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American funeral traditions can vary so much among communities. Regardless of the individual's beliefs or societal group, funerals have one thing in common; they are meant to give people an opportunity to honor and say "goodbye" to someone they loved.

Mourning the Dead: Funeral Practices in 1870 until 1900

Since the beginning of time, death has played a role in the lives of every person. Disease, the lack of proper nutrition, the lack of sanitary conditions, childbirth, and the lack of medical knowledge often played a role in the average life span. In pre-Civil War America, mourning and funerals were deeply personal. The Civil War, however, brought new meaning to death in America. The war’s casualties brought about the need for creating new practices in the funeral industry, and by the end of the Civil War, those new practices had changed the way Americans mourned their loved ones. The 1900s saw funeral practices, and mourning customs started to shift even more to private affairs.


To better understand the shift in customs and practices, it is essential to understand where they started. In pre-Civil War America, death, though familiar and a part of everyday life was deeply personal. Funerals took place in the home, with women and men from the community assisting the family in preparing the body for burial by washing and laying out the body. Someone would sit up with the body for three days to ensure that death had occurred, and the men would dig graves. In other words, only those who knew the family closely would actively participate in ensuring a proper funeral. However, the Civil War would actively change the practice.


Mourning customs, however, did not change as much during the war era. According to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, men were not exempt from mourning customs. They did, however, have it significantly easier than women. The appropriate mourning attire consisted of a dark or black suit with a black armband or hatband for men. Mourning expectations for widowers did not exceed three months. Unlike their counterpart, widows remained in mourning for two and a half years. Dress for women in mourning encompassed three stages – Deep Mourning, Second Mourning, and Half Mourning. In a deep mourning period, women wore black dresses with no trim, and the only acceptable jewelry was jet—furthermore, women in deep mourning worn long veils initially made of crepe.  Due to health concerns, however, the crepe veils were discontinued. Each subsequent mourning stage lessened the restrictions upon women based upon colors they could and could not wear.  Additionally, mourning was dependent upon the individual that died.

"Mourning should be worn" said a professed authority,

  • For a husband or wife, from one to two years, though some widows retain their mourning for life. Queen Victoria of England wore black dresses for the rest of her life after the death of her beloved husband Albert.

  • For a parent or grandparent, from six months to a year.

  • For children above ten years of age, from six months to a year; for those below that age, from three to six months; and for an infant, six or seven weeks.

  • For brothers and sisters, six to eight months.

  • For uncles and aunts, three to six months.

  • For cousins, or uncles or aunts related by marriage, from six weeks to three months.

  • For more distant relatives or friends, from three weeks to as many months, according to the degree of intimacy. 


Additionally, there are rules about receiving visitors, sending and receiving mail, and invitations and announcements for the deceased.

The Civil War Brought the Advent of Embalming

This process preserved the body to prevent decomposition from occurring immediately, enabling bodies to be shipped from the battlefield to home. In many cases, the embalming process occurred on the battlefield, and the body was delivered to their home’s front door. In April 1865 and the two-week viewing and travel schedule that finally took him home to Springfield, Illinois, the death of Abraham Lincoln created a powerful marketing tool for the idea of a non-decomposing body. This new marketing tool paved the way for the undertaker to earn an income by selling his services.


The late 1800s through to the early 1900s saw professional undertakers’ creation, with schools for morticians as they now would be called forming around 1882.  Funerals moved out of the home and into newly created funeral parlors. Caskets became more of what we know today, and the process and responsibility for preparing the body for burial no longer fell to the women of the community. Though, in rural areas, this remained the exception. One such funeral home is the Diuguid Funeral Home, located in Lynchburg, VA.


According to their website, the Diuguid Funeral Home is the second oldest funeral home in America and the first one in Virginia. Started by Sampson Diuguid, a hand-carved furniture maker known for his craftsmanship, the Funeral Home started by happenstance rather than design. As his reputation grew for his furniture, Diuguid started receiving requests for coffins. On an exciting note, the Diuguid’s are responsible for designing and creating a church truck, which in the funeral industry allows for the casket to move up church aisles without the need for pallbearers to carry it.

The cost of funerals in 1870 varied from anywhere from $30 to $75, or more for the very wealthy. 

Source: The Solitary Historian


Note: In sending letters of condolence, announcements of death and sending letters of acknowledgment from received letters, the paper was always edged in black.

Source: Schmitt, “Home Funeral History,”

For Fashionable Mourning

By 1900, funeral practices and mourning customs started to shift. Though most of the mourning clothing remained the same, there are slight differences in the styles. Fabrics also changed, and it was increasingly popular to purchase mourning clothing instead of making it at home.

Additionally, prices did not necessarily reflect change so much as it did the financial standing of the family paying for the funeral. Funeral homes tended to charge those who were well off more for their funerals than someone who could not afford it. In fact, in Lynchburg, VA there was an Overseer of the Poor who often paid for the services provided by the funeral at a significantly lower cost. The ledgers of the Diuguid Funeral Home in 1900 changed significantly from a hand-written ledger to a pre-printed ledger that recorded more information such as cause of death and much of the information that can now be found on death certificates. In fact, their records are so detailed that should a record not exist for an individual with the State records it is highly possible that Diuguid’s records contain what any researcher or genealogist may need to locate.


Source: The Delineator, October 1900.

A Special Architectural Feature

In the 1800's and early 1900's, until about the time of World War I, funerals were mostly a quiet family affair held at home. Funerals were held in the parlor with family and a few close friends in attendance.  


Since families tended to be larger than today, the second floor of most homes was devoted to sleeping quarters. 


In many homes at this time, the stairs to the second floor went straight up, reached a small platform (or "landing"), and then, the stairs turned to the left with about 4-5 additional steps to reach the second floor. When a family member died, they were placed in a casket and carried downstairs. If the pallbearers were not very careful, they would accidentally bang the casket into the wall when they turned, and descended the stairs, thus damaging the plaster on the wall.


An interesting architectural idea helped save many walls from damage. It was called an "alcove" and was a recessed area in the wall at the top of the stairs, just before the turn to the left was made. A small portion of the wall, about waist high, was gently curved inward, about six to eight inches, so that when the casket came down the stairs to the landing, it could be moved into the alcove without damaging the wall.


When not in use, the alcove was used as a decorative area containing a sculpture, a vase of silk flowers or other decorative items. Very few alcoves are left today as they were later plastered over and made to look like a regular wall.  


Here is a photo of a Cooper County home that chose to keep the alcove, but covered it entirely with a painting.


No longer do families build homes with funerals in mind, and no longer does the deceased remain in the home until burial. Funeral Services have altered significantly the way that families mourn. The death of a loved one went from a very private showing to a more reserved public affair.


Source: Editor, Barbara Dahl

Note: In sending letters of condolence, announcements of death and sending letters of acknowledgment from received letters, the paper was always edged in black.

Source: Schmitt, “Home Funeral History,”


Currently, there are six active Funeral Homes in Cooper County. They are:


Howard Funeral Home Boonville (formerly Davis)

H T May & Son Funeral Home Boonville

Markland-Yager Funeral Home Boonville

Meisenheimer-Page-Dady Funeral Home Pilot Grove

Meisenheimer-Page-Dady Funeral Home in Otterville

(Goodman and Boller) William Wood (Thatcher-Wood) Funeral Home in Boonville


Funeral Homes/Chapels

Cooper County funeral homes seem to have changed ownership infrequently, but no one is quite sure about the date of founding or the date the name was changed to a new owner. One thing that is unique about the buildings where they reside, is that in the early to mid 1900's, some of the funeral homes also served as the local hardware or furniture store.


Davis Funeral Home was started by John Davis of Boonville. He sold it to Chris Howard who had been an employee. Chris renamed it to Howard Funeral home. John Davis said he always wanted to be an undertaker in the funeral business. 


Before William Wood Funeral Home came into being, is was Goodman and Boller Funeral Service. It was located in downtown Boonville at the Hittner building. William Wood served his apprenticeship under Mr. Goodman and Mr. Boller in 1947. William Wood then purchased a funeral home in Aurora, Mo. when Mr. Goodman died around 1954, Mr. Boller asked William Wood to move back to Boonville and become his partner. The funeral home had relocated to 517 Fourth Street by then where it still resides. Years later after Mr. Boller died it became Thacher-Wood, Inc.


Fun Fact: My mom took me to the funeral home in Pilot Grove and there was a cute little you tea set that I really wanted. I was around 5 years old and would occasionally still suck my thumb. My grandfather promised me the tea set if I quit and I immediately did! I loved that tea set!

Source: Kathy Murdock


Thacher-Wood Funeral Homes

Berry Thacher was born in Odessa, Mo and was childhood friends of the folks that owned the funeral home there. He spent a lot of time at the funeral home. Later in life after successful sales careers in Michigan and Texas he decided that he would like to buy a funeral home in a small town in Missouri and raise a family there. He heard that there was a funeral home for sale in Boonville, Mo at that time called Stegner Funeral Home located at 629 E. Morgan Street. Berry could not get off work to visit the funeral home so his wife, Frances Jorgensen Thacher made the trip to Boonville from Kansas City by herself to look at the facility and talk numbers, etc. She went back home and they decided that they would purchase the facility although it needed quite a bit of repair and cleaning. This was in the 1950s when they moved to Boonville with their son, Frank B. Thacher II who was in the first grade I believe. Berry and Frances began working on the funeral home and made the second floor of the house into an apartment where they lived until 1971 when they moved to a house on High Street. They lived in Boonville for the rest of their lives and are buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery.


Some years later, perhaps in the mid 1960s, Berry and Frances bought a small funeral chapel in Prairie Home which was owned by Albert and Lorene Hornbeck. The Hornbeck’s owned a Hardware store which was next door to the funeral home on the square in Prairie Home. They were getting older and wanted to just focus on their hardware business. It became known as the Hornbeck-Thacher Funeral Chapel. It was open for many years until it burned down and the chapel was moved to another location in downtown Prairie Home. It closed some years later.


Before the advent of cell phones, fax machines, call forwarding, etc., the funeral business entailed a great deal of time sitting inside beside a phone waiting for it to ring. A lot of time was spent being “on call”. Berry and Frances and Bill and Ruth each were wanting to have more free time while still attending to business. In the 1960s I believe they got together and talked about forming a corporation in which they would have more “time on/time off” while still taking care of business. They would keep the individual funeral homes but would work together. Berry always told the story that they consulted one of the larger funeral enterprises in Kansas City and they said “well it hasn’t been done, but it’s a great idea and you should try it”. So Thacher-Wood was born with William and Ruth Wood and Berry and Frances Thacher as the co-owners. In subsequent years, Frank Thacher and Charles Murdock (The Woods son-in-law) went to Dallas Institute of Mortuary Science and came back to Boonville to join the family corporation. In the year 2000, owners Charley and Kathy Murdock and Frank and Julie Thacher sold the corporation to Stewart Enterprises. Stewart Enterprises bought the name rights and it continued to be called Thacher-Wood Funeral Homes. Today the facility at 629 E. Morgan is a private home owned by Tanner and Casey Wendleton Bechtel.  


Other information: Kathy Wood Murdock and Julia Tuttle Thacher were both certified Funeral Directors by the State of Missouri. We were not licensed embalmers. 

Source: Julie Thacher












This is a late picture of the “Princess” Theater in Bunceton. It was built in 1925 as a movie theater seating 233 people for silent movies. Once the “talkies” became popular, it was closed. It later became the HT May & Sons, Funeral Chapel and a furniture store. Later, it became a laundromat and finally a bar. Today it has been converted to apartments. Mentally paint the building white and add some gold paint to the ornate trim and you can imagine what the building looked like in the late 1930’s.


Source: Kathy Wood Murdock

May Funeral Home's History

The May funeral home was originally started in 1922 by my grandfather H.J. May’s uncle H.R. Martin. He operated the H.R. Martin funeral home until his death in 1925. I was told his original building waa the old victory cleaners building on Morgan street in Boonville. I believe Taylor’s Bakery now owns that space. It was at the time that my grandfather Holwell J. May (H.J.) took over the business. 


According to my father, my grandfather had some sort of agreement with James Stegner of Stegner funeral home to rent a small portion of the funeral home as needed, at times most of the funerals in the black community were held at the church. My father H.T. May said that at that time when you would come in the side door at what later became the Thacher funeral home, there was a small room where the black families were able to view but not hold services. This continued until the funeral home was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Thacher in the 1950s, then my grandfather H.J. May moved the business to 814 Porter Street in Boonville which is next to the current YMCA swimming pool. The business operated at this location until 1969. My father H.T. went to Worsham Mortuary School in 1960-61 in Chicago, IL. He then came home to Boonville to help his father run the business in Boonville.


In 1969, the current day location at 405 Sycamore was purchased and the business was moved there. 


H.J. May died in 1974 and my father then took over the running of the business. I went to Dallas Institute of Mortuary Service in August of 1979 and graduated in August of 1980. I worked with my father until his death in 2005. At that time my mother Estelle May and I continued the operation. My son Howell J. May II then entered the Kansas City Kansas School of Mortuary Science and graduated in July 2011. Currently we operate the Boonville location.

By: Thomas May

History of Hays-Painter Funeral Home

Bob Painter was born in Bellair and raised on a farm near there. He graduated from Pilot Grove High School in 1932 and farmed on his family farm. Bob became interested in being an undertaker. In the late 1930s, he enrolled in, and graduated, from the Kansas City School of Embalming in Kansas City, Kansas. After graduating, he worked in the Kansas City area for Newcomers Funeral Homes. Later, he worked in Concordia for a funeral home there. When Mr. Stoecklein retired, Bob joined Stoecklein–Hays Funeral Home in Pilot Grove. They owned a funeral home in Otterville. In 1940, Bob became a partner with Earl Hays, forming Hays-Painter Funeral Home.


The Pilot Grove Facility was a Funeral Home and Furniture hardware store. They sold furniture, paint, linoleum, wallpapers, appliances, and even lawnmowers. This business model was common for funeral homes. The funeral home also offered an Ambulance Service. The equipment was a station wagon with an ambulance cot and red lights. Most people were transported to the hospital in Boonville or Columbia. The Boonville police would wait at the bottom of Golf Link Hill and escort the ambulance through town.

The Ambulance part ended in 1974 when the business was sold, and Cooper County established an Ambulance District at the hospital.

After Pearl Harbor, Bob enlisted in the Navy and, being 29 years old, was made a Pharmacist Mate. He was over a hospital section in Scotland treating the wounded. Note: In the Navy, Morticians were often assigned to Fleet Marine Service (combat medic services).

In 1950, he married Jo Gettel, who he met in Kansas City; they had two children, Pan and Bobby. In 1960, Mr. Hays retired. Bob continued as Hay’s Painter until 1974, when he sold the business to Wayne Woodard of Woodard Funeral Homes in California, MO. The store was closed and made into the casket display room and Senior Center.

Carl Bo Hayne worked with Bob in the early 60’s and into the 70s. Andy Newman also worked and helped on many things.

In 1976, Wayne Woodard sold the Funeral Home to Ed and Ken Misenhiemer; they ran the business, opening a home in Tipton in the 80s. They died, and the business was sold to the Hueletts, they operated the business until 2020. It was sold to the Page-Dady Funeral Home.


By: Bob Painter

Funeral Homes Provided Ambulance Service

Back in those days the ambulance service was also provided by the funeral homes. Frank said the “ambulance” was a station wagon and they only carried a bottle of oxygen and a cot in it. Berry said they only had one person die in transit in all the years they provided that service. I believe that the cost for transporting someone was $5. As medical care changed so did the ambulance business. Cooper County took over the ambulance business and Berry Thacher and William Wood were more than happy to donate the keys to their 2 station wagons to the County after many years of making ambulance calls all over the county at all times of the day and night! I can’t remember the exact year but it could probably be accessed from the Cooper County Ambulance Service.

Local Funeral Ads

 Steve Twenter shared these ads from his collection from the “Advertiser”:


July 31th, 1953

May 28th, 1937

May 28th, 1937

July 25th, 1952

July 25th, 1952

July 25th, 1952

July 21th, 1939

July 25th, 1941

July 25th, 1941

July 26th, 1946

July 25th, 1941

July 26th, 1946

July 26th, 1940

July 26th, 1940

July 26th, 1946

July 26th, 1940

July 26th, 1940

July 26th, 1940

July 26th, 1940

July 27th, 1945

July 27th, 1945

July 26th, 1940

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