This collection began with the Kentucky Oral History Commission’s effort to establish oral history programs in each of the state’s 120 counties. County libraries worked with local volunteers to collect interviews. Since 1987, county oral histories have been generated primarily by recipients of technical assistance grants from the commission that provide training and equipment to volunteer interviewers. Interviews donated by independent researchers are also included. Original collection held at Kentucky Oral History Commission/Kentucky Historical Society. Access copies available at Lincoln County Public Library. Authorization must by granted by KHS to use or publish by any means the archival material to which the Society holds copyright.
LINCOLN COUNTY ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
MARY STULL INTERVIEWED BY CAROL MOORE
August 6, 1984
Ms. Moore: This is an interview of Mary Stull. Mary is a homemaker in Lincoln County. She used to work with her father-in-law building caskets many years ago. At this time, her father-in-law is 96 years old?
Mrs. Stull: 7.
Ms. Moore: 97 years old and he cannot give us an interview because of his health. But, he used to build caskets for different people. This interview is by Carol Moore, and I’m a student at Somerset Community College and I am Mary Stull’s daughter, and the granddaughter of Pop Stull, who built the caskets. The interview is taking place at Mrs. Stull’s home on August 6, 1984 at 8:15.
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Ms. Moore: Pop, as he was known, was John Henry Stull…is John Henry Stull, and, mom, can you tell us why he made the caskets?
Mrs. Stull: Well, that was a common practice several years ago. A lot of carpenters made caskets. Many people could not afford the service of the funeral home, and older people requested that they have a homemade casket, and by whom it was to be made.
Ms. Moore: What about the cost of a homemade casket?
Mrs. Stull: Well, it was a lot lower than one that was purchased. The materials was cheaper, and some of the local stores…some of the local stores stocked the handles and the material…there was a brocade material that you could get for covering the casket, and usually broadcloth or muslin was used for the lining. And, it was a lot cheaper than buying a casket.
Ms. Moore: When did you start helping him to build caskets?
Mrs. Stull: Well, not too long after I married. I helped him…it was all new to me. When I first came to this part of the country…I was raised in Louisville, and it was all new to me, so, it was something that I really had to learn from the beginning.
Ms. Moore: Did the stores that carried the materials, how did…did Pop pay for the materials that went into the casket, or did the family pay the stores?
Mrs. Stull: Usually the family bought the material. The carpenters that made caskets usually had some lumber on hand, pine or poplar…poplar was a good lumber to use, because it was soft, and the family always bought…or usually bought the materials. In some cases, Pop had to buy it himself, and it was just one of those things. So, the worse thing about making a casket…when someone passed away, they had to go and find someone to make a casket and then get all the materials together…maybe they would have to go to two different stores, and time was short, because they didn’t embalm them and they had to bury them the next day, or usually they did.
Ms. Moore: When did the family usually come to Pop to build the casket, was it before the death, or right after?
Mrs. Stull: Well, most time, it was right after the death. That way you didn’t have a…it was after the death and you didn’t have too much time by the time you got your materials together and got to work on it. They…usually they kept the body at home and prepared it for burial and laid it out on boards until the casket was finished. Sometimes you had to work all night to get a casket finished. I know we have had people, the family, have to wait maybe an hour or so when…the time they had the funeral scheduled until we could get a casket finished when you had such a short time.
Ms. Moore: What shape were the…how were the caskets built, shaped up?
Mrs. Stull: Well, the caskets were shaped like a mummy case and they had an unhinged flat lid…that lid that was fastened down with clamps when they took the body to bury it, and in view it was just left open. And, the handles that you got, was at the local store, and there were a good variety that they used in those days. Some were fancy and some were just real plain. It’s according to how much money you had to spend. But, the…to fasten the lid down, was a clamp type sort of thing.
Ms. Moore: Well, how did he know how big to make the caskets? Did you make one size for all babies and all adults….
Mrs. Stull: Well, most of the time they measured the length of the corpse. And, for a grownup, they usually made them about six feet long. But, if they found someone that was taller, they had to make the casket longer. They had to allow for that. But, most baby caskets were made about four feet long.
Ms. Moore: Who did Pop make most of the caskets for? Was it the poor people in the community or….
Mrs. Stull: Yes, it was mostly the poor people and a lot of the caskets were made for babies; newborn babies and people that…smaller children. And, of course, like I said, some adults that requested homemade caskets.
Ms. Moore: And, these bodies weren’t embalmed at all?
Mrs. Stull: No, not at all. And, they kept…they had an all night vigil at the house and family and relatives sat up, and the corpse was laid out on boards until the casket was finished and it was put in a casket.
Ms. Moore: Did they have to do anything especially to keep the bodies from getting…start smelling or….
Mrs. Stull: No, because they didn’t keep them that long. I have seen…we have sat up some places where they would have a corpse and they would bathe…take cloths and saturate them in alcohol and bath the face to keep it from turning dark for people to see.
Ms. Moore: Where did Pop make his caskets?
Mrs. Stull: Well, he made them at home. He had a little shop and when the weather was so that…you know, was warm enough that he could, he didn’t have any heat in there, and he would frame them up outside. He had a stripping room, and he framed a lot of them up in the stripping room in the winter time, but then we worked in the house. Worked on the kitchen table on those little ones, because they were white and you had to be real careful not to get them dirty. And, a lot of the babies’ caskets were covered with muslin. My job was working with the inside padding and lining and covering and the material was tacked onto the wood and the tacks were hard to hide, especially on a smaller casket.
Ms. Moore: How were the bodies taken into the cemeteries? Were they buried in cemeteries?
Mrs. Stull: Yes, most time it was family cemeteries and the corpse was hauled from the home in an open truck or sometimes in a wagon.
Ms. Moore: I know Pop kept a big ‘ol truck about that time. Did he….
Mrs. Stull: He did a lot of that.
Ms. Moore: Did any of these people pay Pop?
Mrs. Stull: Well, sometimes. Most of the people that had to have caskets made were extremely poor and sometimes he was paid for the lumber he used and once in a while a little bit for his time, but mostly it was just a thank you.
Ms. Moore: I remember when I was real small Pop making a baby casket for a little baby that had died and you made a dress. Could you tell us about that?
Mrs. Stull: Well, the family was real poor and they didn’t have anything to bury the baby in, that I thought was decent, so I had a piece of material that I had bought to make my daughter a slip and I sat up on Sunday night and made a dress for the baby to buried in. And, the family was just real happy and I was too, because it looked so much better.
Ms. Moore: Didn’t a neighbor buy the little diapers or….
Mrs. Stull: They bought little long white stockings and put on the baby.
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Ms. Moore: Approximately how many years ago was it that Pop built caskets and why did he quit?
Mrs. Stull: Well, I think he quit about 35, 40 years ago, and he quit because people started using the funeral homes and buying caskets. I can remember when my grandmother died, and that’s been about 45 years ago, that they had…the undertaker came to the home and prepared the body and they did all the work there at the house and disposed of their waste on the premises there, and they laid her out on boards and then they came back and brought the casket and put her in the casket. And…of course, it didn’t cost as much as it does now. I can remember when my mother died, and that’s been forty…24 years ago, and her funeral expense…she had a nice funeral, it was about $250.00. So, you can see how that compares in prices that you pay now.
Ms. Moore: How far away did the funeral director have to come, say, 35, 40 years ago? Was it a long ways?
Mrs. Stull: Well, no, here at Kings’ Mountain, there was a funeral director at Waynesburg that usually took care of everyone around here. I don’t know…I think they had some in Stanford, but most of the people in this area used Waynesburg. It was Mr. Jim Reynolds that had a funeral home down here; where Barnett’s Funeral Home is now.
Ms. Moore: Why did they lay them out on boards? They laid them on boards whether the body was embalmed or not?
Mrs. Stull: Well, they did my grandmother. I can remember that. But, I don’t remember about my mother, because I was older and they took her on to the funeral home and prepared her for burial and brought her back to the house, which was a common custom then. A body was never left at the funeral home for viewing or for funeral or anything. But, I imagine they laid them out on boards because they needed a flat surface to keep the body rigid when they put them in…you know, and straight, when they put them in the casket. They would have to be going straight. If you laid them on a bed, they might…the bed might sag or give with them and you’d have a problem there.
Ms. Moore: And, most of the beds back then were feather beds weren’t they?
Mrs. Stull: Feather beds or something like that, and maybe the family didn’t want them on the bed. But, anyhow, I know my grandmother, they had her laid out on boards and covered up with a sheet. She was dressed for burial and then they come and put her in the casket.
Ms. Moore: As modest as the women were back then, I imagine it was hard to think of an undertaker…a male undertaker taking care of a body, wasn’t it?
Mrs. Stull: I think that was a lot of their problem, because when someone died at home, they usually had some of the women in the neighborhood come and bathe them and put their clothes on them and prepare them for burial. I think modesty had a lot to do with it.
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Ms. Moore: After the bodies was placed in the caskets, were they just…the caskets then just placed in the ground or were they put in any other kind of a box?
Mrs. Stull: They made a wooden box, and it was put down in the bottom of the grave and then the casket was lowered into that. It was just a pine…mostly a pine box that they used and it was homemade too, and they lowered the lid and put it on. The lid wasn’t fastened down. It was just laid on there. That was all they had. They didn’t have vaults and things like they have now.
Ms. Moore: Just a rough box.
Mrs. Stull: Just a rough wooden box was what they used. You know that wasn’t much protection. It was soon leaking water and probably dirt and stuff got into it, too.
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Ms. Moore: What about the funerals. Did the preacher come to the house for the funerals? Did they have the funerals at the graveyard or did they take them to the churches?
Mrs. Stull: Well, most of the time, when the body was left at home, they had the minister to come to the house, and had a short service there or sometimes they have gone to the graveyard and just had graveside service. But, once in a while, they would take…if they had a way to convey the body to the church, they had the funeral in the church. And, sometimes those funerals were long and drawn out. I remember one funeral that I went to, a neighbor boy of ours was killed, and it was hot, it was in July, and the funeral was two and a half hours long. Everybody just nearly died. There was no air conditioning then. Sometimes they were long and drawn out, sometimes they were a short service, a lot of times, just graveside.
Ms. Moore: Was it the same practice if the family could afford a funeral director, or…
Mrs. Stull: Well, if they could afford a funeral director, sometimes they took the body to the church for the funeral, but, a lot of times they held it in the home. I have known of people that would have the body at home and have a little service there at home, and maybe they didn’t go to a church…a certain church or anything and the undertaker that was at Waynesburg was a real good man and he would make a talk, and that was about all they had. It was just a short service. But, he did conduct the services some.
Ms. Moore: Were these…do you think these preachers were paid anything for these funerals?
Mrs. Stull: No, I don’t think so. And, I have known of a lot of them…the funerals, of especially small children, where they would just have…they would go to the…they would just take the body to the cemetery and have someone that they respected, that they thought was a good person, and they would just have prayer and that was it.
Ms. Moore: Was there a lot more children’s deaths?
Mrs. Stull: Yes; at that time, children were not immunized for whooping cough and things and there was a lot of deaths due to whooping cough. The little baby that we made the dress for, that baby died from whooping cough. I had a cousin to die from whooping cough. And, it was…if a child took whooping cough, and they had a cold with it or pneumonia, they didn’t survive. And, there was a lot of stillborn babies. That was one of the things that we…the reason we made so many infant’s caskets, there were a lot of stillborn babies. People just didn’t have the prenatal care that we have now. A lot of them didn’t even have a doctor, the babies were delivered at home and they just didn’t have a doctor in attendance.
END OF INTERVIEW