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Charles S. Mason, Jr., CG, “Before Death Certificates: Furniture Dealers and Cabinetmakers as Death Sources,” OnBoard 12 (May 2006): 14–15.
Early funerals in America were usually family affairs. From colonial times until the mid-nineteenth century the family or close friends performed most of the duties connected with burials. They washed, dressed, and laid out the loved one draped in a shroud or placed in a homemade coffin. They carried the decedent to the graveyard and, in the absence of a church sexton, they dug the grave.
In some cities, carpenters or cabinetmakers began to provide ready-made and made-to-order coffins by the middle of the eighteenth century. One early cabinet and coffin maker was David Evans of Philadelphia.1 In September 1780 he furnished a “Mahogany coffin” for William Allen, late chief justice of Pennsylvania.2 As cities and towns across the country grew, so did the industries they supported. Carpenters, cabinetmakers, and furniture dealers began to expand their businesses by making coffins or selling ready-made ones. Many continued to add to the services they provided and eventually became the local undertakers.
These businessmen kept few, if any, records in the name of the decedent. However, and entry in a business account register or daybook may be the only record of death that has survived for an ancestor. Entries will include the name of the person who ordered and paid for the coffin and the deceased may only be referred to by their relationship to the purchaser of the casket. Purchasers may have been spouses, children, grandchildren, in-laws or business associates. Occasionally someone may have purchased a coffin on behalf of a friend or neighbor; frequently such purchaser was acting on behalf of the deceased’s widow. In addition to, or in place of, registers and daybooks, businesses used receipt and order forms. These forms may not contain as much detail as an entry in a register or daybook, but will usually contain the date of sale, identify the purchaser, and describe the coffin.
Non-genealogical information in the accounts may supply information which will contribute economic, social or religious context on the family. For example, a description of the coffin—including the type of wood used, special hardware (handles and hinges) or material used to line the casket—will provide clues to the family’s economic status. Some entries include the length of the coffin which can be helpful when the deceased is a child; using the measurements one can estimate if the child was an infant, a young child, or a teenager. The name of the church or cemetery may lead to religious information and additional resources.
If the coffin maker provided other services, those services will be included in the entry. Some early records may show charges for digging the grave and/or supplying a wagon to carry the body to the cemetery, naming the churchyard or cemetery. As businesses became more sophisticated, services available for purchase began to include provision for a room to view the body, chairs, plants, a horse-drawn hearse, and carriages to carry the mourners to the cemetery. The services purchased and their costs will provide an indication of the family’s economic or political status.
A business account entry will include a date. Such date may be the date the coffin was ordered, when the coffin was delivered, or when payment was received. In some entries, both the order and payment dates will be noted. If the date of death cannot be found elsewhere, these entries may be used to determine the approximate date of death.
Sometimes the only record of a burial will be that found in the purchase of a casket or burial services. An ancestor’s grave may not have a tombstone or the original marker may have disappeared. Records for the cemetery or churchyard may have been lost or destroyed. Coffin maker’s records that include the name of the cemetery or churchyard may be the only record of where the deceased was buried.
Unfortunately the records of many of these businesses have been lost. Those that have survived may be found in the collections of historical and genealogical societies, or in special collections held by archives and libraries; the latter are usually private collections donated by individuals and families (including families of the business owners). Identifying early businesses that provided coffins is not always an easy task. City directories usually include a business section. Depending on the directory, you may find information under headings for furniture dealers, cabinetmakers, coffin makers, or undertakers. Also look for business advertisements included in the directory.
During the nineteenth century, there were several attempts by the government to record industry products and manufacturing information in special non-population schedules taken as part of the federal census. The surviving schedules, many of which have been microfilmed, should provide information about businesses that produced and sold caskets as well as an inventory of the materials used for construction. For a description of the schedules in various years and the reliability of the information collected, see Your Guide to the Federal Census.3
The probate package for the deceased may be the best source for locating information about the business that provided the coffin. A copy of the bill or a signed receipt may be included in the file. The payment may also be listed in the periodic accounting or the final accounting of the estate. The executor or administrator may have required a signed receipt for the payment of the coffin and/or other services.
While searching for an undertaker’s records is a common practice in twentieth century research, we often overlook the possibility of similar records from earlier periods. They may not be a common occurrence but can be especially useful for researching that elusive roving urban dweller before municipal records were required.
1. Coffin, Margaert M. Death in Early America: The History and Folklore of Customs and Superstitions of Early Medicine, Funerals, Burials and Mourning. New York: Eslevier, reprint, 1976, p. 81.
3. Hinckley, Kathleen W. Your Guide to the Federal Census for genealogists, researchers and family historians. Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2002.
Charles S. Mason, Jr., CGSM
This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.