BYRON READ AND THE DAWN OF THE MODERN FUNERARY INDUSTRY
By Charles M. Vacca Jr.
“I have attached the script for Byron Read…See you at 2:00 Saturday!” read my hastily sent email assignment for the October 24th Halloween tour of the famous and not-so-famous entombed in Woodland Cemetery. Within 48 hours, I found myself walking in the footsteps of greatness!
Over the years, the Read Family farm off Coventry’s Flat River Road has been pushed and tucked away by overgrowth and the late Guy Lefebvre’s Greenway (i.e., Providence-Hartford railroad). But yes, the 18th century farm still exists…This is where it all started! Down a gravel driveway and up a small hill, can be found the remains (CY122) of Byron Read’s family, stretching back to Esther (Read) Johnson (d.1800); and Byron Read’s father Henry Read (d.1887), and mother Phebe (Wait) Read (d. 1895). Born on the eve of Pres. James Polk’s “Manifest Destiny” in 1845, young Byron grew up in this rather humble environment, the youngest of 13 children.
“One of the most important personages in Anthony during the late nineteenth century was Byron Read”, wrote local historian Donald D’Amato in his 1991 “Coventry Celebration: A Pictorial History”. “He operated a very successful combination furniture store and undertaking establishment.” An argument can be made that Read is among the most significant individuals in Coventry’s rich historical past. There was Nathanael Greene, who operated a forge in Anthony; only to become Washington’s second-in-command during the American Revolution. Henry B. Anthony was publisher of the Providence Journal, owner of the Anthony Mills, state governor, and President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate during the Lincoln Administration. Still, there was Read peer, Searles Capwell, who Mathias Harpin called in “The High Road to Zion”, “… the ‘lumber king’ of western Rhode Island…”
A period biographical sketch in 1889 described Byron as, “…that he possessed both industry and perseverance, and the lessons learned, both on the farm and in the school, have not been forgotten.” Most likely, Byron Read attended the one-room Read Schoolhouse (c. 1831); which ironically was named after Bradford and Thomas Read, who donated the land off Flat River Road for the construction of a schoolhouse. (By 1903 as part of a state mandated education plan; Coventry had 18 school districts!)
But by 1866, Byron Read became employed by his brother, Henry Jr., who was an entrepreneur in funerary services, furniture and hardware in the “hub” of nearby Anthony Village. This was the dawning of the age in which Americans dealt with death very differently than before. During the Civil War, thousands of men were dying on faraway battlefields; necessitating the means to preserve the deceased bodies for entombment back home. Previously, funerals were restricted to the family which prepared, dressed and displayed their loved ones within the confines of their home. That progressed from the small home funeral to that of larger residences with parlors, with caskets produced by the survivors of the deceased. But by the mid 1800’s, those services were being provided by professional morticians or funeral directors—and Byron Read was at the forefront of all that!
The funeral procession of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 promoted the new embalming and funerary techniques. The evolution had predated the Civil War era in the Cleveland, Ohion area, when the 1837 Cleveland City Directory listed 13 area “cabinetmakers”; located in the commercial districts of Water, Bank and Ontario streets in Cleveland and Pearl Street in Ohio City. All were “available on short notice”, a euphemism that these vendors produced coffins. Twenty years later, undertaking was on the brink of becoming a stand-alone business. By 1857, the Cleveland City Directory listed 16 cabinetmakers or “furniture makers”, of which 10 were listed as undertakers. Starting in the 1860s and for the next three decades, the profession evolved into those solely practicing mortuary services, often with the specialty of “arterial embalming” necessary for the shipment of dead bodies from the battlefront back home. And now it became more acceptable to use someone else’s parlor for a funeral. One of the many stops during the Lincoln funeral train back to Springfield, Illinois was Cleveland; where more than 100,000 onlookers filed through “Public Square” to view his remains. The phenomena caught on throughout the United States; instigated by the Baggage Handlers Strike of 1898; when railroad baggage handlers tired of corpses exploding, resulting in embalmed bodies for transport.
In March 1873, Byron Read purchased the undertaking and furniture business from the estate of his deceased brother; changing ownership and the name to his own. Finding himself in the middle of this evolution, Read managed to purchase land off Washington Street from the Estate of Isaac B. Aylesworth; erecting a three story structure for his business in 1882. Unfortunately, today that building the “Coventry Common” or emporium remains in a much deteriorated condition alongside the horse-drawn hearse garages. Ironically, the 3,200 square foot rear barn built by Read is a preserved building. (Thomas D’Agostino in his 2006 Haunted Rhode Island, wrote the building is “…now home to many restless spirits…and ghostly encounters…still continue to this day…”)
“In the basement is the workshop and store room, where all the goods are received, also a room designed for embalming purposes. By means of an elevator the goods are taken from the store room below to the various compartments above, while telephone, speaking tubes and call bells provide for conversation with workmen in and about the various rooms,” recounted J.R. Cole in the 1889 History of Washington and Kent Counties, Rhode Island. “”On the right is the carpet and paper-hanging room; while on the left of the office is a room, second to none outside of Boston and New York for convenience in the display of funeral furnishings…The entire building is heated by steam, and thoroughly furnished with all the modern appliances for extinguishing fire.”
D’Amato believes that Byron Read was so successful at this business that his mansion on Washington Street (today the Gorton-Menard Funeral Home) “…indicates his wealth and his standing in the community.” That grand edifice was constructed in 1887 for Read’s wife Julia A. (Pinckney) (m. June 1870) and two children, Herman Byron (b. 1878) and Charles Sheldon (b. 1879). By 1901, Read had expanded his thriving business into that of all types of housewares including refrigeration, mattresses and window shades. The funeral industry grew through the end of the 19th century with the establishment of the National Funeral Directors Association in 1882, and development of the nation’s first mortician school, the Cincinnati School of Embalming (now, the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Sciences). The profession was not without its setbacks as an article written in 1898 criticized that the arsenic used to preserve corpses was found to be leeching into the soil and groundwater near cemeteries.
Read’s business exploded into providing funeral services for the town of Coventry’s indigent and Civil War veterans. And if horses could talk…Byron Read’s family business owned “Old Tom”, who worked for Read’s funeral business until his death in 1886. “Old Tom had worked over 1,100 funerals. This noble animal was known for his exemplary character and the dignity with which he conducted himself during funerals,” according to Andrew Boisvert’s 2013 Legendary Locals of Coventry. Although Read’s business appeared to have sort of a monopoly; today there are nearly 20,000 funeral homes across the United States with about 115,000 cemeteries in a $4.2 billion industry.
Byron Read was not without his personal mysteries. In 1998, John Sterling listed Read as having been a Civil War veteran. And it is possible, but unlikely as he was aged 20 years by the end of the war (although a Grand Republic of the Army flag holder remains at his Woodland cemetery gravesite). Local historians have been unable to determine his veteran status, finding no records! Most likely, the business savvy Read may have used this Civil War status as a tool to promote himself in the funerary services industry. And in nearby Pine Grove Cemetery, remains an empty tomb with Read’s name atop. Perhaps, Read hoped one day his remains would be located there?
In fact, Byron Read died Nov. 13, 1927; having witnessed and lived the evolution of both American society and the funeral services profession. Instead of horse drawn hearses, Read’s funerals were now transported via motor vehicles. And even the cemeteries had changed from the small, sleepy family lots of the Read Family farm to that found at Woodland (i.e., Knotty Oak cemetery complex) with countless family plots among other burials.
Byron Read’s rather majestic tombstone at the entrance of Woodland cemetery, and observed by hundreds of motorists along Routes 116 and 117 every day, is among hundreds of monuments exhibiting the period of Monumentalism and Modern Plain Style, which emerged by the end of the 18th century. Coventry’s cemeteries really excelled during this era, with the integration of nature and landscape leading to the use of obelisks, columns and statues. There are examples of the Stephen Colvin (d. 1891) family monument at Greenwood Cemetery; showing a large granite stone with a rectangular shape with rough finish on top, smoothed area for the engraved names, and an encased Greek column adorned by a lily on the right side; depicting the virgin’s flower as well as innocence and purity.
In Woodland, the Howard Peppard (d. 1929) and Albert Andrews (d. 1912) monument displays a rectangular shape with the upper third of the stone draped in engraved roses. While most flowers symbolize life and related imagery; roses signify the completion and brevity of earthly existence. Obelisks are also symbolic of this period. Within a stone’s throw of peer Searles Capwell’s urn-adorned stone can be found the majestic Peckham Family obelisk. These recall the age of the pyramids of ancient Egypt, symbolizing rebirth, connection between heaven and earth. Perhaps the most impressive obelisk can be found across the way in Manchester Cemetery, that of Henry A. Harkness (d.1880), who served in the 7th Regiment, RI Infantry, Company K during the Civil War.
And Coventry’s most notable Byron Read, his monument is of this style; depicting a two-story stone with a pointed flattened top; adorned only with a non-military symbol of either the National Grange or Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal organization, or of his Manchester (Masons) Lodge, A.F. and A.M. Even in death, it appears that “…by his industry, perseverance and economy, Byron Read has acquired a competency, and gained the confidence of all with whom he has been associated.”
Bibliography: “Coventry Celebration: A Pictorial History” By Donald A. D’Amato (The Donning Co., Virginia Beach VA 1991); “Coventry Rhode Island Historical cemeteries”, By Dr. Bill Eddelman and John Sterling (Gateway Press, Inc., Baltimore, MD 1998); “Death care industry in the United States”https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Death_care_industry_in_the_United_States&oldid; “Funeral Homes and Funeral Practices”, Encyclopedia of Cleveland History https://case.edu/ech/; “Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815”, By Allan I Ludwig (Wesleyan Univ. Press, Middletown, CT 1966); “Haunted Rhode island”, By Thomas D’Agostino (Schiffer Publ. , Atglen, PA 2006); “The High Road To Zion”, By Mathias P. Harpin (Harpin’s American Heritage Foundation, Inc., Pascoag, RI 1976); “A History of funerals in the United States” By Sam Ward (Funeral Profession 2016);“History of Washington and Kent Counties, Rhode island” By J.R. Cole (W.W. Preston & Co., NY 1889); “Legendary Locals of Coventry Rhode Island” By Andrew D. Boisvert (Arcadia Publishing, Charlestown, SC 2013); “North American Funerals” (Internet); “Photo Gallery of Cemetery Symbols and Icons” Thought, By Kimberly Powel (2019) https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemtery-symbolism-4123061; “Symbolism in the Carvings on Old Gravestones”, Association of Gravestone Studies (2012); “Tombstone Symbols”, https://tn-roots.com/tndyer/cemetery/symbols.html;
NOTE: This article is based on a presentation that I was honored to give on Oct. 24, 2020 during a cemetery tour of Woodland cemetery, given by the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society, Coventry, RI. My thanks and appreciation goes to that organization!