Coffins, Caskets & Burial Rituals

Gerrie Schipske

As Long Beach was beginning to grow as a city in the late 1890s, the ways in which people dealt with death changed dramatically. Up until then, most families washed, groomed, dressed and displayed their dead in their own front parlor and held a wake, or a “watch” to ensure that the departed were really dead and that no harm came to the body before burial.

The body was placed in a six-side wooden box, usually made by the local carpenter. This wooden box was called a “coffin” which comes from the Latin word cophinus for “basket.” A coffin carried on the shoulders to the church graveyard was referred to as a pall and those who carried it as pallbearers.

The term casket originated in the 1960s for a coffin with four square sides made to look more like a bed inside, giving the appearance that the dead are sleeping. Graveyards and burial grounds were no longer viewed as stark depositories of remains, but instead as cemeteries or “sleeping places,” where the departed waited for the afterlife.

The Civil War and the death of Pres. Lincoln changed public opinion about embalming. In the 1850s, Dr. Thomas Holmes was dubbed “the Father of Embalming” for his techniques which he took from the ancient Egyptians. Civil War surgeons embalmed thousands of fallen soldiers, so they could be transported home from the battlefields. Families paid for the embalming and shipment of the bodies by train. Soon coffins had side handles, so they could be moved easily on and off the trains.

When Pres. Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie, died, Abraham’s wife, Mary, could not bear the thought of his death and insisted that he be embalmed by Dr. Holmes. The embalming technique involved filling the veins with zinc chloride, which resulted in a marble-like appearance.

A few years later, the assassinated Lincoln was embalmed with zinc chloride and his remains taken on a 1,600 mile, 400 city train procession and then loaded on to a funeral car. Embalmers accompanied his body in case it needed additional embalming. During the eleven stops along the way, Lincoln’s coffin was opened for public viewing and memorial services. The public was able to see firsthand the effects of embalming, which made it popular.

The profession of embalmer and undertaker (someone willing to undertake the task of retrieving bodies from trains) flourished in the US. Cities, like Long Beach, soon found these professionals listed in local business directories. Cemeteries, which had few staff, worked closely with these new professionals.

The 1899 business directory for Long Beach lists two undertakers: David Andrus Sovereign located at 123 West First Street and W.P. Wilson, located on Second Street between Pine and Pacific. Sovereign started his undertaking business in 1899 with wife Mary, Allan and Mary Walker and G. Sandford. He served as superintendent of the Long Beach Signal Hill Cemetery (which became the Municipal Cemetery), earning one dollar per grave until 1901. A native of Canada, Sovereign enlisted in the US Civil War as a private. He was very active in Long Beach with the Civil War veterans’ group, the Grand Army of the Republic. He died in 1903 after a three-month illness and is buried in Sunnyside Cemetery, adjacent to the Municipal Cemetery. His wife, Mary, died in 1917 and is buried with him.

Embalmers came to the homes of the deceased until the early 1900s and then established funeral parlors in their own residences. The directing of funeral preparations became complex and expensive as government regulated burials. Embalmers passed along the costs of new paraphernalia to the families of the deceased.

The funeral business remained largely a male profession but employed female “lady assistants” to handle women and children. Local embalmers also offered “ambulance for sick and invalids” which were used as hearses for funerals.


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