Funeral Business Thrived On Burial Policies
By Charles Cooper
Hello everyone, hope you’re having a good week.
Prior to WWI funerals in the south were pretty much a community affair. Usually there was a carpenter of sorts in the neighborhood who knew how to construct a crude coffin. Neighbors came in to “lay out” the body and the local stores sold cheap muslin to line the interior. Men in the community would take their picks and shovels and dig the grave.
W. Vick, who lived for several years on Papa Badley’s farm, volunteered to assist in grave digging as long as his health permitted. The furniture and hardware stores sold the handles and other fixtures as well as factory made coffins. The J.W. McLarty company was one of those and from this evolved the funeral home that is part ancestor of the Seven Oaks in Water Valley. Before WWI they employed Bill Carter who held Mississippi Mortuary Sci-ence license #2.
M.T. Williams established the Southern Undertaking Association in Itta Bena and started selling a burial policy. This was a simple one page document with Mr. Williams picture on the letterhead and simply stated that for a specified premium a one hundred and fifty dollar funeral complete with suit or dress and transportation was guaranteed.
Since embalming was not widely used at that time it cost an additional fee of thirty-five dollars. Later the contract was amended to include the embalming as well. Robert McLarty didn’t believe in burial policies but later competition forced him to change his mind. Hugh Trusty seized the opportunity and bought a Fixable Pontiac funeral coach and announced he was open for funeral business. Will Gardner was hired to sell the burial policies. Gardner along with his two partners Sam Nations and Gates Woods had seen their store go out of business as a victim of the depression.
This was one of the best business decisions that Hugh Trusty ever made as Will Gardner knew everyone in Yalobusha and Panola counties and they were on their way. Gardner knew of Robert McLarty’s dislike of burial policies so he would simply stand outside the McLarty store and approach every customer coming or going from the store. Mc-Larty was furious but since Gardner was on a public sidewalk there was nothing he could do.
Trusty made another smart move in 1935. He heard from a casket salesman that a young man in Memphis named Orlando Van Buren Newman, who had just graduated from the Gupton-Jones school of mortuary science in Nashville, was looking for a job. He contacted Newman and offered him a job at twenty-five dollars a week and the next day Newman arrived on the train.
He was a stocky individual with a small mustache and liked to wear double breasted suits. He was a smooth operator and quickly became well known over the area by joining the local clubs and working with the civic functions. He was al-ways known as O.V. and he also upgraded the overall funeral service.
Up to that time the McLarty company would load the grave equipment and the body in the hearse and go to the church and unload the equipment and set up in the cemetery while the service was going on. A tent was only used in event of rain. Newman persuaded Trusty to buy a truck and hire a local black man named Duck to take the equipment, and always a tent, and set it up before the service. He also started wearing a black coat with a white carnation and gray striped trousers.
In 1941 Newman and Cap Gardner bought out Trusty and the Newman-Gardner funeral home was born. “Bo” Hall was hired to do the office work and assist in funerals. He was well known as he had worked for the Hamner furniture store for several years and was well liked by everyone.
After a couple of years Cap Gardner, who was a railroad engineer, decided to sell out to Newman and go back full time to the railroad. He told me once that he didn’t care how much money the funeral home made, it would never take the place of railroading.
You all know how much I admire people who come back from failure and become a success sometimes in a different field. Here was Will Gardner sixty years old, no business and no job with a family to support and in the middle of a depression who started in a new business concept and built a successful career. He told me once that he practically fed his family by taking molasses, vegetables, chickens and eggs in lieu of the first premium on a burial policy.
When I started this column I said that it would feature people who really never got much or any recognition and also from time to time refer back to previous columns and this has been one of those times.
Your input is always welcome so let me hear from you. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week