Melissa Barker, aka The Archive Lady, explains why your ancestor may have purchased a coffin at the grocery store!
Priscilla in Georgia asks “Recently I happened across a receipt in my Grandmother’s papers that was for the purchase of a casket dated 1884. The unusual thing was that the casket was bought at the local grocery store. I have never heard of this before and wondered if you can shed any light on the fact that caskets were sold at grocery stores?”
Priscilla has asked a fantastic question and one that many genealogy researchers may not realize is true. There was a large period of time when you could purchase a casket at the local mercantile store also where people would buy their groceries. In fact, these local mercantile stores sold just about everything!
The Mercantile or sometimes called The General Store is where many of our ancestors shopped. There would have been so much to see in these kinds of stores. The penny candy on display in the candy jars, a barrel of crackers, wheels of cheese and of course the caskets. Yes, I said caskets!
Today, when we walk into the mall or our favorite grocery store we will most likely not see caskets for sale. But in the local mercantile, in the 1700’s-1900’s, it was common to see caskets on display and for sale. It was also common for the mercantile to be the local undertaker or funeral director. The mercantile letterhead would list as part of their services and product offerings “Funeral Director” or “Undertaker” just like this receipt from “C.C. Cook & Company.”
This is why it is important to research the local businesses where our ancestors lived, especially the local mercantile or general store. These businesses generated store ledgers, piles of receipts, accounts payable records and even a record of who bought a casket for their dearly departed. These records could be in an archive, historical society, genealogical society, library or local museum. Wherever the records are located in the local area, you might find local store records. Not all store records were saved in every area but you might be surprised to find most areas have at least one store ledger or collection of records for a local mercantile.
Records for the local mercantile could list anything purchased at the store, including caskets. There could be invoices or receipts that specifically list fees for embalming, caskets, clothes to dress the deceased, etc. For instance, this account receipt from the Sparkman General Merchandise Store from September 8, 1929 lists charges for embalming, suit, flowers and a casket. When searching for death information for an ancestor, these records could prove to be very helpful in determining the date of death or at least get you close. In many areas where we do genealogy research, death records are just not available and these store records could be a great substitute.
Records for the local mercantile or general store could be located in either the Vertical Files Collections or the Manuscript Collections in an archive. In the Vertical Files, they should be listed by the store name. In the Manuscript Collections, there could be a collection of records titled by the store name or the store records could be part of a collection of records for the owner of the store. Search the indexes of both these records collections to see if any stores are listed and then investigate what is contained in the records available. Be sure and ask the archivist about the local stores in the area and if they know of any records in their collections from these stores.
You may think that since your ancestor was a farming family and grew what they ate that there would be no records at the local store for them. You might be surprised to find that there are records available because they couldn’t grow everything. I remember my husband’s Grandmother recounting her life during the Great Depression and she told me that in the country it didn’t feel like they were going through a depression. She said that they grew everything they ate but they did have to purchase sugar, coffee and tobacco. They would have bought these items at the local store and hopefully I can find records to reflect those purchases.
Or maybe you are like Priscilla and have family records. Go through them, read them all carefully and maybe you will find a receipt, invoice or document that tells you where your ancestors purchased their casket or funeral necessities.
The records for the local mercantile can be a gold mine for the genealogist. Whether you are looking for a simple store ledger that lists your ancestors purchasing groceries or a receipt where a casket was purchased for your ancestor like Priscilla. Store records a great genealogical resource, even for purchasing caskets.
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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