The Statehood of Kansas coincided with origins of the modern funeral industry.
Up until that time, people were buried as soon as possible in a coffin made by a local cabinetmaker. However, the Civil War introduced embalming on a wide scale for soldiers who died far from home. Developed in France, arterial embalming was a new practice at the Civil War onset, one that offered possible profit from bringing home the dead to families willing to pay. Soon after this war-time enterprise, embalming textbooks followed along with state trade associations, "undertakers" managing funerals, embalming equipment and burial container manufactories, government regulations, licensing, and the refusal of railroads to transport un-embalmed corpses.
To convince the public of this service need, undertakers (a term soon replaced by “morticians” and then “funeral directors”) proclaimed that embalmed bodies were more sanitary than untreated bodies using the germ research of Robert Koch and others. They encouraged open casket viewings and said pleasant looking corpses aided the mourning process. A 1921 account expresses appreciation of the mortician’s art of making death more palatable: In former times, a corpse was usually shrouded in white (either linen or fine cotton), and presented a most ghastly appearance in the coffin, which, in very early times would never be lined. The body was usually placed so as to lie wholly on the back and the head was scarcely raised. The modern custom of clothing the dead in their accustomed garments, or such as to resemble them. . .and of so placing them as to cause an almost lifelike appearance, is a great improvement upon old methods, to which we are indebted to undertakers who have made an art of their business.
Embalming basics today hasn’t changed much since William Hunter pioneered modern embalming in the eighteenth century with his arterial injection of turpentine, lavender oil, and other fluids with the most significant change from then to now being where embalming is done. In the nineteenth century, the body was viewed one last time before it went on to a church service and grave, thus early equipment needed to be portable. Said Gene Amos, Shawnee, of his father’s house services done in the 1920s, “They would go in and take down the bed, and set up the table that’s called a cooling board, and lay the body out there, and people would come and pay their respects.”
Then when death became a business, viewing the deceased in home parlors evolved into viewings at funeral parlors in funeral homes overseen by funeral directors. The shift to professional funeral homes took place by the 1930s, a change some deemed unnecessary and even unnatural but one most supported as they became increasingly enthralled by scientific advancements. “The introduction of the automobile, expansion of phone lines throughout the country, and advance in public sanitation all contributed to the viability and efficiency of separate funeral homes,” wrote Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.
By this time, motorized hearses had taken the place of horse-drawn hearses. Florence Blanton, Shawnee, said her mother’s funeral was the last one that took place in a horse-drawn hearse in the Kansas City area. When reading how a funeral home had bought a motor-driven hearse a year before her death in 1915, Mary Blanton remarked "I don't think I like that. It seems like they're rushing people off too fast." Florence Blanton said of her mother’s funeral, “And the driver sat up on the top, you know, had a frocktale coat and a high hat. And that was the last of that kind of funeral in this area. Every business in Shawnee closed during my mother's funeral and that was the first time in the history of the town that that was done.
Photo at right: Funeral procession of William Schroeder, Alma, Kansas. Date: 1892, Kansas State Historical Society A man carrying the U.S. flag leads the procession that includes a drummer and horse-drawn glass sided hearse, and followed by horses pulling buggies.
Education also furthered the mortuary profession, one named for the Latin word mort, which means “death.” Schools opened to offer training such as the Williams Institute of Embalming and Sanitary Science (1907-1941) in Kansas City, Kansas. Formed in 1907, the State Board of Embalming provided information and guidance, too. Kansas was one of only four states requiring licensing examinations in 1921, and licensed embalmers had to be of “good moral character.”
In the city of Shawnee before the Amos family opened their funeral home in 1946, D.E. Bassler, a practicing veterinarian, opened his in 1928. A graduate of the Williams Institute, he was a licensed embalmer and undertaker from the Kansas Board of Mortuary Arts. Also in the undertaking business at least during the 1924-1932 period were Andrew L. Moore, Shawnee Township, and in the area, too, were Gates (Rosedale), Julian (Olathe), Long, Simmons, Freeman, Lindsay, Foster, Quirk, Tobin, Stine and McClure, and Fairweather-Werner. Neighboring communities and Kansas City, too, offered undertaking services.
When reporting these deaths, area newspapers used philosophical phrases, including passing, transition, the Great Beyond, the Great Divide, eternal home, and departing this life. Gloomier references in older newspapers spoke of the Grim Reaper and Death Angel. However phrased, the deceased were processed with the embalmers’ tools and packaged in the funeral directors’ inventory similar to other commodities in the twentieth-century’s death business.
Undertaker establishment upon which D.E. Bassler's shop is based at Shawnee Town 1929. Photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum.