Drive-Thru… Funerals?

The South can be a strange place, and R. Bernard Funeral Home in Memphis, Tennessee, is no exception to that rule. The owner of the funeral home, Ryan Bernard, has come up with a unique but bizarre way to say your final goodbyes to a deceased loved one: a viewing drive-thru. In the same way you can order a Big Mac, you can also now pay your respects to your dearly departed.

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Photo courtesy of commercialappeal.com

“Being in Memphis, we are surrounded by a lot of big-name funeral homes that have been around for 100 years, so being the new kid on the block, so to speak, I needed something unique to make me stand apart,” says Bernard. With the building he purchased for his business existing as a bank in its past life, he decided to make use of the bulletproof drive-thru teller window as a means to achieve that unique feature he was searching for.

He claims the worth of the strange service he provides is in the convenience it allows. “Some people, they don’t want to deal with the hassle, the chaos of a large funeral… It helps out those that lack (physical) mobility, those who don’t feel like the hassle of parking cars and getting out or those who are scared to come into a funeral home. A lot of funeral homes creep people out.”

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Photo courtesy of commercialappeal.com

In addition to the drive-thru, Bernard is coming up with other creative ways to stand out amongst other funeral homes, including live streaming services for out-of-town family members who are unable to attend the services. According to him, it’s all about options. “We still offer traditional visitation services,” said Bernard. “The drive-thru is just an added bonus for your family member. It is up to the family to decide if they want this option.” The service is free for customers with funeral packages.

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Photo courtesy of dailymail.com

Surprisingly, Bernard’s drive-thru viewings are actually not an innovative concept, though R. Bernard is the first funeral home to offer this style of viewing in the mid-South. Paradise Funeral Chapel in Saginaw, Michigan, has been offering drive-thru funerals since 2014. “When we first started it, everybody was talking about it and it was a big deal,” said the funeral chapel’s owner, Ivan Phillips. “Things have calmed down, and we used the service two to three times a week.”

Although Bernard says he has had mostly positive reactions toward this bizarre service and has even had several families utilize it for their deceased loved one, not everyone is so fond of it. According to Bob Arrington, president of the National Funeral Directors Association, “In my opinion, I don’t think the body should be put on display like a new car.”

Personally, the idea seems to me to be just yet another way the funeral industry has become more about the almighty dollar and not actually about honoring the dead. I’m definitely curious to see what the readers’ thoughts are on this, so join in on the conversation on this week’s #WEIRDWEDNESDAY post on our Instagram! And don’t forget to check back in next Wednesday for your weekly dose of weird.

SOURCES:

commercialappeal.com

localmemphis.com

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Colma, CA: The City of Souls

California: the land of sun and stars, beautiful beaches and lush national forests. Since its entrance onto the American stage 170 years ago people have flocked to the Golden State, drawn by a promise of adventure and opportunity. This was especially true around the turn of the century.

An unfortunate side effect of any rapid influx of people, especially back when daily life and travel was much more hazardous, is that more people eventually means more death. You may even end up with more bodies than you’re prepared to deal with.

Enter the small town of Colma, where the dead outnumber the living 1000 to 1. Known as California’s City of the Dead, aka City of Souls, aka the last place you’d want to be during a zombie uprising. The last nickname may have been made up but think about it… 1000 to 1.

The story of how Colma became The City of the Dead is woven into the broader story of California itself. Mexico ceded the territory to the United States in 1848 and within a year’s time, gold was discovered in the Sacramento River. This put the brand new state on the map in more than just the literal sense. The famous California Gold Rush had begun.

Over a very short span of time, hundreds of thousands of Americans hopped on the Oregon Trail and headed west hoping to strike it rich. By 1860, San Francisco’s population tripled. Not only did the rush attract eager prospectors, but the population boom made the city a place one could find a job. Recent immigrants to America saw opportunity as well and poured in almost as fast as the gold seekers.

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Portsmouth Square, San Francisco 1851. source

Some who came west found the opportunity they sought, but many more didn’t have such luck. The grand majority of people looking for gold didn’t find so much as a nugget. They remained packed in tight living conditions with thousands of others like them, who had little to show for their efforts. Conditions worsened for these people as hygiene and clean food and water became harder to maintain. Areas like this became a powder keg of sorts, where any number of contingencies could lead to ignition.

Inevitably these contingencies would eventually manifest in four major events that would devastate the Golden City. The first of these took the form of a bubonic plague outbreak in 1900 killing hundreds. Cremation was uncommon at the time for religious reasons so the bodies just piled up. The city’s cemeteries had so few vacancies that new burials were banned the same year.

Not long after, in 1906, San Francisco was hit with a powerful earthquake that leveled the city in minutes. Destruction was massive as buildings had not been constructed to withstand this kind of stress at the time. The death toll for this second disaster reached into the thousands, making the recent plague look like a case of the sniffles.

A direct result of the earthquake came in the form of a great fire that burned what was left of the city. Over the course of four days approximately 25,000 buildings stretching over 490 city blocks were reduced to ash.

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Fires burn what was left of San Francisco after the earthquake. source

The fourth and farthest reaching disaster came twelve years later as San Francisco had all but recovered from the past two tumultuous decades. In 1918 the global Spanish Flu pandemic emerged in Europe, America and Asia before spreading worldwide. The flu claimed around 675,000 American lives and an estimated 20-50 million the world over.

Despite the years of devastation, San Francisco maintained its popularity. The city continued to grow as developers simply built over the rubble left behind after the earthquake and fires. Given its location on a peninsula, the city could only expand so far. As a result, the somewhat limited real estate was becoming more and more valuable. Suddenly all of the wide open spaces devoted to graves for all that had perished started looking too good to the developers to just leave to the dead.

In order to get the ball rolling, rumors were spread that the graveyards within the city were a source of contagion. The exact nature of the contagion was never divulged, just that it was making people sick and the culprit had to be purged before more San Franciscans fell victim. And if a few real estate developers made some money in the process, so be it.

Eventually enough political pressure had been levied that something had to be done. The land south of the city was largely undeveloped at the time and there were few people living that far away from the general populous. San Francisco’s funeral parlors began buying up large swaths of land and started digging.

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Digging up graves in San Francisco to be relocated. source

In 1924 the nameless area was incorporated into San Mateo County, filing as Colma. A new town was born, stretching over just two miles of land with fewer than 1000 residents, most of whom worked in the funeral industry. Over time more than 150,000 bodies were exhumed and moved south to Colma to be reburied.

Today the number of dead has swelled to around 1.5 million, while the living population remains relatively low at about 1,600. Although San Francisco remains the number one draw on the peninsula, Colma has become a popular stop for tourists. The dead are more of a footnote on the Town of Colma website however, which attempts to draw more attention to its “old-world charm,” museums, and shopping centers than to the millions of decomposing bodies in their backyards.

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Some Colma City merch. source

Visitors to Colma will find the city itself actually embraces its claim to fame. One can tour all 17 of its impeccably manicured cemeteries and leave with a shirt that reads “It’s Great to Be Alive In Colma!” The graves serve as a sort of history of San Francisco over the past century. You should recognize a few of Colma’s most famous residents like Levi Strauss, Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst, and Joe DiMaggio.

So next time you find yourself in the Golden State be sure take a walk among the tomb stones in Colma. Like 99.9% of the town’s population you may even decide to stay forever.

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Famous head stones of Colma. source

SOURCES:

The New York Times “The Town of Colma, Where San Francisco’s Dead Live”

All That’s Interesting “Colma, California: The City of the Dead”

Town of Colma Website

Death in the Victorian Era

Welcome to #WEIRDWEDNESDAY! As much as we love true crime over here at The Hex Files, we started to feel as though we were neglecting the other stuff we love too — hauntings, aliens, urban legends, strange history, etc. And so, #WeirdWednesday was born. Without further adieu, here’s the first installment of our new weekly series!

A few weekends ago, I attended the Bloodmilk Night Market and had the opportunity to chat a little with the artist behind Handsome Devil Puppets. In addition to the bewitching finger puppets she was selling at the Market, she also showed me some work that was inspired by Victorian mourning dolls. As soon as I got home, I hit the Internet because I just had to know more. I soon found out mourning dolls are just the tip of the iceberg for Victorian funeral customs. They had a strange yet alluring fascination with death that I felt compelled to explore further and of course, compile some of my favorite examples for your reading pleasure.

Mourning Clothing

It is honestly not surprising that the Victorians had such a fascination with death. Due to the lack of modern medicine, death was extremely prolific in their lives. It was everywhere. It seems, though, most of the dramatic traditions surrounding death began when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. He was a victim of typhoid fever, and poor Victoria was so heartbroken by the loss she mourned him for the rest of her life. In fact, Victoria (and her entire court) dressed in mourning clothes for the first three years after Albert’s death.

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Photo courtesy of ranker.com

The tradition of wearing mourning clothes for an extended period of time actually carried over outside of the Queen’s court to the common people. When mourning the death of a loved one, people would wear black and other muted colors  for one to two years after the death to represent their grieving period. Due to the high mortality rates of the time period, it was not uncommon for people to wear these colors for the majority of their lives as they mourned the deaths of multiple family members.

Women were particularly subjected to these traditions. They wore black for the first one to two years after a death, depending on their relation to the decedent, and also had to isolate themselves from their community. As the years went on, women could transition slowly from black to purple to gray as they became reintegrated with society.

Mourning Dolls

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Photo courtesy of ranker.com

Just as they do now, little girls and dolls went hand-in-hand in the Victorian era. They served many purposes: they helped young girls exercise their maternal instincts, served as a toy, and even prepared them to execute a wake and funeral. Wait… what?

Young girls were given all the necessary supplies to host a wake and funeral in what was called a “death kit.” The kits included black mourning clothes and a small coffin for the doll. The girls would practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, staging funeral and even comforting the doll’s mourners. This is perhaps something I may have enjoyed during my own childhood, but is definitely too morbid for the average modern child. However, putting on fake funerals served the same purpose as preparing a girl for motherhood: it was just what women did, and therefore, they needed to be prepared.

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Victorian wax doll, photo courtesy of listverse.com

In addition to preparing girls for various aspects of life, dolls served another morbid purpose for the Victorians. If a family experienced the death of an infant or child and had some wealth to their names, they could have a wax doll created in the likeness of their deceased loved one to aid in their grieving process. To make the wax doll seem as legitimate as possible, it was dressed in the deceased child’s clothing and wore a wig of the deceased child’s hair.

Over-the-Top Funeral Services

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Photo courtesy of kathleenmaca.com

In general, Victorian funerals were extremely ostentatious events. They involved funeral directors, invitations, hearses drawn by black horses, large floral arrangements, etc. People became competitive with one another for who could host the most showy services for their deceased loved one. As you can guess, this could get pretty expensive. People, especially those of lower classes, often had to begin saving for their family member’s funeral while the person was still alive and healthy in order to afford the elaborate event that came to be expected of the time. Sometimes hey would pass on everyday necessities like food and heat in order to put money aside for their eventual funeral.

People would even hire professional mourners to attend the service to build-up the grief. The mourners, often called “mutes,” would hover around the casket, looking desolate and dismal. Charles Dickens’ fictional character Oliver Twist was a mute hired to “perform” at children’s funerals.

“Saved by the Bell”

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Photo courtesy of unc.edu

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “saved by the bell” (and we’ve probably all watched the television show at some point in our lives). However, you probably don’t realize that this commonly used phrase is said to have been inspired by a Victorian funeral custom.

In Victorian England, the dead were occasionally buried with a rope in their hand that was tied to a bell outside their grave. If the person was pronounced dead incorrectly and regained consciousness after burial, they could ring the bell for help. This particular style of burial was known as a “safety coffin.” Although there is no evidence to show that a life was ever saved by one of these devices, I can appreciate their extra (and I mean extra) precautions.

Protection from the “Resurrection Men”

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Photo courtesy of cvltnation.com

For those who were actually dead, the Victorians took precautions to ensure they remained in their graves. During the Victorian era, grave robbing was a big problem. Grave robbers were known as “resurrection men,” and their theft was driven by the high demand for cadavers for medical training and research. During this time, it was against the law to leave your donate your body to science after your death.

The resurrection men would typically dig into the end of the grave where the head was, tie a rope around the corpse’s neck and then drag it from its grave. Often, the grave robbers would leave behind the shroud and any other items accompanying the body in the grave. This was because, should one be caught stealing the deceased, sentencing was lighter if only the body was taken.

However, protection against body snatchers was reserved for the wealthy, as such protection could be expensive. For those who were able to afford it, mausoleums, vaults and iron-encased grave sites were built to protect their loved one’s body from being stolen.

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William Burke and William Hare, photo courtesy of irishcentral.com

However, sometimes there was very little that could protect you from being a victim of the body-snatchers, as some eventually decided to skip the exhumation process entirely and resorted to murder as a means to obtain bodies to sell. William Burke and William Hare, often referred to as simply Burke and Hare, sought out those who were ill, homeless or prostitutes — essentially, those who would not be missed — to be their victims.

As outlandish  and morbid as some of the Victorians’ funeral traditions may seem, you can also probably tell that many of them have carried over to modern-day funeral customs in some shape or form. Personally, I’m glad murder for the sake of medical research has not been one of them. See you guys next week.

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

The Phrase Finder

Ranker

SleuthSayers