'Spooky tales' event includes funeral practices this year

Local historian John Menger has been sharing "spooky tales" for several years as part of a Halloween program sponsored by the Heritage Council of North Augusta. This year, his ghost stories shared the stage with a greater funeral focus.

Funeral director Walker Posey of Stephen D. Posey Funeral Directors presented his family's history in the funeral home business along with how funeral practices and traditions have changed through the years.

Posey's great-grandfather, a furniture-maker by trade, started the first Posey funeral home in Graniteville in 1879. The young funeral director explained that his great-grandfather began by making caskets and the business grew.

"Funerals were held in the home or at church," said Posey, explaining that a chapel attached to a funeral home is a relatively modern occurrence.

Pointing to the recent funeral of Gordon Farmer, Posey said the visitation was held at the Farmer home. "It was the first visitation we've had in the home in several years," he said.

Posey said the first chapel in his family's business was built in the Graniteville site. "Now about half of funerals are held in chapels," he said.

Regarding embalming, Posey pointed to the Egyptians for whom preservation of the body was part of the funeral ritual. However, he said only with the Civil War came the birth of modern embalming. "It was required to be able to get soldiers back home for a funeral," he said, explaining that chemicals such as arsenic were used in the early days of embalming. Posey's great-grandfather learned to embalm from Dr. Joseph Clarke, a coffin salesman who became known as the "father of modern embalming" and who founded an embalming school at the Cincinnati School of Mortuary Science, where all the Poseys in the funeral home business have graduated.

Posey showed the gathering a pair of ornate "sawhorse"-type devices used by his family when embalming was often done in the home, along with an antique embalming kit used when embalming was done in a bedroom or a tub.

Posey pointed out modern embalming has been a way to give a family time to deal with the death of a loved one, "so they can grieve in a proper way."

He listed some changes in traditions, from dressing in mourning clothing for an entire year to placing black ribbons on the doors of a bereaved family. He suggested through the years the latter has been replaced with a door spray, usually white, not black.

Of course, funeral practices have been influenced by other advances. Posey noted that hearses were, at first, horse-drawn. He said Posey Funeral Home bought its first motorized hearse from Chaffee Funeral Home in Langley.

Today, said Posey, there is a shift again in funeral practices. "There is a shift to not doing anything," he said, but he also noted that they are finding that by not holding a funeral, "it makes it difficult to move on ... There is a value in ceremony and ritual," he said. "We need to do something to honor those we've lost."

Posey said through the years his family's funeral home has worked to keep up with some trends - Posey Funeral Directors of 2012 includes huge screens for videos made from photos of the loved one, which are often running during visitations, for example.

But despite the modernization, despite some change in the "tools" of the trade, said Posey, the goal is the same: "We serve the living by caring for the dead."

During a question-and-answer period Posey acknowledged the family funeral home also provided ambulance service beginning in the 1950s until the 1970s. "The day my parents got married, my father made the last ambulance call (done by Posey Funeral Home)," he said, noting his dad was late for the wedding as a result.

He acknowledged that the South is the only area where cars still pull over for funeral processions as a matter of course.

Posey maintained it is the responsibility of funeral directors to understand the culture of the families they serve and to respect those traditions.

He said in the 21st century he is mindful of how a family prefers to communicate. "If they make contact through Facebook or by phone or email, I try to return their contact in the same way," he said.

When asked about religions other than Christianity, Posey said the funeral home must be aware of other traditions. The Poseys have assisted families in all types of traditions - from Hindu to Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Ba'hai and more.

When asked how good the embalming process is, Posey recommended his dad as the best around. He pointed out that at Posey Funeral Directors, they handle their own embalming. "We don't subcontract," he said, noting in South Carolina a person can be a funeral director without being a licensed embalmer, thus depending on subcontracting that part of the business out.

He said at some point the family decided to move his great-grandmother from one cemetery to another - 25 years after her death. "She looked just like she did when she was first buried," he said.

Finally, Posey was asked about "green" burial cemeteries. He said there are a couple in South Carolina, but none in Aiken County.

Posey's discussion was followed by refreshments, mostly provided by Menger, who after the break presented local "spooky" tales.