Before Death Certificates: Furniture Dealers and Cabinetmakers
as Death Sources
- Newsletter of the BCG
Charles S. Mason, Jr. , "Before
Death Certificates: Furniture Dealers and Cabinetmakers
as Death Sources," OnBoard 12 (May
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 decendent 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 decendent. 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 politcal 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 helf by archives and libraries;
the latter are usually private collections donated by indivduals
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 advertisments
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 suviving 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
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.
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,
Charles S. Mason, Jr., CGSM
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