Cudmore: Funeral customs forged in the Civil War


News coverage of the pandemic has us thinking about issues we often avoid such as death and funerals.

Some of America’s funeral customs were shaped by the thousands of casualties in the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Embalming bodies with injections such as formaldehyde became common during that war to preserve the bodies of soldiers killed in battle that had to be transported hundreds of miles home. 

When President Lincoln was killed, his body was embalmed and went on a long journey to his home in Illinois by train, including a stop in Amsterdam.  The funeral train demonstrated to people along the way the effectiveness of embalming.

In 1860, Amsterdam woodworker Isaac Shuler opened a shop to make cabinets and furniture.  By 1862, Shuler was making coffins and after the Civil War, he began offering burial services.

In the blizzard of 1888, Amsterdam newspapers reported on a heroic effort to conduct the funeral of Mrs. Robert Hartley in West Galway and West Charlton.

Mrs. Hartley’s funeral service was held at the Presbyterian Church in West Galway as the blizzard raged.  H.O. Wilkie was the undertaker in charge.

Twenty-six men opened the roads as a procession set out for West Charlton cemetery.  They traveled two miles reaching the farm of John Cunning but could go no farther.  The casket was left at the Cunning farm.

Wilkie and the driver of the team pulling the hearse trekked back to Amsterdam. The trip took four hours.  Some mourners were stranded at the church.

After Shuler died, his undertaking business was operated by W. Max Reid, remembered as a historian for his 1901 book, “The Mohawk Valley.” 

Reid was also president of the business-boosting Amsterdam Board of Trade.  Reid died in 1911 and his estate ran the funeral business until 1913.

In 1913, Raymond Johnson and Edwin Lindsay purchased the firm, naming it Johnson & Lindsay.  Lindsay died in 1930.  At first located on West Main near Pine Street, the business moved to Mohawk Place.

Johnson locally pioneered moving funerals from the home to the funeral parlor, calling his business a funeral house.  During World War II, smaller funeral homes in Amsterdam closed temporarily, posting signs saying, “Gone to war, call Johnson & Lindsay.”

Vincent Jendrzejczak opened his undertaking business in the family home on Kreisel Terrace in 1949.  He relocated to the firm’s current Church Street location in 1954.

Jendrzejczak, who died in 2014, was one of the patriarchs of independent funeral homes in Amsterdam.  Others were Elliott Boice, Emilio DiMezza, Chet and Roman Iwanski, Pasquale and John Mancini, Louis Perillo and Peter Sargalis.

In 1978, David Bellinger from Johnstown purchased Johnson & Lindsay from Raymond Johnson, Jr.   In 1979, Vince Rossi began his funeral career by purchasing Sargalis Funeral Chapel, which became Rossi Funeral Home.  In 1984, Rossi and Bellinger’s Johnson & Lindsay merged. 

John Betz originally worked for Johnson & Lindsay and after serving in World War II, Betz began his own funeral home.  In 1998, Bellinger and Rossi merged with Betz, relocating to the Betz facility at 171 Guy Park Ave.  A number of other funeral homes have become part of the business now called Betz, Rossi, Bellinger & Stewart Family Funeral Homes. 

Riley Mortuary in Amsterdam traces its roots to 1873 and a funeral home founded by George Brown.  Arthur Riley joined the firm in 1921 and the Riley family became sole proprietors in 1936.

In 1957 the Rileys relocated to their present Division Street location.  Joseph Riley Jr. became manager in 1983.  He died in 2002.  The family’s fourth generation operates Riley Mortuary today.

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