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Today’s guest author is Karen Hirst whose father is the iconic John Kerry from Almonte.
The ‘Undertaking’ of Local History by Karen Hirst
They seemed to go hand in hand, the furniture business with that of Undertaking or as it is more modernly referred to as the Funeral Service business.
It is believed that this combination may have evolved because the trade of the furniture merchant was cabinet making. My father, John Kerry recalls this as being a fairly common combination of businesses especially in small town rural communities. Who better to request a wood coffin from than the skilled craftsman who also made furniture— from coffins to conducting funerals seemed a natural fit.
What is historically interesting and may not be known by many is that very often the ‘undertaking’ was conducted under the same roof as you would purchase your living room furniture.
In the small town of Almonte, in the year 1954, my father purchased from the estate of W.E. Scott, both the furniture store and the funeral business. Mr. W.E. Scott ( Ed) was a Funeral Director, Merchant for Home Furnishings and a former Mayor of Almonte. He had rebuilt the furniture store in 1904 following a major fire. At this time he made two storefronts which has continued to the current day. Mr. Scott rented one half to Mr. Wilf Snedden, Pharmacist. In my father’s time there have been four pharmacy businesses conducted from the same premises and currently one quilt store. The half of the store that was devoted to new home furnishings is now rented for the sale of antique items.
Upon purchase in 1954, fronting Mill Street, there was the main building which as noted above was divided into two stores. As well, behind the store, was a large two bay brick barn and set further back running along Farm Street was a tin shed that would have housed the horses that pulled the horse drawn hearse. Eventually Mr. Jim Flynn took the old tin shed and put it out to pasture.
In 1953 a Pontiac Sedan Delivery was converted into a hearse and stored in the brick barn with its green painted wooden doors, one closed on hinges and one a sliding door. The barn was also used as a warehouse for unpacking furniture and upstairs on the second floor was the storage site of baby caskets in their wooden rough boxes. The hinged door of the barn would later be closed in with cement blocks leaving only the sliding door until the barn’s eventual demise and the conversion to off street customer parking.
Through the back door of the furniture store with its overhead goose necked, green tin light fixture, one entered the domain of the blending of the two businesses. Directly inside behind sliding doors was the embalming table with its white porceline sink and bottles of coloured fluids that emitted unique odors soon recognized as specific to the profession.
Down the short narrow hallway one entered into the locale of the business office where funeral arrangements or the bill of sale for furniture purchases were completed. A massive old iron safe built under a bookcase, lettered with W.E.Scott suggested some importance to the transactions of the space. Possession of the safe following modernization of the office and store remains lost from memory at this time.
The lower floor of the furniture store during Mr. Scott’s era could on occasion become the public visitation space for a funeral. With some relocation of furniture along the walls of the furniture store or carried and stored upstairs, the addition of a few folding chairs and the furniture store would serve the needs of a grieving family. This was the substitute location for those not ‘waking’ in the family home or having the funeral service within a church.
A room on the upstairs level of the store during Mr. Scott’s time and the early years of my father’s ownership served as the casket display and selection room. Many a sore back was felt following the movement of caskets up and down the oak, spindle- railed staircase that continues to act as the means of access to the second floor.
Mr. Scott eventually built his personal family home at 99 Elgin Street opposite the United Church. The embalming room continued to be located at the furniture store but wakes and funerals could be accommodated from the Scott’s home thus freeing the furniture store from its dual purpose. When employed into service, personal family furniture was moved to the upstairs level to make room for this to occur.
The purchase of the Stafford family home in 1959 by John Kerry for what would become the new premises of the Kerry -Scott Funeral Home and later the Kerry Funeral Home to be followed by the Kerry Funeral Home and Chapel brought welcome relief from the need to relocate furnishings from one level to another. As well, a stand alone funeral home meant that the embalming room no longer occupied any space at the furniture store.
The furniture store continued until 2010 as two floors of home furnishings housed within a solid brick building with large plate glass windows on both the upper and lower levels. Copying the asthetics of a men’s clothing store in Renfrew my father chose the beauty of a mahogony wood face to proudly sign his name upon the storefront—Kerry Furniture.
For several years Death Notices were posted in a wooden framed bulletin board hung inside the front window of the entry alcove to the furniture store . These notices served as the public announcement of a death and the particulars for visitation and funeral service.
Furniture and Funerals—a shared history in the town of Almonte.
October 7, 2016
Author’s Bio— Karen Hirst is the eldest child of John and Marion Kerry, sibling to Glenn, John, Paul, Mark and Lisa. She is married to Ken Hirst, her life connection since grade 8, Church Street Public School. Her son Matthew, lives in Toronto with wife Janette. She is a registered nurse recently retired, but remaining in casual capacity–not ready to call it quits yet!!! She enjoys writing, reading, photography, coffee at the Equator and meeting new people through social media.
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