Defying Morbidity: Tales From a Central Pennsylvania Funeral Home

(Photo is a photocopy of my grandmother’s photo of the Holcombe Funeral Home in November, 1959. You can spot the hearse sitting on the driveway).

After working odd jobs such as repairing bicycles and spending time doing factory work, my great great grandfather saved up two hundred dollars to buy a furniture store in Dushore, PA. He soon added an undertaking business to his furniture business. This was a fairly common thing to do at the time, for the undertaker could then also provide the caskets.  His son, my great grandfather, attended Penn State University for one year before dropping out to attend mortuary school. He became an undertaker like his father, and in the 1950s, moved his family into a large white funeral home.

Recently I visited with my grandmother, and she shared a few stories of what it was like to live so intimately close to the dead.

A Prankster Sense of Humor

My grandmother never conveyed to me that she felt morbid or uneasy about living in a funeral home. Part of this, I believe, had to do with her father’s good sense of humor.

During his short time at Penn State, my great grandfather joined a fraternity. On one occasion, after he was enrolled in mortuary school, his father had asked him to pick up a new hearse from a different town, and on the way home, he stopped by his old fraternity. The hearse had a siren on top (sometimes hearses doubled as ambulances) and the young men schemed it was the perfect vehicle to interrupt the chancellor’s address. One of the brothers pretended to fall ill during the speech, and my great grandfather turned on the roaring siren, raced down the road to the scene of the ‘victim,’and used an ironing board as a makeshift gurney to haul his friend away. They drove away, siren blaring, laughing at their successful mission.

Another time they drove the hearse with its siren blaring down a residential street near a prison, informing the concerned neighbors to lock their doors because a prisoner had (not really) escaped. While he certainly was not pulling these antics as an undertaker, his natural disposition was inclined against the rigid, and I’m sure this alleviated the moroseness of the experience living in a funeral home, where grieving families visited you on their worst days.

Life Has to Stop for the Dead

When a wake took place in the funeral home, my grandmother recounts her and her two siblings had to creep about like mouses upstairs, not making a sound. No television on, for that was too loud. But aside from keeping quiet, each family member had a role in preparing for the dead, whether that was dusting the caskets (my grandmother’s chore) or writing the obituaries (my great grandmother) for folks who were not literate. My great grandmother was also in charge of the flowers. Friends of the bereaved could call her up at the funeral home and she would put their order in to the florist and then pick up the orders to fill the home before the wake in the ‘flower car,’ dedicated solely to flower pick-up and delivery due to the sheer number of orders.

Once, on a break home from college, my grandmother was home to drive the flower car to a funeral service. She was at the very front of the funeral procession, going up a hill, when she stalled the car. Her father had to stop the procession, get out of the hearse, and get her going again. Then, she tells me, she was on her way.

The Women of the Funeral Home

In addition to writing obituaries and ordering flowers, my great grandmother went beyond her role as the undertaker’s wife and became quite hands-on. She attended workshops to learn crafts such as how to form and mold new noses for corpses that had lost theirs in accidents, so that she could assist her husband in his trade. In the 1950s, it would have been unheard of for a woman to be working in the death trade alone (as an undertaker or funeral director) and so this was quite involved for a woman of her time.

My great grandfather was not shy about asking for the women’s opinions of his work, either. My grandmother recalls being summoned to the embalming room and asked if she thought the dead looked presentable for their wake.

Earning His Money

My grandmother recalls one death, of a young man with a crew cut, who was involved in a bad auto accident. His family wished for an open casket wake even though the damage done to his appearance was quite severe. My great grandfather spent the entirety of two days in the embalming room with this young man just attaching each hair of his crew cut back into place. My grandmother tells me her father ‘earned his money on that one.’

A Reappearance of Victorian Customs

On another occasion, my great grandfather prepared the bodies of a hotel owner and his college-aged daughter, who had both died in an auto accident. Then he transported everything – flowers, caskets, bodies – to their hotel, where the wake was to take place. My grandmother recalls that the family hired photographers to take photos of the bodies in their caskets. Although this was ode to the Victorian practice of taking post-mortem photos, it was not commonplace in the 50s. She said it was the highlight of the wake and everyone was gossiping about it afterwards.

I loved hearing these tidbits of stories from my grandmother. How strange most people think it would be to live in a funeral home, yet for her it was a pretty normal experience, and one that she was very fond of. Today, the Holcombe funeral home has new owners and goes by a different name, although it still operates as a funeral home. The Holcombe furniture store, the starting point of it all, is still in operation and family-owned.

I researched my information on my great great grandfather by reading an essay his daughter (my grandmother’s aunt) had written for the book Snake-Bite: Lives and Legends of Central Pennsylvania, a compilation of essays, stories, and tall tales from folks who lived in central PA. My great aunt talks a little bit about the funeral industry as it was in the 1910s, and how embalming, though mainstream well before the 50s, was thought of as the devil’s work.

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