Gill Mortuary

Old Cowtown Museum Tour

Gill Mortuary

Wichita, Kansas 67203, United States

Created By: Old Cowtown Museum


The Gill Mortuary located in the Business District of Old Cowtown Museum, is representative of a business which conveyed a cultural aspect of life and death in 1870s Wichita.

In the 1870s the practices around death were changing. Until the civil war Funeral activities were carried out by the family

The funeral ceremony was central to the rituals of death. Neighbors and relatives generally helped a family "lay out" a corpse by washing and clothing it. Death often proved to be a shared community experience, a time to come to the aid of bereaved families by sending them food, offering sympathy, helping with household chores and doing anything that might help families in their time of grief.

The corpse was usually placed on view in the parlor of a family’s home. While on view in the parlor, the corpse generally rested on a wooden board placed between two chairs, or on a specially constructed "cooling board." In order to preserve the corpse for at least a day of viewing, blocks of ice were placed under the board with smaller pieces around the body. The "cooling board" was often covered with a tapestry or linen which was special to the family.

Most people decked their parlors with flowers, partly to mask any unpleasant odors emanating from the deceased. Once all the mourners had been given a chance to view the corpse in the parlor everyone gathered for the minister’s requiem. This generally consisted of a scripture reading, prayers, and a brief, glorious account of the loved one’s life.

Some religious denominations, most notably Catholics and Episcopalians, held a second graveside service. Although the decorum of mourning was important and quite rigid in some aspects, a black wreath or ribbon hanging on the front door of the home, letters written to relatives on black bordered stationary, or pallbearers weaning black sashes.

Some family members chose not to dress in black. Rather than deepening the gloom of an already somber occasion, mourners preferred to dress "quietly" in Sunday clothes. Their attire, they believed, stressed the Victorian belief "that death is simply the passage from one life to another."

Parlor services in the home and graveside services varied according to religious affiliation and the section of the country, but some common elements emerged.

By the 1870s, undertaking was becoming common in Wichita. As people moved west, or away from their extended family, the social structure that helped carry out funeral practices were greatly weakened to the point that Undertaking became a business. Most of these businesses grew out of the cabinet making trades.

The Wichita City Eagle, in 1877, carried an advertisement for

“Furniture. H. Bolte. Manufacturer and dealer in all kinds of Parlor, Chamber, Dwelling & Kitchen Furniture. A full line of Undertaker’s goods. Undertaking done on short notice and in the most approved style.

Local undertakers coordinated funeral services, provided caskets, clothing, and a hearse. Undertakers began to play a more prominent role in preparing the body for the funeral and making arrangements for burial, even though the use of funeral "homes" and funeral "parlors" were not popular until the 1880s.

The elegant hearse in the back room of the exhibit dates from the 1870s. Laden with flowers, it often led the procession of mourners.

Very few families, even in cities where undertakers took charge of the corpse, embalmed bodies before the 1880s, unless they intended to transport the body a long distance. Americans before that period considered embalming to be an "unnatural" and "revolting’’ practice.

Embalming, used some during the Civil War, did not become common practice in Wichita until the turn of the century, although the technology was being utilized in other parts of the nation much earlier.

Cremation was also not a popular practice.

In Victorian society, mourning customs softened and veiled the harsh realities of death.

The word "casket," implied a container for something precious and expressed the value of its contents. Coffins, used to transport the corpse to the cemetery, were usually simple. On the frontier, some bodies were buried in nothing more than a blanket or sack. Most everyone else settled for a pine box lined with cloth. Wooden coffins could be purchased from local cabinetmakers or made by the family. Professional coffin and casket makers catered to more pretentious customers.

New, mass produced rectangular caskets replaced traditional body-shaped coffins. During the 1870s, prosperous city dwellers were purchasing metal or fancy (rosewood or mahogany) caskets.

Likewise, the term "cemetery,” replaced” graveyard" as the preferred term for a loved one's final resting place. Religious symbolism and imagery dominated cemetery markers and eulogies. Terms such as "At Rest" and "Only Sleeping" were a common site on markers, and represented an increasingly romanticized view of death.

Love-en-Tangle, Marshall Murdock’s ten year old daughter, died of spinal meningitis in 1883. Her obituaries epitomized the flowery Victorian writing style used to make the death of a child seem more bearable.

"Tangle," daughter of M.M. and Victoria Murdock, died at the residence of her parents...after an illness of one week, in her tenth year. The little sufferer, who was found a sweet and enduring relief from all sickness and pain, hovered for days between life and death, and then she was borne away by angel messengers to that fair land where there is no night, and where little children shall be pillowed upon the breast of Him who loved and blessed them in the days of His mortal pilgrimage. The sympathies of the friends and relatives of the bereaved family...are extended to them in this time of bereavement and sorrow.

Correspondence from the Emporia, News, published in the Wichita Eagle on March 1, 1883.

Contrary to popular belief, few deaths in Wichita during the 1870s were attributed to homicide. Disease, infection, accidents, the hazards of harsh winters, and natural causes were the most common causes of death.

**The interior of the Undertaker exhibit post‑dates the generally practiced funerals of 1870s Wichita. The Undertaker exhibit is used to interpret the cultural aspect of death, which the residential community of Wichita shared with the rest of United States.

This point of interest is part of the tour: Old Cowtown Museum Tour


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