In this brief work, folklorist and oral historian William Lynwood Montell presents firsthand accounts from Kentucky funeral directors as they reminisce about their unique profession. In each chapter, Montell introduces the reader to certain features of the funeral home business and then allows the words of the various embalmers and funeral home directors to do the rest. This study, which concentrates on the twentieth century, is not a complete narrative history of funeral homes in Kentucky, but a collection of insightful chapters concerned mainly with the evolving nature of funeral ritual in rural parts of the state.
Montell, professor emeritus of Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University, has previously published a number of books focusing on folk culture with a heavy emphasis on oral history. In this current volume, he has crafted a fine work that reveals the multi-tasking lifestyle of early funeral home directors in rural communities. From stories that describe funeral directors driving the only ambulance in the community (the local hearse), to performing crude first-responder duties, this work is a valuable study of the evolving role of country funeral directors. Throughout the book, a strong shared sense of civic duty is evident. The directors' narratives emphasize that they were not concerned simply with their businesses; they truly felt a calling and did their best to live up to it in what they considered the most important moment in a family's life—the death of a loved one.
Montell's accounts offer valuable insight into community funeral homes and traditions surrounding death. For example, James R. Moraja, Sr., recounts the history of the Bosley Funeral Home in Lebanon, Kentucky, from 1871 to the present. Other accounts, such as one from Tompkinsville, Kentucky, explain the transition of funeral services from the family's home and church to the funeral home and its adjacent multi-service chapel. Although these accounts are brief, they reveal the close relationships among funeral homes, their proprietors, and their communities. One of the more fascinating aspects of Montell's work lies in this insight into the communal relationship between early funeral homes and Kentucky communities. One can only speculate that this was also an aspect of other rural communities in the South.
Montell argues that the modernization of funeral homes and the secularization of funerals resulted in the loss of this communal relationship, as funeral homes increasingly seem to have become corporate organizations. The author illustrates the changing nature of funeral homes and related practices in a variety of ways. One example is the tradition of wearing black to express mourning, which has slowly fallen out of favor. Perhaps an explanation for the abandonment of many social traditions surrounding death can be found in one storyteller's comment that "[t]he glue that used to keep a community together is not there anymore" (p. 40).
The book's strongest chapter is chapter 2, "Funeral and Burial Folk Customs." The author's introduction does a fine job of explaining [End Page 239] the purpose and definition of folk custom and folk studies. Throughout this chapter runs the ever-present and influential thread of religion. Montell presents the reader with fascinating accounts of snake-handling preachers and religious rites of passage in the western hills of Kentucky. Folklorists and social historians alike will appreciate the variety of Christian religious experiences described as Montell traces the development of local burial practices. He concludes that although there were many variations in religious outlook, funeral directors more often than not found themselves following predictable patterns in their funeral rituals.
The remaining chapters address the increasing secularization of society and its impact on church services, specifically those revolving around eulogies at funerals. Montell suggests that whereas funeral eulogies had long been just another avenue for local ministers to evangelize, they are now becoming an outlet for family and friends to point out the positive traits of their deceased loved ones.
Tales from Kentucky Funeral Homes has much to offer those who study the culture of death, but it also contributes to a...