Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/Sam Jones

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Sam Jones
A typical embalming space similar to the one Sam Jones used in the 1900s
BornUnknown
Savannah, Georgia
DiedUnknown
NationalityAmerican
OccupationEmbalmer

Overview[edit]

Sam Jones was an African-American embalmer who lived in Savannah, Georgia. His professional experience was influenced by Georgia's shifting economic and social status in the early 20th century.

Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Sam Jones was an African American male, born in the first decade of the 20th century in rural Savannah, Georgia. As Jones grew up, he lived in a town where most children dropped out before graduating high school. It was custom for middle aged college graduates to travel to outside places and come back with stories to share with the children of the town. Jones graduated from a high school that was accredited for teaching embalming courses and then attended college at a multiracial school. In college, he studied embalming, which had a new reputation as a scientific profession. He witnessed a rapid growth in mortuary equipment and practice during his time at school. Embalming became a more scientific and biological practice, which made his schooling more intense. During his years at college, any embalming student had to take six to nine months worth of courses, followed by an exam, to receive a state certification for embalming.[1]

Career and Adult Years[edit]

After graduating college with a degree in embalming, Jones became a state-certified embalmer at the Jefferson Funeral Home in Athens, Georgia. When he first began working in the 1920s, the funeral business was economically failing. Jones primarily worked with the black community, with colored customers who struggled to find steady jobs because of segregation in the South. Many poor people would come in with $50, hoping to afford a high quality casket and funeral for their deceased family member. The Red Cross also hired Jones to preserve and bury bodies of soldiers who died in the Civil War for only $15.[2] In these cases, Jones would lose money preparing the funeral because the resources his customers had could not afford the funeral they desired. Occasionally, Jones also worked with wealthier people who inherited money from the deceased and could offer $2,000 to $3,000 for a higher quality funeral.[3]

Funeral homes began to feature licensed embalming as a service to attract customers

After Jones worked for five to ten years, the funeral business as a whole began to grow as Georgia's economy recovered from the Civil War. Jones gained experience working with high quality metal and steel caskets, as well as newer embalming fluids, which were developed because there was a high demand for more modern burial techniques. The invention of motorized hearses, instead of horse-drawn hearses, meant that moving a body was an easier task. The new methods of transportation allowed Jones to embalm bodies in homes, churches, or in his space at the morgue. Jones preferred working at churches because the embalming, visitation, and funeral could all happen in the same place.[4]

Social Issues[edit]

The Establishment of Embalming in Georgia[edit]

In the late 19th century, it was the responsibility of the family of the deceased to take care of the body.[5] The family would wash the body, place salt on the corpse's abdomen, cover the face with a wash cloth soaked in ammonia, and put quarters over the eyes to keep them shut.[6] Families could purchase embalming materials and coffins from furniture or hardware stores, but there were no businesses that solely preserved and buried corpses.[7] In the first decade of the 1900s, the process of embalming and burying a corpse was simple because of small town living. Embalmers could go directly to the home of the deceased and they would prepare the body for a funeral that same day.[8]

caption
Horse-drawn hearses were used to transport corpses to their burial sites

Once city and apartment dwelling became more popular, more modern embalming and body transportation techniques were needed because carrying bodies to distant graveyards on foot became too difficult. Horse-drawn hearses were available to drive corpses to burial sites, but the corpses were typically preserved improperly in cheap, wooden coffins that would jerk around and damage the body before the funeral. In 1905, motorized hearses were created as the first motorized corpse transportation method. Motorized vehicles were unaffordable to the average colored citizen because they cost anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000. Horse-drawn hearses cost only $150.[9] There was not an affordable method of preserving and transporting corpses available to the average general public that would keep the body intact before the funeral. When motorized hearses came into existence, more effective embalming fluids and higher quality coffins were demanded by the public. Colleges then began to offer degrees in embalming in response to the public's demand throughout Georgia for licensed embalmers.[10]

Until this point in history, undertakers learned embalming techniques from other experience undertakers who shared what worked for them. But by 1920, fluids that were used for embalming were regulated and the process began to take a scientific, anatomical approach.[11] College students had to understand the anatomy of the human body and the methods of preserving it. Embalming became popular when funeral businesses began to highlight the effectiveness of preserving bodies. In the 1920s, funeral homes began to publish advertisements in newspaper ads to compete with the other funeral homes' business. Embalming was a service promised and shown off in these ads, guaranteeing that bodies would be preserved correctly.[12] Once funeral homes began to advertise embalming services, embalming transitioned to a service that families of all incomes requested.

The Impact of Post-Civil War History on Georgia's Funeral Business[edit]

When the South lost the Civil War, the region hit its lowest economic point in decades. Following the emancipation of slaves, African-American citizens were taken advantage of in the economy, because they were used as a cheap and reliable labor source. African-American citizens were granted property rights, but there were no jobs that would pay a black citizen enough to support a family because white supremacy ideals still existed. As a result, many primarily-black communities developed in poorer areas that were not positively affected by Reconstruction. The human losses from the Civil War meant that funeral and embalming services were in high demand, but few Georgia residents could afford modern burial services the low wages they received. Because there was an large amount of African-American workers willing to work long hours for low wages, Georgia's economy flourished, which had an effect on many business sectors. Many professions, including coal mining, embalming, and factory working could produce more than ever, and at a lower cost. This jumpstarted the economy for the next few decades and made the process of embalming, as well as funerals, more affordable for poor residents of Georgia. By the 1920s, the funeral business was booming because of Georgia's economic upturn. Residents could afford modern embalming practices, which made embalming a more respected occupation and a widely used practice.[13]

Notes[edit]

  1. SHC Collection Number: 03709: Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Coll 226. Wilson Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. SHC Collection Number: 03709: Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Coll 226. Wilson Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  3. SHC Collection Number: 03709: Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Coll 226. Wilson Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  4. SHC Collection Number: 03709: Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Coll 226. Wilson Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  5. "Our History." Our History. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://www.plattsfuneralhome.com/our-history.
  6. Wilson, Charles Reagan. The Southern Funeral Director: Managing Death in the New South. 1st ed. Vol. 67. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Historical Society, 1983. 49-69.
  7. Robertson Jr., James. "The Development of the Funeral Business in Georgia, 1900-1957." The Georgia Review, 86-96.
  8. Wilson, Charles Reagan. The Southern Funeral Director: Managing Death in the New South. 1st ed. Vol. 67. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Historical Society, 1983. 49-69.
  9. Robertson Jr., James. "The Development of the Funeral Business in Georgia, 1900-1957." The Georgia Review, 86-96.
  10. Wilson, Charles Reagan. The Southern Funeral Director: Managing Death in the New South. 1st ed. Vol. 67. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Historical Society, 1983. 49-69.
  11. "10 Horrible Myths And Misconceptions About Embalming - Listverse." Listverse. November 23, 2014. Accessed October 20, 2015. http://listverse.com/2014/11/23/10-horrible-myths-and-misconceptions-about-embalming/.
  12. Wilson, Charles Reagan. The Southern Funeral Director: Managing Death in the New South. 1st ed. Vol. 67. Athens, Georgia: Georgia Historical Society, 1983. 49-69.
  13. Bragg, William H. "Reconstruction in Georgia." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 28 September 2015. Web. 15 October 2015.