Skip to content

Reflections

New Industry Born From Burial Policy Sales

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, I hope you’re having a good week.  

The other day I got a pleasant surprise. It was a hand-written note from Gloria Gardner in Jackson, Tenn. The last time I heard from her she had suffered a stroke and was in a nursing facility. That was a couple of years ago.

She and Cathy Ward were some of the first readers to write to me and I would hear from them over the years. I have never met Gloria faceto-face but I knew her father, Frank Gardner; her uncle, Cap Gardner; and her grandfather, Will Gardner.     

Mr. Will and Frank were with Hugh Trusty from the time he started Trusty Funeral home around 1934. The two of them knew everyone in Water Valley and the surrounding area and through their efforts in selling burial policies the business thrived from the start.

Mr. Will knew that Robert McLarty didn’t like burial insurance, so he would stand outside the McLarty mercantile and talk to everyone he saw entering or leaving the store. He built a large burial insurance debit as a result.

Frank had a lot of connections in Panola County so he built a large debit in that area. They wrote policies through the Southern Un-dertaking Association of Itta Bena, which was founded by M. T. Williams. Compared to today’s insurance policies it was a lesson in simplicity. It was a one page document with Mr. Williams picture at the top and it simply stated that the policy would furnish casket, suit or dress and transportation not to exceed $150.  

When the law was passed in the early part of the 20th century governing the funeral policies, the burial allowance was considered generous. Up to then, hardware and furniture stores sold simple pine coffins to families and they handled the arrangements themselves.  Burial policies gave birth to an all new industry – the funeral homes.  

McLarty was a reluctant entry into this field as up to then coffins were merely another item in their inventory. Hugh Trusty had seen how funeral homes in Mem-phis handled services and he envisioned offering the same type of service in Water Valley.

At that time embalming was an option that cost extra and was not done in many cases. However, Trusty de-cided to hire a full-time embalmer. Allen Windham, who worked for a Memphis casket factory, told him about a young man in Memphis who was looking for a job. He had been a barber and had just graduated from Gupton-Jones school of mortuary science in Nashville. His name was Orlando Van Buren New-man and he came to work for Trusty for $25 bucks a week in 1935.  

Trusty worked for the Post Office full time and in 1941 the Postal department gave him a choice – give up the funeral business or quit the post office. Newman didn’t have enough money to buy him out, but Cap Gardner who was an engineer for the railroad did,  and thus Newman-Gardner was born. They had been operating in a house on North Main that was used as a union hall in later years and at that time Trusty owned it.  

Trusty was angry about having to sell his business, so he refused to lease the building to Newman-Gardner. They leased a store building that was part of the Bank of Water Valley. It faced Wood Street adjacent to the railroad.  That’s where it was in 1948 when I went to work. It remained there until 1949 ,when Newman leased the building from Harris Samuels that had housed the funeral home until 1941.  

Johnny Middleton and I moved it back there and later it  was sold to Homer Dunn, and then Lawrence Hale  and eventually to Hamric Henry.  So you see how a much appreciated letter led into a history of a a once thriving Water Valley business. I’ve been very fortunate over the last ten years in having loyal readers furnish me with ideas for a column and it has meant so much to me.

So, let me hear from you as you might help create a future column. My email address is cncooper1@hotmail.com or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, TN 38101 and have a great week.

Leave a Comment