was a real good carpenter. He’d work on the caskets all night long. I could hear him hammering and sawing. I guess he was in a 
hurry to get them done. When he built them, he was nearly right out in the street. People didn’t think anything about it back then. I 
saw one casket he was building. I think it was smaller at one end than the other and I believe he painted them black.

John Brewer of Sheridan remembered a craftsman in the Millersville community: Why, Mr. W.A. Shackleford made the most beautiful caskets 
anybody ever saw. He could build nearly anything and did it well every time. I was told he built his own casket and set it up for when 
it might be needed, but I don’t know if that is so.

Hardware for the early caskets could be purchased at general mercantile in Grant County. I.P. Shepherd operated a general mercantile 
store in Sheridan. A ledger entry dated Oct. 25, 1886, for merchandise sold included coffin trimmings  50¢. Store-bought caskets could 
be purchased from blacksmiths or in hardware or furniture stores, usually for under $100, which was considered a large sum of money at 
the time, Goolsby said. An advertisement placed by the Leola Furniture Company in 1906 in The Sheridan Headlight stated: Coffins and 
Caskets, we can supply you with any kind of coffin or casket at a moments notice. Give us a call, and we will save you money. Merchants 
in Sheridan also offered the same service, including embalming.

Koons Hardware at the time sold casket hardware and you could make the casket yourself or they would build it for you. They would also 
come to your house and embalm the body for you, Goolsby said. They brought their own table called a cooling table that they used to lay 
the body on for preparation. The table folded up into a little satchel that they could carry from place to place. After the body was 
prepared, a relative would view the body for approval. While they were there, the people at the hardware store would offer to sell you 
a casket and transport the body for you to the church or cemetery. They provided an additional service if desired - they would also dig 
the grave. All these things formerly had to be performed by family members or friends and for the people that could afford it this was 
quite a service.

The cooling table, a Gleason’s Sanitary Couch was found in the former Vanlandingham’s Hardware Store in the 1970s and has been given to 
the Grant County Museum, which is located on Shackleford Road in Sheridan. The wooden table folded in the center and included an inclined 
headrest that was built into the six feet by 22 inch platform. Included are an oil cloth-covered pillow, two purple cloth sheets and a 
canvas cover. The table is on display at the museum, along with other items related to early customs and burial processes, including 
wooden grave markers, a collection of wooden dies used by W.A. and John Mingea in the manufacture of concrete grave markers, and a 
collection of embalming fluid bottles found at the former Sheridan City Dump.

Bailey, who was a small girl during the 1920s, provided the following comments in museum archives: ...I know when Grandpa Wilson died, 
Mr. John Mingea was there with the others to do the embalming.

They brought Grandpa home from the hospital where he had died and put him in the front room here at Mama’s house on Pine Street. They 
embalmed him right there. I don’t remember much about it, but I do know they spent a lot of time running back and forth to the bathroom 
with something and flushing the toilet a lot. They laid him out, later on, in the living room until time for the funeral. He was carried 
to New Hope Cemetery in the back of a flat-bed truck. Additional comments were supplied by the late C.N. Glover:

Sheridan at first had no funeral home and no funeral director. There were no embalmers and funerals had to be held not too many hours 
after death. The late John Mingea served as a kind of funeral director from 1912 to 1932. He kept some caskets at the Koon Hardware Store 
and would help families when needed as much as he could. There were no ambulances and hearses. The bodies were hauled in a wagon to the 
place of burial. Later on, when there were some one-ton Ford trucks in town, both Lem Jones and Charlie Harris would use their trucks free 
of charge to transport bodies. There was no such thing as burial insurance. This expense was borne by the family of the deceased.

Elbert Vanlandingham and J.D. Wade also advertised undertaking and embalming services from their store, Sheridan Hardware and Furniture 
Co., in 1930.

Buie Funeral Home began providing professional funeral service in Grant County in 1939, which Goolsby noted put other local operations 
out of business. The Elkins-Gwin house on the southeast corner of Oak and Pine streets in Sheridan served as an early funeral home until 
it was razed in 1975. Buie Funeral Home is now located on Highway 167 south of the highway 167/270 intersection.

Once funeral homes came into being people gave a sigh of relief, Goolsby said. Earlier, it didn’t cost you anything monetarily but your 
effort to prepare and bury your dead. Now it costs you, sometimes quite a bit depending on the selections made by the family, but it is a 
price just about everyone is willing to pay.

Obituaries of earlier local people were not regularly printed except privately on mourning or remembrance cards. The cards, keepsakes 
usually made of black paper, contained information about the deceased and were mailed or handed out to friends and relatives. The first 
obituaries printed by the Sheridan Headlight in the 1880s and 1890s were brief paragraphs, usually only a line or two. Later they became 
more detailed. Two typical obituaries appeared in the Aug. 30, 1906, edition of the Headlight: Hyde  Nettie, the five-year-old daughter 
of Mr. & Mrs. Alva Hyde, who reside two miles east of Sheridan, died August 28th of membranous croup. The funeral took place today in the 
Sheridan Cemetery. Smith  The fifteen-month-old baby of Mr. and Mrs. Ivison Smith of Grapevine died at that place Saturday.

The Headlight reported in 1926: Aunt Phoebe Thompson, who was about ninety-four years of age, died at the home of her grandson, I.H. Spray, 
on Tuesday and was buried at the Lost Creek Cemetery on Wednesday. It is said that as a young woman Mrs. Thompson made a speech to the  
first Confederate soldiers leaving what is now Grant County for the front at the beginning of the Civil War, and that she was very active 
in getting the men and boys of that day to fight for the cause.

The cemeteries scattered around the county today were usually established on high ground near a home site or at any convenient place along 
a traveler’s route, Goolsby said. Whenever there was a need, a site could be found. One of the larger cemeteries in Grant County is 
Philadelphia Cemetery, which occupies nearly 40 acres of land overlooking the church on Polk Creek. Goolsby noted two legends circulate 
regarding how the cemetery was begun. The information is reported in Grant County Arkansas Cemetery Records published by the Grant County 
Extension Homemakers Council in 1981:

A woman named Clarissa Pumphrey came to visit the Nathan Pumphrey family in the 1830s, perhaps 1836. Three months later, she took sick and 
died. She was buried under the old oak tree, which stoops to the west on the north side of the cemetery.

Another story is that a wagon train traveling west stopped at Polk Creek. While they were there, a Lockhart boy, twelve or thirteen years 
of age, took sick and died. He was also buried on the north side of the cemetery, near the side of the road.

The earliest graves were marked with bricks, stones or boards. Goolsby noted sometimes the markers were carved only with the initials of 
the deceased. During the 1800s it became fashionable to used headstones sold by dealers. These expensive varieties were sometimes purchased 
in Little Rock and Pine Bluff or ordered through the mail from companies such as Sears, Roebuck, he said. Costs of memorial markers from 
Sears ranged from $5.10 for a 12x12x4 stone with a 16x6x6 based to $26.70 for a three-foot shaft. Many early graves in Grant County, 
however, were unmarked and these sites have been lost, he added. Many cemeteries in Grant County are well established and they contain 
hundreds of unmarked graves, he said. Many graves are not in these established cemeteries but were placed at other locations distressed by 
the passing of the loved one.

Once the body was prepared, Goolsby said family and friends graced the casket with flowers and scented materials and placed the body in a 
formal area of the house to await the funeral. People would heap the casket with flowers or cedar, not as offerings but to conceal the odor, 
he said. They would also place the casket by a window for obvious reasons. Residents in the community would prepare food for the bereaved 
family and the crowd of expected guests. Others would compile a list of persons to sit up with the corpse until the time for the funeral, a 
task usually performed by friends of the deceased or members of his or her church. If the local church had a bell it would be tolled in 
honor of the deceased.

Over the years Goolsby has gathered information regarding early burial customs and rituals. The late Davis Wilson, who was born in 1898, 
provided statements regarding how a family friend was prepared for burial in the early 1900s: The body was covens selected by family and 
friends. Many of these burial sites have been lost as land was cleared and families moved away.

Goolsby said the modern burial services are important but that early burial customs and services should not be forgotten. It’s important to 
note that the services provided today are so appreciated and I think you can see that from the development and early stories. Burial was 
such an effort for people years ago, he said. It’s a big business, death and dying. It was a big chore to put all together in the past. 
It’s so much a part of life but not pleasant to think about. Today there are people to handle it all for you, but you can’t ignore death 
and the way it was handled. It was a reflection of the time. A visit to the cemetery can be used not only to pay respects to the deceased 
but also an opportunity to ponder the procedure itself and the changes that have been made through the years.