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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: How the undertaking of funerals has changed years ago

Family Photo

W.H. (left) and Walter Thompson pose with their hearse outside the combination furniture store and mortuary they operated between 1912 and 1934 on the southwest corner of Main and 2nd Sts. The building, which has housed many businesses over the years, now is owned by Billy and Donna Rosiere, who operate Marion Dry Cleaning and Laundry from 2nd St. storefronts, not visible, in the rear of the building.

Funeral homes, as we know them today, are a relatively modern invention.

Until the start of the 20th century, funerals tended to be organized by relatives and neighbors and often were conducted in homes.

Furniture stores assisted by selling tapered wooden coffins, rectangular wooden caskets, and related items, which they advertised as “undertaking goods.”

“Undertaking” came not from the idea that remains would be buried but rather as a euphemism for what was thought to be an unpleasant but necessary task or “undertaking.”

By 1880 in Marion, “undertaking goods” were frequently mentioned in advertisements by furniture stores like A.D. Billings & Co.

There was sometimes intense competition in the business and a growing market for providing more than just a wooden box in which to bury loved ones.

In 1883, Barrows & Tidyman, a rival furniture store, began advertising a new service — “the only hearse in town.”

By 1886, Billings had added its own designate undertaker, H.L. Brundage, and “a fine hearse always on hand.”

Embalming — which had become popular for health reasons in the post-Civil War period — was listed as a specialty, and calls were “attended to day and night.”

With various partners, hardware store partner Ben Carter opened yet another undertaking and furniture business in 1890.

Like Barrows & Tidyman, he did not advertise embalming services, which required special knowledge related to human anatomy.

Most furniture stores continued mainly to sell caskets and supplies and to rent hearses. They often were presided over by business people not licensed as embalmers or, in some cases, even as funeral directors.

In 1897, Carter sold his business to such an entrepreneur, Ferd Funk (1859-1962), a farmer who previously had served as a state representative.

By 1899, Funk was advertising “I want to C-U-B-A customer of mine” at his furniture and undertaking business — a somewhat odd slogan, especially for the second part of his business.

Slowly, the need for training of embalmers began to take hold. There even were anti-monopoly challenges in trust-busting era to cartels that attempted to limit the funeral business.

A Kansas lawsuit, for example, successfully challenged an attempt by undertakers to limit competition by boycotting any of their suppliers who sold to more than one funeral business for each 10,000 residents.

Professionally trained morticians did not become a fixture in Marion until 1912, when Funk sold his business to Thompson Furniture and Undertaking Co.

The business had two increasingly separate missions — a picture-framing and furniture operation, presided over by Walter Thompson (1849-1944), who moved to Marion from Burlingame, and a mortuary, run by his son, W.H. Thompson (1876-1955), who moved here from Eureka as owner of the combined business.

“Since buying Mr. Funk’s stock of furniture and undertaking business, we have added a carload of furniture and also a complete line of rugs, mattings, and floor covering, making our stock the most complete in the city,” an advertisement in the Record said at the time. “Undertaking calls answered day or night. Licensed embalmer and funeral director.

“We are here to stay, and we ask a share of your patronage. Our prices are always O.K. Our motto is: ‘Quick sales, small profits, and courteous treatment.’”

Funk, a fixture in Republican politics in the county, went on to become a director of Marion National Bank.

“The Record hastens to assure Marion people that Mr. Funk has no intention at this time of leaving Marion — which is an announcement that is a distinct pleasure to make,” the newspaper reported. “He has been wanting to quit the business for some time, mainly on account of health considerations.

“This town has no finer or more useful citizen than Ferd Funk, and as he retires from the business with which he has been connected for so many years the Record cannot pass the occasion without saying that it is a business record of which nothing but good is to be said in the performance of the delicate and trying duties of a funeral director.

“We do not believe there is a more capable or efficient man in Kansas. Marion will insist on keeping the Funk family—it will simply insist upon that.”

The Thompsons continued to operate both a furniture business and a mortuary from a series of Main St. locations until 1934, when they purchased an expansive home, originally built for Herb Thorp, at 205 Elm St.

Thompson Funeral Home, as the newly relocated business became known, now had its own chapel and, as the Record of the times put it, “other conveniences for those using the service.”

By this time, W.H. Thompson’s daughter, licensed embalmer Mercil Wight (1900-1995), and her husband, town marshal Ollie Wight (1895-1979), also had became involved in the business and moved into the house along with the W.H. Thompson family.

“The rear of the house and upstairs are to the remodeled, added to and otherwise fixed for occupancy of the two families,” the Record wrote. “Considerable building will be done to accomplish this end.”

Upon their retirement in 1969, the Wights sold the business to Gerald Harp (1924-2012). When Harp retired in 1987, he sold it to Ty Zeiner, who had been working there since 1984. Earlier this year, Brad Yazel purchased the funeral home from Zeiner.

Yazel and Roger and Sandi Megli serve as funeral directors for what has grown from the 205 Elm St. address to include four other locations, in Council Grove, Herington, Hillsboro, and Whitewater, for what now is known as Yazel-Megli-Zeiner Funeral Home.

Yazel, Zeiner, and Vance Donahue of Herington are licensed embalmers for the funeral homes.

Last modified Sept. 12, 2019

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