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History Corner: Funeral Practices In Puslinch Throughout The 19th & 20th Centuries

funeral hearse


IN THE 19th & 20th CENTURIES

by Marjorie Clark

Respect was the keynote of funeral practices in the early days in Puslinch – respect for the deceased person and respect for the surviving family. There were important rites, which served to give structure to the functions surrounding the loss of a family member and help the survivors through the immediate, intense period of grief.

Everyone was buried, some on their own farms, perhaps because cemeteries had yet to be established or possibly because inclement weather rendered travel impossible, but most in cemeteries, which were established in the township between 1834-1839.

The settlers brought their funeral and burial customs from their countries of origin. Peter McLean of Badenoch insisted that he be accorded what he regarded as the proper respect, in that his coffin be carried on the shoulders of his children’s and grandchildren’s generation from his home to Crown Cemetery. This was a considerable walk but was the practice in Scotland and also in the earliest days in the settlement in Canada, before roads were established. Later, men who carried the coffin from the house to the hearse and from the hearse to the gravesite, usually relatives and neighbours, were selected by the family and called pall-bearers. By the end of the 19th century, younger relatives carried the flowers and were called flower-bearers. All flowers were taken to the gravesite. The early people took their Christianity seriously. All of the earliest graves in the centre section of Crown Cemetery face the east towards Jerusalem.

Coffins were constructed by local carpenters and brought to the deceased’s home, where the body lay until the funeral. As a child in the 1950’s, I recall a black wreath on the door of a home in Morriston, marking the site where a death had occurred and where the body awaited the service. Funerals were held in the home, with the minister in attendance. The Christian ministers and priests had prescribed services for the occasion, from which there was seldom any deviation. It was familiar and reassuring. No-one else spoke during the service. Everyone in the community was expected to be there. Everyone wore black or at least, a dark colour. Houses were crowded to capacity and in the winter, the overflow spent the time in the barn to stay warm.

The funeral service was held two or three days after the death, except in the case of death due to a communicable disease in the 19th century, when burial occurred the same or the following day. Once funeral homes were utilized, it was standard to host two days of visitation, with two hours in the afternoons and two hours in the evenings, prior to the funeral on the third day.

The term “undertaker” is now out of fashion, replaced by “funeral director”. It referred to a man who undertook the funeral arrangements. The profession originated about the 1860’s with the advent of embalming. Many of the early undertakers were cabinet-makers (furniture makers), as they also made caskets. The reason for embalming was to preserve the body in a life-like state for display at the funeral. The body was washed, embalmed and dressed. Until about 1900, arsenic was used for embalming the body. It was replaced by formaldehyde. Hugh Campbell on Queen Street in Morriston was the first known undertaker, operating about 1881-1901. Following him, Frank Kistenmacher Jr. of Victoria Street provided the service.

Special carriages called hearses evolved to transport the coffin with the deceased from their home to the cemetery. These became quite ornate, covered in, with glass windows on the sides, adorned with black curtains. The matched black horses, which pulled the hearse, were decorated with black plumes attached to the heads of their bridles. The hearse led a solemn procession from the home to the cemetery. No other traffic would meet or pass this procession. This, too, was out of respect for the deceased and the family. If unexpectedly, one did meet a procession, one would turn onto the side of the road and wait quietly until all of the procession had passed. Men would remove their hats and caps and stand silently. These deferential customs continued to be followed for many generations. I witnessed my mother turn off the highway and wait for a funeral procession to pass, now led by a special motor vehicle called a hearse, in the 1950’s. In those days, too, cross traffic at corners stopped to allow the procession to proceed past And this was practised until the 1980’s.

All of these observances were in place to show regard for the passing of a fellow human being and understanding for the grief of his loved ones

Funeral homes in Guelph, Hespeler and Galt replaced the deceased’s home by the 1940’s. It was more convenient for the undertaker and could provide more space for large turnouts. Many of these businesses became family affairs and passed from one generation to the next, as in the case of the Gilbert MacIntyre Funeral Home, which in earlier time, served primarily the Roman Catholics of Puslinch. Michael MacIntyre and his sons operate this funeral home today (2019). The McLanaghan-Wall Funeral Home was favoured by the Protestants of Puslinch. George Wall continued the business and himself was buried in Crown Cemetery, Puslinch. This funeral home continues today as the Wall-Custance Funeral Home, under the directorship of Scott and Betty Young and their son, Taylor.

Although vestiges remain, most of these rites of passage have ceased. With the advent of cremation, many remains are not buried in cemeteries and no stone marks their place. In some cases, no service is held at all.