The Artifact Collection
The artifacts in the Shawnee Town 1929 undertaking collection came to the museum through donations. The original donor was a founding member of the museum. His name was Gene Amos (1930-2009), a prominent member of the community, owning Amos Family Funeral Home. The business was started by his parents Edward Paul and Hazel Amos in 1946. Gene always possessed an interest in acquiring, preserving, and sharing artifacts of all kinds, but especially those that represented his family's trade in the funeral business. An active collector, he became known throughout the Midwest, and was often contacted by other funeral directors and collectors who were interested in selling or donating their collections. By the 1960's Gene had amassed a substantial and comprehensive history of undertaking objects. In 1967 he helped build a replica undertaker shop at Shawnee Town, outfitting it with the tools of the trade. By the 1980's he had gifted most of the objects in his collection to Shawnee Town. To the memory of Gene Amos this online exhibit is dedicated. More objects will be added to the exhibit as they are processed.
An interview with Gene Amos on a collection he acquired (1977)
Gene Amos showing his collection, circa 1985
Gene Amos: "I think we're really making an effort to try to preserve the history of our area, maybe because of all of this interest that my dad has had and our family has had (in local history and the funeral business), we've had to keep it going. A couple of years ago, a lady called me up and said that she'd talked to a funeral director over in Kansas City and he told her, he says the only one I know that would be interested in what you've found is Gene Amos. So she called me up and she and I went up to this beautiful little farm up in northern Missouri near St. Joseph and there's a beautiful little home there that was built during the Civil War, the Antebellum style. And in the back of the farm are some out buildings and one of these little out buildings, for lack of a better name, I'd call it a coffin maker's building. This old farmer, after he built his home during the Civil War, probably because he was a good carpenter-- the people around his rural farm community would come to him and ask him to build them a coffin. And starting in 1871 and for twenty five years, he built coffins for the people of his community. He'd build anywhere from eight to fifteen a year, whatever was needed, and he kept a record book that I took pictures of the first and last page.
And he built these wood coffins. They were made of walnut and he built them of either walnut or wild cherry wood off of his farm. He must have had some oak and some pine because this outside box here is made of pine but you can see by looking at the bottom that the bottom is made of oak and the sides are made of cherry wood. And with those old fashioned tools, this is on a bevel and this is on a bevel and he would cut his wood almost all the way through and shape it the way that he wanted to and he was a tremendous carpenter. It's a lot easier to carry one of these little baby coffins then it would be to carry an adult coffin, but I've never seen any adult wood coffins before, because they used to always be made to size. You've heard the old story of the old undertaker who was sizing up his customers, you know. He'd get his tape measure out (laughs).
Well, that's really how they did it in those days, because they built coffins just to the size of the individual. They were wide at the shoulders and narrow at the feet and some of them had cloth covering on them. I found out that the old coffin maker had a couple of daughters that lived half their life on the farm and they did the work on supplying the interiors on the coffins. And he wasn't an undertaker. He didn't take care of bodies. The people probably come to him and say "this morning our baby died," or "my wife died and I need a coffin so big," and he'd either have one--or he'd go ahead and make it right away. And as he grew older and he lived out his life to 1897 when he died at the age of 83, he had made 365 of these in the twenty five years that he built coffins. Well, this was an unusual trade or occupation as far as I was concerned because the old undertakers used to be the old cabinet makers or the livery men.
Well needless to say, this was an unusual find. Margaret (Gene's wife) and I went back up there two Saturdays in a row and I kept trying to talk her into letting me buy these coffins from her and finally the third week, we had a contract prepared. I bought these thirty five coffins and the right to tell this man's story in a book or something like that. I found out this; her husband's grandpa had come from Pennsylvania. He was probably about eighteen and his bride was sixteen and they'd come by steamboat up the Missouri River and got off at Weston. He went into Buchanan County and bought some ground and built his farm and so forth and then became a coffin maker. The man died in 1897 and these coffins were made over 100 years ago."
About the science of embalming
Gene and Margaret Amos, circa 1985
After death, the human body decomposes. Enzymes in cells break down, causing cells to digest themselves (autolysis
). As the body putrefies, bacteria multiply, destroying tissues. Influenced by the environment and body condition, putrefaction proceeds until soft tissue liquefies leaving only a skeleton or is halted, for example, by cooling or embalming. First used thousands of years ago for body preservation by application of spices and scents, in recent centuries embalming basically entails the injection of chemicals into the body’s circulation system and cavities. Embalming merely delays decomposition but does not prevent it. The injected chemicals change decomposition from putrefaction to oxidation through air exposure and moisture.
About body preparation
Once the body is placed on an embalming table, it is washed and disinfected. The mouth and eyes are closed. An incision is made and a tube inserted into an artery. This tube connects to a container of embalming fluid pumped through the artery to replace the blood forced out through a separate tube connected to a vein. When the process is completed, the embalmer removes both tubes, ties vessels to prevent leakage, and closes the incision with sutures. The abdomen also has its contents removed and preservatives injected. Washed again, the body then has cosmetics applied, hair arranged, and clothes put on before being placed in a burial container.
About burial containers
Coffins, containers in which the deceased are placed for burial or entombed above ground, derive their name from a word that originally meant “basket.” A tapered, six-sided box, the coffin differs from a casket, a rectangular container with four sides that originated in the nineteenth century and a euphemistic word implying a container used for precious treasures.
By the late 1800s when it was customary to display a corpse at home before interment, manufacturers produced wooden coffins, thus giving mourners an extensive selection for their loved one’s final resting place. Wrote Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi
: There's one thing in this world which isn't ever cheap. That's a coffin. . . .There's one thing in this world which a person don't say – 'I'll look around a little, and if I find I can't do better I'll come back and take it.' That's a coffin. There's one thing in this world which a person won't take in pine if he can go walnut; and won't take in walnut if he can go mahogany; and won't take in mahogany if he can go an iron casket with silver door-plate and bronze handles. That's a coffin. And there's one thing in this world which you don't have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. And that's a coffin. Undertaking? – why it's the dead-surest business in Christendom, and the nobbiest.
Among the sundry offerings during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were safety coffins designed with a mechanism that would allow a live occupant to communicate the need for rescue. A bell, for example, could be attached the body’s finger. If alive, the person could pull the string to signal for help, which needed to be speedy as a coffin typically holds only two hours of air. However, decaying bodies can shift with gas expulsion and other changes, so viewing tubes and glass openings also were built into coffins to watch for decomposition during this era when fear of being buried alive was justified.
About the exhibit
We would like to thank the Johnson County Heritage Trust Fund
, who provided partial funding for this online exhibit. The artifacts that comprise the exhibit came from an extensive collection donated by Gene Amos of Shawnee, as well as and two other anonymous Kansas and Missouri-based collectors. In addition to this exhibit, visitors can view some of these items and learn about the history of 1920's undertaking in the recreated Dr. Charles Bassler Undertaking Establishment built in 2015 at Shawnee Town 1929, 11501 West 57th Street in Shawnee, Kansas.