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A Behind The Scenes Look At Funeral Businesses

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, hope you’re having a good week.  Not long after I went to work at Newman-Gardner, James Kolb, who was Assistant Manager, quit to go in the insurance business with Life and Casualty. Newman came in and called Johnny Middleton, who had been a partner with Carless Edgar in the Water Valley Funeral Home. Middleton had sold his interest there and gone to work at Wells Funeral Home in Greenville.  Newman offered him a job and I only heard Newman’s half of the conversation, but I could tell that Newman had to pay him more than he had planned.  

The day Johnny came to work we hit it off immediately.  He had a sense of humor that was a bit unusual, to say the least.  As an example, Paul Kiihnl always wore a black suit, a black hat, black tie, black shoes and a black top coat One morning, as he came down Wood Street headed to work, Johnny turned to me, grinning and said, “ Look at him, it’s like seeing the Angel of Death walking down the street.” Nevertheless, they got along alright most of the time.  

From the beginning it was apparent that Johnny was the better embalmer. What was remarkable about that was that Paul had graduated from Upton-Jones school of Mortuary science in Nashville and Johnny had never gone to school.  

Johnny had worked for the J.W. Curry & Son Funeral Home in Dyersburg, Tenn., since he was a teenager. Due to his experience he had been allowed to take the State Board exams and was licensed accordingly.  

I was registered as an apprentice under Paul Kiihnl, but I soon realized that I would learn more with Johnny in practical application and in technical knowledge.

After I got out of the Air Force, I worked with Johnny again for a year and a half.  I told Hamric once that I learned more in that period of time than I would have in ten years in a small operation or in Mortuary school.  

At the old National Funeral Home in Memphis we averaged about 10 funerals per day.  The embalmers didn’t care if we came up and observed and assisted and the experience was invaluable.  

Getting back to Johnny’s weird sense of humor, one night we got a call and the son of the deceased wanted to ride with us to pick up the body.  Johnny lived on Wood Street Hill and he took the Ambulance home with him.  When I informed him that the guy wanted to ride with us, he said,. “be out front and I’ll pick you both up.” He came down Wood Street like a NASCAR driver and slid to a stop in front of the Funeral Home.  He put us both in the front seat and peeled rubber down Main street and the guy said, just let me out at the Blackmur Café and I’ll have a cup of coffee until you get back.”  Johnny turned to me, grinned and said, “That’s the way to get rid of unwanted company.”  

I remember hearing a similar story about Dr. George who was known to drive a car as fast as was possible on the roads we had in those days.  It seems that Dr. George was in Memphis and he ran into Ed Mays who asked him for a ride back to Water Valley.  That was when 78 highway was still graveled and by the time they got to Holly Springs, Ed told Dr. George that he had some business to attend and the last time Dr. George saw Ed he was headed down the street walking and Dr. George made the rest of the trip alone.  

Once Johnny and I had taken a patient home from the hospital and we were near Batesville and we decided to go by Newman’s .  He had a man named Holt working for him.  Mr. and Mrs. Newman were on vacation and Holt asked us if we liked pecans and of course we said yes.  He gave each of us a large sack of pecans and we thanked him and left.  A couple of weeks later Newman came over and told us that Holt had gone to drop some clothes at the cleaners and hadn’t been seen since. He then added, “what really makes me mad is that while I was gone he was selling my pecans to people.” Johnny and I looked at each other and it was hard to keep a straight face.  Of course he hadn’t sold us the pecans and we justified ourselves by telling each other that they were a gift.  

What I’ve given you this week is a behind the scenes look at what many people in those days considered a depressing business.  In reality I believe we acted more or less as anyone did in their work lives with only the nature of the business being different.  In retrospect, I was eighteen when I started working there and at that age you have an entirely different perspective than what you have as you get older.  

In reality it was an overworked and underpaid job on call 24/7 but I’ve always been glad of the experience.  The business has always been misunderstood, and even today when it is so much more sophisticated and high tech than it was in my day some of that thinking is still around.  

Let me hear from you as your input is always appreciated.  My email address is or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week.

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