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Making Death Modern: Mortuary Practices in Turn of the Century New Mexico

By Pablo Mitchell

Life changed in many ways in New Mexico after the railroad arrived in 1880. One of the most profound changes occurred in burial practices. For growing numbers of New Mexicans, burial practices became more professionalized and market-oriented as trained morticians and undertakers increasingly made a living from death and caring for the dead.

Some of the best sources of information on New Mexico’s fledgling mortuary business are found in newspaper advertising. In some cases, advertisements were plain, with no illustrations or elaborate typefaces and the business would simply identify itself as “Undertakers,” or “Funeral Directors.” In an advertisement from the New Mexico Medical Journal, an Albuquerque man identified himself as “Funeral Director, Undertaker & Embalmer” and, in an apparent attempt to impress medical readers with his company’s expertise and standing, included the names of several embalming colleges from New York and Massachusetts, such as the “Champion College for Embalming.”

Advertisements for E. Monfort of Albuquerque, Strong Bros. of Albuquerque, J.J. Ethington of Raton, and S.R. Witcher of Des Moines announced their firms’ licensing and experience as well as their “full line of goods at reasonable prices,” their “up to date equipment,” and their “prompt service.” A 1907 ad for “F.H. Strong, Funeral Director” called attention to the company’s “white and black hearse” and its sale of “monuments.” William Borchert & Co. of Albuquerque was a bit more enthusiastic about its services, promising “embalming done in first class style,” and “all kinds of coffins and caskets.” In a hint of the range of commerce potentially involved in the business of death and dying, on the same page as the ad for Borchert & Co. appeared an announcement for Mrs. J.A. Sheldon, a “Manufacturer of French Tissue Flowers [with] special attention given to Funeral Work.”

One advertisement stands out among the previously mentioned simple, unadorned, and small undertaker and embalmer notices. In the spring of 1905, Dudrow and Montenie of Santa Fe placed an advertisement in the Santa Fe New Mexican. This advertisement covered two columns in width and most notably included an illustration of a horseless and driver-less carriage with a casket riding in back. The casket is ornate, with elaborate designs and flourishes; a far cry from a simple wooden box. In addition to the mortuary business, the advertisement offers “all kinds of picture framing” and that customers on “Sundays and nights” should contact “Mrs. I.B. Hearns.”

Other mortuary advertising occurred in pamphlets and flyers. In a pamphlet from 1911, the Strong Bros. of Albuquerque, one of New Mexico’s most prominent new mortuary businesses, extolled the advantages of their professionally-trained staff. The pamphlet, emblazoned on the cover with a crest announcing the founding of the company in 1884, exclaims in large type:

Just a Moment
In issuing this little booklet, we have but one apology to make and that is, in case it falls into the hands of the sick, we ask you not to take offence:
1st, we don’t know that you are sick;
2nd, we would not have sent you one, if we had known.

The pamphlet goes on to describe, complete with photos, various aspects of the company, including its electrically lighted show room, stockrooms, equipment, hacks and carriages, and a “private ambulance.” Throughout, the pamphlet promises courteous, prompt, and respectful service, noting “we are ready to make hurry calls on a minute’s notice, and our remarkably quick service is often remarked upon.” Newspaper articles offer further insight into the developing mortuary profession in New Mexico. One article from Santa Fe in 1905 announced that Charles Wagner, an undertaker, was in the process of remodeling his business, and that he would “soon have a first class establishment for carrying on his undertaking business.” The business would contain “all the modern appliances for embalming,” and its two parlors would “be furnished for funeral services.” As the brief notice suggests, embalming had become common in New Mexico, at least among the clientele of Charles Wagner and further, funeral services outside a church had become common enough that Wagner would furnish not one, but two “parlors” for services.

Another fascinating aspect of the developing mortuary business was the role of women in the business. In the Strong Brothers pamphlet, an entire page is devoted to a woman assistant, Mrs. R.B. Patton. The description reads in full:

Mrs. R.B. Patton, lady assistant, is a graduate of the Clark College of Embalming, of Cincinnati, Ohio. She has had a number of years of experience with Mr. Strong, and takes personal charge of all lady and children cases. The position of lady assistant is one very difficult to fill, but Mrs. Patton has proven herself well able to cope with all immergences (sic), and gives that touch of refinement which none but a lady can give.

The Strong Brothers were not alone in marketing their female staff to customers. Other businesses advertised the fact that they employed women. French and Lowber noted a “lady assistant” working with their “licensed embalmers.”

The pointed mention of “lady embalmers” or “lady assistants” in newspaper advertisements that were costly and only four or five lines in length, suggests that undertakers considered the employment of women in their offices to be a significant lure for customers. There are several ways to interpret the term “lady embalmer.” The plural, “embalmers,” could imply that women in addition to Mrs. Patton worked as embalmers in the establishment. On the other hand, it could mean that certain employees, such as Mrs. Patton, were specially trained as embalmers of “ladies.” Whether mandating that only “lady assistants” embalm women or installing special procedures for the care of the corpses of “ladies,” undertakers placed particular emphasis on gender differences and established clear boundaries, even in death, between women and men.

In conclusion, while a great many New Mexicans continued to care for dead loved ones in traditional ways after the arrival of the railroad, for other New Mexicans, the emerging mortuary business was one of the many changes signaling the birth of modern New Mexico.

Sources Used:

Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Philippe Aries, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited (New York: Knopf, 1998).

David Charles Sloane, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

Albuquerque Morning Journal, January 1, 1910, 8.

New Mexico Medical Journal 4 (September 1908), 2.

Albuquerque City Directory and Business Guide for 1896 (Albuquerque: Hughes and McCreight, 1896), 4.

Albuquerque Morning Journal, January 1, 1910, 8. Raton Range, March 29, 1918, 2.

The Swastika (Des Moines, NM), April 1918, 3.

Las Vegas Daily Optic, April 22, 1908, 7.

Albuquerque Morning Journal, March 18, 1918, 8.

Albuquerque Morning Journal, May 30, 1907, 8.

Albuquerque Daily Citizen, May 1, 1888, 4.

Santa Fe New Mexican, June 1, 1905, 8.

Albuquerque Morning Journal, January 1, 1910, 8.

Pamphlet, Strong Bros. Funeral Directors and Embalmers (Albuquerque: Albright & Anderson Printers, 1911).

Santa Fe New Mexican, June 13, 1905, 5.