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Life of the Departed

Benjamin Franklin once said, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except Death and Taxes.” Since the beginning of time, death has played a role in the lives of every person. Disease, lack of proper nutrition, poor sanitary conditions, childbirth, and the lack of medical knowledge often played a role in the average life span. Because of this, funerary practices were taken up by every culture.


The first known practice of burial was in Israel almost 10,000 years ago. The people of Egypt were very rigorous about their funerary customs and began the practice of mummifying their dead to prevent decaying and disease.


It was a family affair

In pre-Civil War America, mourning and funerals were deeply personal. Funerals took place in the home with women and men from the community assisting the family to prepare the body for burial. A family member would sit up with the body for three days to ensure that death had occurred, and the local men would dig the grave. In other words, only family members and their closest confidants actively participated in ensuring a proper funeral.


The Civil War, however, brought new meaning to death in America. The war’s casualties brought about the need for creating new practices in the funeral industry, and by the end of the Civil War, those new practices had changed the way Americans mourn their loved ones. The Civil War brought the introduction of embalming. This process preserved the body to prevent decomposition from occurring immediately, enabling bodies to be shipped from the battlefield to home. One specific death, that of President Abraham Lincoln, created a powerful marketing tool for embalming that was brought into common use. After a viewing at the White House, Lincoln’s body traveled for three weeks by train from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois, stopping at many cities for memorials attended by hundreds of thousands. At every stop, Lincoln’s body was embalmed.

The late 1800s through the early 1900s saw professional undertakers’ creation. Funerals moved away from the home and into newly built funeral homes. Early funeral businesses were family businesses that started in woodworking who mainly built furniture but coffins on request. Naturally, some of these families would transition into full-service funeral homes. In the early 20th century, the funeral home business grew beyond family-owned to accommodate the growing population. With the expansion, the need to formalize training and create standardized practices emerged in 1882 with the creation of The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).


Local Funeral Homes

This year the James F. Ferguson Funeral home celebrates 100 years in business. The home was founded by J. Freeman Ferguson in 1922, and started in a storefront on East Market Street until he purchased the present building in 1932. J. Freeman’s son, Robert W. Ferguson and son-in-law, Walter C. Helm operated the business as Ferguson-Helm Funeral Home until Walter’s death in 1995 and Robert’s retirement in 1996.


Today the Funeral Home is owned and operated by the founder’s grandson, James F. Ferguson, III with the addition of his son, Tyler. Join us on October 20, 2022 at our annual meeting to hear a program presented by Mr. Ferguson as he shares more about the Ferguson Funeral Home’s history.


Another funeral home that has become well-known in Indiana County is Robinson-Lytle Funeral Home (more recently Robinson-Lytle-Shoemaker Funeral Home). Robinson Funeral Home was founded in 1891 in Saltsburg by James W. Robinson and his sons J. Arthur and Harold Robinson. Mr. Robinson, by trade, owned both a livery and furniture business. Robinson Funeral home had a horse-drawn wagon which had plumes at the four corners of the roof in a color appropriate to the deceased person being carried - for example, white for a young girl and black for an elderly man.

In 1928, J. Arthur expanded the business and opened up a second funeral home in Indiana, later selling the funeral home in Saltsburg. In 1938, a first came when the funeral home took delivery of the first Packard air-conditioned ambulance. At the time, funeral homes also fell into the ambulance business as they were generally the only people in town that had a vehicle long enough to carry a person in a laid out position. The business expanded yet again when they were joined by their nephew R. Mckay Lytle and his son Ralph Lytle, III, which caused the renaming to Robinson-Lytle Funeral Home. Through this point, the funeral vehicles were somber black, and again Robinson-Lytle Funeral Home introduced a new color - the gun-metal gray limousine, which was introduced in 1955 and gradually switched over to the silver-gray color.

Throughout the month of October come into the museum and discover the life of the departed through our new exhibit featuring artifacts from the funeral profession, see what has changed and what has remained the same. We also ask that you join us for a program about the history of the funeral profession given by James Ferguson on Thursday October 20, 2022 at 6:30 p.m.