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An Undertaker's Story

Fifty Thousand Burials in Fifty Years
  From the Philadelphia Times, Aug. 24. "Yes," said William Hill Moore, settling himself back with his snowy-haired head against the cushion of an easy chair and crossing his legs., now somewhat attenuated with age, "yes," said he, "I believe I am the oldest living undertaker. I've been active in the business over 50 years. I began in an alley, but I was not above my business, and I gave my whole time to it, and, of course, the business grew, and I made lots of money. There are a hundred undertakers who have started since, but I was the first one to keep ready-made coffins on hand in Philadelphia and supply funerals as a regular business, and, so far as I know, it had not been done anywhere else at that time. That was in 1826. I learned the business during the cholera of 1819-20 with a man who buried the dead for the prisons and Coroners and that like, and there's no telling the many a one in those days that went in the ditch who'd never died at all."

"Why, William," said a little, thin, nervous lady in the room, "you don't mean they were buried alive? Ugh! It makes my flesh creep."

"Yes, Martha, that's it exactly. No telling how many. A good old Quaker friend of mine__I buried him afterward; he had everything very plain, I remember, and no handles on the coffin said to me once: "William, said he, "is thee sure that all thee buried with the cholera were dead when thee put them in the ground?" Said I: "I never thought whether they were dead or not; I just buried them as fast as I could."

"Well, I never forgot the remark. When I fixed up a place for myself on Fifth-street, I forget the builder's name now, but I buried all his family, and a large family it was, too. I had two rooms where I used to do embalming and keep bodies until some one would come to pay for them, but I made up my mind that I'd never bury any of these or anybody else until I was sure they weren't alive. But it's easy to tell. With such as die from apoplexy and sudden like that it actually seems" and here the jolly old undertaker laughed a broad, hearty laugh "it actually seems they'd decomposed before they died. Ha! Ha! Ha! Its remarkable how plain the signs of decomposition become to the practiced eye. Why, Sir, I can tell a dead body as quick as that" and he snapped his long fingers in front of his shrewd gray eyes "but we always put off moving the body as long as the relatives like, unless it gets very bad, and then we does our duty and moves them off. They always like, you know, to have their little cries, and we lets them have their way. John Swift, who was the Mayor that time we buried him in a double coffin, I remember didn't like the idea of my keeping the bodies a month at a time, but I didn't mind it the least, and I soon showed him there was no danger.

Why, Sir, the dead are no more to us than the sheets of paper you write on. We never think any more what a person dies of than you do of asking the people you meet in the street what disease they have. I've been all through cholera, small-pox, and yellow fever, and never had so much as a sick stomach. Most contagious diseases are caught through fear, but a great deal depends on the way a man lives. No undertaker can touch liquor if he wants to keep free from disease. He has to be strictly temperate. He has to be very careful what he eats, too. Its my experience that if a man is careful what he eats and drinks and keeps his stomach in order he need not be afraid of any contagious disease. I had a friend buried him, too, by the way who lived to be 90 just by eating as little as possible."

The gaunt, strange-looking old man at this point let his eyes relax somewhat from their usual dim, vacant gaze, and in response to a motion, put the large speaking trumpet which he balanced on one finger to his ear. All he had said up to this point was suggested by a single question shouted into the ear trumpet, and it now became necessary to start him on another train of reminiscences.

"You buried Gen. Patterson, did you not?" he was asked.

"Yes, but I was scarcely able to get there, " he replied. "I've been very sick, but I'm not quite ready for the undertakers yet. Up to a very little while ago we buried all the Judges and Commodores and Generals, and almost all the great people it seems to me, but Lincoln we didn't get him."

The undertaker was unable to repress a heavy sigh at the thought of missing the melancholy pleasure of laying away this truly great man.

"There were the obsequies of Zachary Taylor," he resumed: "The hearse cost $8,000. There were eight gray horses, with black covers, trimmed with white, and the men who walked as leaders wore long white bands on their hats and white gloves. It was a grand sight. There was a single tassel that cost $45. Then I had the obsequies of Bushrod Washington, and Chief Justice Marshall, and General William Henry Harrison, and John Quincy Adams. You may be sure they were the best that could be had. When the body of Henry Clay passed through the city in 1852 there was a funeral procession, and I had that, too, but it was not so much of an affair. Dr. Kane, the Arctic explorer, I buried and Judge Kane and his wife, I buried them too. "Old Ironsides" Commodore Stewart, you know we put him in Woodlands, and then, besides, there was Commodore Bainbridge, Horace Binney, Commodore Elliott, John Price Wetherill, Commodore Hull, Judge Thompson, and President Edgar Thomson, of the Pennsylvania Railroad, I buried them all. We removed Commodore Porter to Woodlands, and there was Gen. Mercer's funeral, too. We were highly complimented for the way we buried him. Ah, my memory is getting poor and I can't think of them all. Funerals are very different to what they used to be. Matters are simplified in the burial, but funerals are more numerously attended and more expensive. It costs about $400 to bury a man of any consequence now. The use of ice is comparatively new, and they never used to line coffins with satin.

I think Dr. Bedell set the style. He was buried in his robes, and the casket was lined with satin. I don't know where they got the idea from, but after that every one who could afford it wanted satin. We get a great many orders in advance from people about the way they want to be buried. I have known persons to come in and look at the different styles of coffins and pick out the kind they wanted years before they died. We have had the full directions for the funeral on the books in their own handwriting. There is a very wealthy gentleman and his sister who have given us orders for their coffins and funerals. "I would like the casket lined with white flannel." the lady said in the last letter, "like that one you furnished Mrs.__, which was chaste and elegant; only I would like six handles and, besides the plate, a little silver cross on the lid. But be sure and let me lay in the room until you know I am decomposed, for I'm awfully afraid of being buried alive."

"Up to 20 or 30 years ago there were no carriages. The burial places were not far away, and people walked, the coffin being carried on the shoulders or on a bier. I have often carried little babies in coffins under my arm myself. The great cemeteries had not grown up then. Eli K. Price and myself are about the only ones remaining of the starters of Woodlands Cemetery. Judge Mallory, who was interested in it at first I buried him afterward persuaded me to go into it. There are some ten thousand buried in it now, and I think I have had something to do with its success. The number I have buried is something incredible. For many years it averaged 100 a month. Mr. Kellogg, my partner, who has kept track of it, says we have buried over 50,000 in the 50 years.

"Now, my son, whatever you say, be careful and don't wound anybody's feelings. I have always tried to make it pleasant for the mourners. When Mayor Stokley's father, who I afterward buried, lost a little boy and was speaking of Mrs. Stokley's distress, I recommended the adoption of a little one of the same age belonging to Mrs. Ward, whom I buried, too, and sure enough they did, and he grew up beside mayor Stokley and distinguished himself in Mexico until I buried him some years ago. You know a great many commit suicide that nobody knows anything about but the doctor and the undertaker. many a one I've buried no one knows but me to this day they had the rope around their necks. I always used to carry a crooked needle to sew up gashes in throats. I found it handy to have around. One day a lady very rich and elegant she was, and had an A 1 coffin when she died showed me her husband who had just cut his throat and said: "Oh, what shall I do?" "Do," said I, as I commenced to sew up the cut and put a clean shirt on him, "don't tell a living mortal, for it's my experience that if you tell anybody a secret you might as well put ii in the newspapers; don't tell a living mortal, and it'll be all right." And sure enough it was. His own brothers don't know to this day but that he died a natural death.

"Ghosts, did you say? Do undertakers believe in them? Fiddlesticks! But strange things happen. The most curious thing is the horses. It's very common for horses to refuse to pull a dead body. I remember one time one of our best teams had just started off when they stopped, trembled, stuck up their ears, and wouldn't budge one inch further. Coaxing was no use, they wouldn't go. We had to take a team out of a hack and put them in the hearse. It was a little child that time, but another time the same thing happened when we were burying a man and his wife together."

With this the conversation closed. The old gentleman drew himself to his fullest height, listened to the words of parting shouted through the ear-trumpet, and bowed his visitor out. With age he has lost none of the urbanity peculiar to him in his sturdiest years. Constant intercourse with grief often assumed has shaken his faith in many things. Half a century of hand-to-hand familiar intercourse with the dead has given him a quaint pensiveness mixed with a strange, grim humor. Careful habits leave him in complete possession of all his faculties except that of hearing. One can still imagine what he was in his best days. When it was said that Billy Moore looked more truly mournful than all the other mourners but together. Among the many stories told about him is this one concerning the cemetery, the name of which was sometimes jocularly applied to him in the appellation of Laurel Hill Moore. After scores of years of constant funeral attendance, it is related, Mr. Moore was called upon to officiate at a wedding of a relative. In his long black coat and longer face, with his hands crossed before, as usual, one holding the melancholy beaver hat, he stood ready to nod for the carriages as soon as the minister finished. One by one the vehicles came up. With slow step and look of resignation Mr. Moore escorted the bride and groom down the steps, and as they sprang in and the driver cracked his whip, the old gentleman, the ruling habit overcoming him at the last moment, clapped the carriage door with a bang and shouted, "To Laurel Hill."

Website: The History
Article Name: An Undertaker's Story
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


 The New York Times August 28, 1881. p.8 (1 page)
Time & Date Stamp:  


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