Volume III, No. 1, Fall 1975



by Doris Brelowski

Researched by Doris Brelowski and Nancy Honssinger

This verse chipped out years ago by untrained hands on a limestone head marker in a country graveyard seems to express the Ozark people's acceptance of the shortness of life and its natural end. It states simply the strength of their Christian belief in God's concern for each and his plan for a better life.

This philosophy was evident in all the people we talked with about death and burial customs. They spoke of their own experiences and those told them by their parents from as far back as the Civil War to the early 1940's when most people used the services of hospitals and funeral homes.

When death occurred, there were a number of things which were done in a very different way from today, but they all agreed that death used to be taken more naturally as part of the life cycle. Children then were not excluded from the funeral activities and were taught a more natural approach to death. People did not hesitate to show their emotions, and the neighbors always showed their concern by helping the family in many ways.


In the late 1800's and early 1900's a larger number of infants and young children died because medicine was not as advanced, because hygiene conditions were often poor, especially in the remote hills and rural areas and because there were not many doctors. Many people could not afford them, anyway. Childhood diseases such as measles or chicken pox could be fatal then.

Common causes of death for adults were pneumonia, typhoid fever and ruptured appendix, which the people called "dread colic." Childbirth was often fatal for both mother and child.

A visit in any cemetery shows rows of little markers inscribed with dates of death one or two years apart of children in the family who lived only a few days or years--often followed closely by a bigger stone for the mother.

Families experienced death often. The death occurred in the home, usually from sickness, since before the automobile there were not as many sudden, accidental deaths as now. The family and close neighbors handled all the details of sickness, death, preparation for burial, the funeral and the burial. Death's reality could not be avoided or lessened by removing the dying person to hospitals and funeral homes.

Charlie McMicken told us, "If a person became real sick, a doctor would be called. Around the turn of the century, a doctor was expected to make house calls at any time, day or night, 365 days a year and to any place within driving distance with a horse and buggy. There were a few automobiles at that time, but roads were so poor that they weren't used much out in the country." If a person was very sick, the doctor might stay several hours.


Mary Moore remembered being called one winter in the night to help with a lady that died. "You know, people then wasn't able much to get to doctors. And maybe they'd have a doctor today and maybe it'd be a week before they had a doctor anymore. They didn't have no money. They couldn't have a doctor."

If someone were very sick or died, the news spread fast. In the early 1900's there were country telephone lines--party lines. There were ten to fifteen neighbors on a line. When anyone called, everyone on the line heard the ring and listened. Charlie Mc remembered, "If the phone rang of a night, believe me, everyone was up and listening to find out who was sick, because we knew it was sickness if someone rang the one long ring for the operator at night."

It wasn't being nosey. Most considered it their obligation to know so they could help.

No matter in what manner they received the news, neighbors would come to help the family take care of the ill and to stand by in case of death. The neighbors and friends would take turns sitting up with the sick at night and helping give medicines. It was desirable, if possible, for a near relative to be present at time of death. When death occurred and there wasn't enough help, they would go get someone else.


Relatives who lived away were notified of the death by letters. Sometimes people sent the news in a black edged envelope. The postmaster would know that it contained news of a death and immediately sent someone with the letter to the home.

When somebody died, the neighbors brought in food. Dorothy McMicken said, "Neighbors were nice to the people. They wanted to do things. The women cooked for the family to relieve them of the burden of the daily chores which at a time like that were too heavy."

Neighbors who weren't needed to be there sent in food or did anything they could to help. Myrtle Hough remembered, "They come as quick as they can get there. They all gather in, bring food and do anything they can. I know when my father died--we didn't have heated rooms then--a neighbor came early morning a little after daylight, and he cut wood nearly till noon for heating purposes. They'd come to work for you and do all the chores."

Today death and caring for the dead seems to be remote or divorced from the family life with death occurring in hospitals and the dead cared for by professionals. Ella Hough said, "You shouldn't have to die alone. Folks should be with their family when they die and they should see death. You don't even see your folks die now, everything's changed so. Being together brings the family closer."

Most rural people in the Ozarks did not use the services of undertakers and embalming until cars came in. Before that there were no undertakers to be had. Even buying a casket meant a long trip to town and back.

When the automobile became common in the early 1920's some people began to have their dead embalmed. However, it wasn't unusual even in the thirties for people to be buried without embalming.

Embalming dates back to the Egyptians who bathed, soaked and rubbed the dead. Only the very rich could afford the process which took three months. In the United States during the Civil War doctors embalmed using liquid glass and gypsum, charging $25 for soldiers and $50 for officers.

In the small towns undertakers started doing well in the 1930's. Earlier than that they were often associated with furniture stores.

The first use of embalming in the rural areas of the Ozarks was someone bringing the equipment to the home and caring for the body there. Sometimes these men were connected to a funeral home, but often they were not. Helen Beard recalled a man who embalmed a lot. "You just called him and he came to the home. He came into the bedroom and was practically all day --eight to ten hours--embalming. He worked by himself and he really would do a good job."

In the thirties when the funeral parlors took this function over, they discouraged trips to the home for it was obviously more efficient to do it in their laboratories. By then there was adequate transportation, and more money, so bodies were taken to the funeral parlors to be embalmed then returned to the home to lie in state.

Before this service was available, the neighbors did what was necessary. Since it was a necessity, there was always someone in the neighborhood with experience who could be called on to care for the body.


Since the body would not keep long, especially in the summers, the funeral was often the next day. If not treated, bodies can't be held very long for they begin to turn black and mortification sets in; therefore, they were buried as soon as it was possible to dig the grave and make the coffin.

If it was possible to keep the body that long, some people waited to the third day. That was the time Jesus was in the grave and they wanted to wait that same period of time.


As soon as possible after death, the body would be prepared, or laid out. Women would lay out women and men lay out men.

The first thing was to clean out the room where the death occurred--take out all the bedding. It had to be washed or burned. Helen Beard said, "They hardly ever let anyone else use it. Usually they burned the ticks for they were made of straw or shucks. They would get some boards put across chair backs or propped up in some other way. The furniture would be rearranged to make that possible. That might mean taking out the bed entirely." Since in some one or two room homes this was not possible, the living and the dead shared the room until burial.

Those preparing the body started with taking off the nightgown and washing the body from head to toe with soap and water. In death the kidneys and bowels would relax so a sheet was wrapped around like a diaper.

Something was put on the eyes to keep them closed, usually quarters which were often kept by the family as keepsakes. It is an old, but false belief that a person's eyes can be closed just after he has died and they will stay. They must be held closed until the body is cold.

A cloth had to be tied around the chin and up over the top of the head to hold the mouth until the body was cold and set.

Then the body could be dressed. Some older people had their burying clothes laid back. Usually the best dress or suit would be put on. If there wasn't anything suitable, sometimes neighbor women would quickly make a dress. As long as the clothes were clean, they did not have to be new.

The women had panties, an undershirt, a chemise (pronounced chimmy) and a petticoat, then the dress and stockings. Older people often wanted shoes or house slippers on, but that was usually what the family preferred. Men had underwear, shirt, tie and suit.

Then the hair was washed and combed the way they wore it. Make up was not used until bodies were embalmed.

Some families left jewelry like rings on their dead. We also heard several times about ladies who had a hat or a cap laid back especially for their burials and cases where favorite belongings like a scrapbook and violin were buried with their owner.

Most coffins used in the Ozarks in the early twentieth century were home made. Besides the rectangular shape, many were made pointed or shaped like the body.


After dressing the person, he was laid out on the cooling board, a sufficiently long board which was laid on the backs of a couple of chairs and covered with a white sheet. The body was also completely covered with a white sheet. In some cases a pillow was put under the head, but people were generally not supposed to do it because the pillow prevented the body from cooling out as fast.

Wet soda cloths were put on the face and hands to help preserve the skin color and texture. The people who sat up with the body would wring cloths out every so often to put on the face. These cloths were kept in place except when someone was viewing the body.

After the body cooled out, it was placed in the coffin, covered with a sheet and lay in state until the funeral.

While some neighbors were busy preparing the body, others came in to cook or bring in food. The women made coffee and helped the family in any way possible.

Others just came in to view the body in the darkened room. In those days, many people did not hesitate to show their emotions. They would cry and moan aloud, fall to their knees and pray aloud.

The house was often crowded with people being ready to help, coming in to sympathize with the family or to view the dead. The children were not excluded from this. They usually played around just as normal, but were calmed down if they became too noisy.

Meanwhile someone had to attend to making the coffin or buying a casket, as it was called if purchased from a store. In most cases the coffin was homemade. They varied from a simple pine or rough oak box to beautifully fine-crafted walnut coffins lined with black satin cloth for older people or white for a child or young person up to the twenties. They did not have colors then. The sides sometimes had cotton fill and were decorated with rows of eyelet embroidery or lace.

The size of the coffins depended on the body measurements of the dead, but was three feet high. They would have a lid that could be closed with screws when ready to be put into the ground. They came in different shapes from rectangular to those shaped wide at the shoulders and narrow at the head and feet.

Those who could afford it would send a near relative to town to pick out a casket. For most funerals all the undertaker got out of a funeral was a chance to sell the casket. Only the well-to-do people had the undertaker to lay out the dead or furnish a hearse.

In the pioneer days all coffins were homemade, but as time went on, it became quite usual that a casket was bought from a carpenter or an undertaker in town. If the family did not have any money, however, the neighbors just used whatever lumber they had available to build a coffin.

The neighbors also began digging the grave as soon as possible because the body could usually not be kept very long.

People tried to wait for far away relatives to arrive, but in the summertime the funeral had to be no later than the second day after the death. Only if the weather was cold enough, the body could be kept up to three days.

A coffin was homemade; a casket was purchased from an undertaker or furniture stores.


Still other neighbors gathered to dig the grave. Sometimes if there was a church near the graveyard, the digging tools might be stored there, but usually, "The neighbors would just gather their picks and shovels and just go to the graveyard," Elva Hough said. "We'd measure off our grave, what we had to have, and take turn about. One would get in there and dig him up a patch of dirt and another'd get in and throw it out. And we just kept that up until we got down where we wanted. We've done that until just the last five years or so around here."

The grave was six feet long, four feet wide and six feet deep. The men would usually leave something to do for the day of the funeral, even if it were just removing a few final shovelfuls.

It did not matter how bad the weather was, the neighbors dug the grave even if it rained, snowed or the ground was frozen. If the ground was frozen or there were lots of rock, the men sometimes dynamited. Since the soil in the Ozarks is so thin and the hard pan and rock layers are close to the surface, some graves are especially hard to dig. We heard cases of dynamiting going on while the funeral service was in progress.

Sometimes a person had expressed the wish to be buried on his or her own farm, in which case the neighbors dug the grave right by the house, garden or wherever the dead had wanted it.

In the meantime, other neighbors sat up with the dead. "This meant that someone stayed with the body all the time, usually a group of three to six people. It was done out of respect to the dead. The relatives were not expected to sit up. They were worn out. There had been sickness and death. They were supposed to go to bed to sleep," Charlie Mc explained.

Neighbors provided plenty of food and coffee for those who sat up. At least one person had to be awake all the time while the others might doze off in their chairs during the night. But the light was never blown out. Different neighbors would relieve them in the morning.

The pets, especially cats, were usually kept out of the house during this time, because of the fear that they might try to harm the body.

The home where there was a death was very busy--neighbors coming and going to help, view the body, visit and mourn with the family, relatives arriving, cooking of food and making coffee, and children playing around in all this activity. It was a sad occasion to meet, but especially the kids enjoyed seeing one another and had a good time. For the adults it was also an occasion when they had the chance to see one another once again renewing family bonds. "The atmosphere in the home after a death was not like at a funeral home now," Dorothy McMicken said. "I think there was a deeper feeling between the people then. Your neighbors were close to you, and they were the ones that came and stayed by you. That in my opinion created a deeper feeling than there is now in a funeral home where anybody can come. In my case we knew some of the neighbors were elderly, and they made a special effort to come for the love of being with us, and it seemed to me that there was a closer feeling there than in a funeral home."

Myrtle Hough prefers the way we use funeral homes now. "I think it's much better," she said. "It's better for the family all the way around. You don't have the memories. They look so much nicer now. Just take you and me and somebody else, we wouldn't really know what to do except to dress and wash them. I think it's better for the family to have the dead person away so you can come home to relax. It's an awful trial on a family if you had to see that the meals were there and your house was crowded."


On the day of the funeral, or the burying, the neighbors served a big dinner for all the relatives. This is still the custom. All who were related within reach would come to the house before noon, for most funerals were at two o'clock. If the funeral was at the home, a good half hour before time, everyone would gather in the yard, or go to the church, enter and sit quietly until the family arrived. It did not matter how busy anyone was, even if putting up hay or planting corn, everyone went as Myrtle said, "Busy season or not. I can't ever remember that it got too busy that everyone didn't go to a funeral. It's nearly that way in this neighborhood now. And years ago, a number of people walked, including the children."

Lenora West remembers when she was in school how her teachers taught respect and correct behavior. "When we went to school they'd teach us how to respect the dead. They'd take us to the church and we'd have to sit real still. They'd let school out. We'd walk down to Hough [Chapel] when they'd have a funeral. We'd have a lecture on how to respect the dead and the parents and people. We didn't think about it. When our teachers talked to us, it was just natural and we had to have respect and take responsibility. We'd all march to the church and we minded. We didn't get out of line."

Lois Beard believes that children used to understand death better than they do now. "That's where I think a big mistake is made today," she explained, "because people don't let a child grow up knowing that there's life and death. If they knew that, when the parents died the children could be consoled. They could be talked to, but the way it is now, they've never been to a funeral and they don't know anything about it, and they don't realize life and death are some of the things we have to endure."

On the day of the funeral people wore their Sunday dresses and suits. The school children who sometimes served as a choir, especially where the church and school were close, just had their regular school clothes on. The members of the family wore dark, mostly black clothes. If a husband or wife had died and the one left did not have black clothes, some neighbors would sew them in the last hours or find suitable clothes for them. It used to be the custom for everyone attending to wear black. Each lady that could had a black dress just especially to wear to funerals.

The women in the family that could afford it wore a black hat and veil to the funeral. The veils were square black pieces of material that went over the head so that you could not see the face.

Many funerals were held in the homes if the church wasn't near enough because of the transportation problems. Most would go to a church if they could.

A home funeral was usually simpler than one at the church. The atmosphere was more informal, also. The yard was crowded with neighbors who had not found a place in the house. The choir or singers had to get along without music and used a tuning fork to get the pitch.

If the funeral was at a church, the coffin with the body in it would be shut and screwed down, loaded on a hack or wagon by six pallbearers and pulled to the church by horses or mules. The more wealthy people nearer the towns sometimes had funeral directors with hearses pulled by horses. The horses were black with black plumes or other decorations on them.

The opened coffin would be placed in the front of the church usually just under the altar. The family would file in to sit on the first rows of benches and the services would begin.

If there was a preacher, the order would be quite similar to that used today. If there was no preacher, someone in the community would do his part. Helen Beard said, "There was always a man or woman, in the community that could substitute with a prayer. If you couldn't find the minister, a lot of times there were circuit riders. If you couldn't get them in time, you'd always know there was a man or woman, usually a man, that could step up and do that."

Lois added, "I've never been any place where there wasn't somebody to carry on. If there wasn't anybody there, I'd do it myself. They took the place of the preacher and the undertaker and it was always carried out in a very dignified manner. I've never seen one that wasn't."

The time for a funeral was usually two o'clock. The order often went as follows: song, scripture, song, obituary, sermon, prayer, viewing the body, family remain for last goodbyes, go to cemetery, prayer, interment, family stay and visit.

The songs were sung either by the regular church choir, special groups or individuals. Ashford Hough who has sung in many funerals told us he used to sing some duets but mostly quartets. In the early years which he remembers the singers sang at a lot of home funerals.

Occasionally the obituary was brief, like most are today, with just the dates when the person had been born and when he died, if he had been converted and when --just facts. But mostly the obituary was much longer and more personal than it is now. It used to tell about the parents, marriage and children, when the person had joined the church, the survivors and the age in years, months and days with some interesting comments on his life--a complete life history.

Those writing the obituary always wanted to say something good about the dead person. Georgia Massey used to tell the story, "There was one man who was so mean and hateful the preacher was hard put to it to think of anything good. He came to that part of the obituary and stopped. In a minute he brightened up and said, 'He's got the best set of teeth I ever saw.'"


The sermon was also usually longer than it is now, and it was very often addressed directly to the congregation. The preachers were not as well educated as nowadays and some spoke quite bluntly of subjects now evaded. In the obituary it would be announced whether the person had been saved and in the sermon some preachers used the example of the dead as a warning to the people in the church that this end will come to all, so be ready, repent and be saved. Helen Beard said, "The country ministers weren't educated then. They just preached fire and brimstone. They would get wild at the funerals back at those times. It wasn't dignified like it is now and rather reserved. They preached! I've seen one preacher pound and run back and forth and then come up and pound on the casket. They just kind of whooped it up."

This kind of sermon would create reactions in the congregation who probably then were not as reserved as they are today. Some people would kick and wail. Others would cry loud to show sympathy.

The purpose of the service, of course, was and is to help the bereaved. Those who expressed themselves in this way were getting a sort of therapy. Of course, not all preachers behaved in this manner, but tried to help the living understand life and death using other preaching methods.

The audience was very respectful to whatever the minister preached. They sat quietly, even all the children, and listened attentively to the long sermon.

After the following prayer which was often long, too, the congregation viewed the body for the last time. As they passed the family they often paused to shake hands, to cry or otherwise sympathize with them. then they would go outside no matter how bad the weather was, leaving the family alone so that they could say their last good-byes to their dead.


Then the coffin was closed for the final time; the lid was fastened with screws to the sides and loaded on the wagon again if the graveyard was any distance away. Many times it was beside the church in which case the pallbearers would carry it to the open grave.

The family followed right behind the coffin; behind them came the relatives and friends and neighbors who would all stay for interment.

At the grave the people would gather around while someone spoke a prayer and the coffin was lowered.

Four men, two on each side, would slip ropes or harness lines underneath the coffin and slowly lower the coffin into a wooden box which was already in the grave. The lines were of thin leather and could be pulled out from underneath the lowered coffin quite easily. Someone would jump inside the grave to nail the lid on the outside box which acted as a vault. Then the preacher would do his "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" routine and throw some dirt on top of the casket.

After this the men would fill the grave up with dirt. Sometimes while the casket was lowered or the grave was being filled there would be more singing. While the grave was being filled, everyone visited and sympathized with the family.

If there were any flowers on the grave at all, they were wild, fresh picked ones and not very many of them. Later some people made homemade crepe paper flowers to put on the grave to keep it from looking so cold and gray, but florist flowers were never bought until recent years.

On top of the grave came a marker of some kind. Sometimes it was nothing more than a wooden cross with the name and maybe birthdate and date of death on it. Some families found a rock on which they crudely carved out the information. Others put headstones on the grave, square or rectangular upright pieces of limestone which also had names and dates inscribed on them. Some fancy ones had a little poem or line from the Bible.

Everyone would visit with the family until the grave was finished. Then each went home or back to his business. Some neighbor women sometimes returned to the house to help straighten up, and the relatives who lived very far away would probably stay another night or two.

The cost of a funeral was very low compared to the cost today. The only expense was the coffin, which might have been around $25 including the satin lining, if made by a local handiman. The burial plots did not cost anything, for people used spaces available in the community graveyards. Undertakers and embauming were seldom used.


After having done what they could, everyone continued their interrupted work, but for the widow or widower, it was quite a different story. Especially the widow often faced a very difficult situation. Unless she had relatives to support her and her children, she had to run the farm alone, or look for work, which was very hard to find in the country where everybody else just barely made a living on their farms. Women rarely had any education or training for a regular job in town. With little children and a farm, she survived hard when she survived.

A widower left with little children also had a hard time unless he had a female relative who could come into the home to help.

The widow was almost isolated from society. She was supposed to wear black clothes for a year after the death when in public, and she could not attend any "questionable" events, such as dances, social meetings, plays or shows in town. About the only place she could go was to church. Her moral standards would be questioned if she remarried before the mourning year was over. But if she had several small children and was in desperate financial situation, it might be considered a blessing when she remarried before that because it might mean survival for her. However, most people would not object if a widower remarried after about half a year.

One way or another, life goes on after a death. For the people in the Ozarks, their faith in God and their overall very religious attitude toward life often helped them more than anything else, to find the way back to a normal life. This was God's will, and therefore, it was nature's way--to give life and to take it away. People accepted death, for they could not change it and they believed God knows best.


John P. SmithJohn P. Smith was born September 7th 1850 and died December 13th 1911, aged 61 years, 3 months and 3 days. He was married to Ellen Moorehouse September 9th 1879, and to this union were born fourteen children, five of whom have passed from this world of sorrow to the sweet home of the blest. He leaves a widow and nine children to mourn his loss of a departed husband and father.

Mr. Smith was a member of the Christian Church and lived a true and devoted Christian until his death. He was ever ready to do his part and his loss will be keenly felt by all who know him. To the bereaved ones we would say may his memory sweeten your life and may you so live that at last you will all meet again on the other side where no parting words shall ever be spoken.

Farewell Father! We will miss you when our span of life is fled. And with smiles and songs will greet you, where no farewell tears are shed. How sad to stand around him when they raised the coffin lid, For the last look to be taken and and then be forever hid. At the close of that sad evening as the sun sinks in the west They lowered the still cold body down to its final rest.

T.J. Dennis Alonzo Wright Alonzo L. Wright was born December 13, 1879 and died August 28, 1921, making his age 42 years, 4 months and 15 days. On April 20, 1910 he was united in marriage to Miss Ora Hough. To this union were born seven children, five daughters and two sons. Three daughters and one son preceded him into the Great Beyond.

He leaves to mourn for him his wife, one son, Victor and two daughters, Isabel and baby Josephine; two sisters and three brothers and a host of other relatives.

Funeral services were held at the Hough Chapel Monday, conducted by Rev. C.W. Green. The pallbearers were: 2 brothers, Herbert and LeRoy Wright and four brothers-in-law, Ernest, Ashford and Elva Hough and Arthur O'Quinn. The choir sang "Nearer My God, to Thee," "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Over There," "Saved by Grace" and "God Be with You till We Meet Again."

In his boyhood Mr. Wright gave his heart to Christ and has since lived a constant Christian life, always doing what he could to advance the causes of his Master. In the last hours of his life he prayed for the unsaved world. He died singing hymns of praise to his Master. Mr. Wright was a loving husband, father and brother, and an upright citizen.

The family have the sympathy of the entire community in their bereavement.

A FriendCatherine Hough(This part comes at the end)

Mrs. Hough was a woman held in high esteem by neighbors and friends.

She was a patient, kind and devoted wife and mother and her life was a pattern for her boys and girls.

She was a busy, useful woman and with all the cares of rearing a large family, she always found time to minister to the sick or needy in her community.

She leaves a host of friends who often will, "Sigh for the touch of a vanished hand, for the sound of a voice that is still."Mrs. J.B. Vermillion(This part closes the obituary)

In the passing of the pioneer women of Laclede County we lose those who have helped make life easier for the citizens of today.

The courage, faith and fortitude with which these women faced life's problems and helped them to rear such large families of girls and boys to be honest, industrious men and women have had a power for good that will be felt for years to come.

We would like to thank the following for sharing their memories with us: Mary Moore, Dorothy and Charlie McMicken, Ella and Ashford Hough, Myrtle and Elva Hough, Lois Beard, Hazel and Lavern Cravens, Lenora West and Helen Beard.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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