Dismal trade

In central Virginia, as elsewhere, the business surrounding death and burial took a long time to develop. Initially, families played the primary role in laying out the body and arranging for burial and memorials. Into the nineteenth century, a patchwork of carpenters, ministers, and sextons assisted families with such duties. Following the Civil War, a dedicated funeral profession — sometimes referred to as the “dismal trade” — emerged and then boomed. In Richmond alone, at least fourteen African-American undertaking firms served the black community by 1900 and a corresponding number served whites. In the twentieth century, cremation emerged as an important new service provided by the industry.

In a similar way, it took decades for local quarrying and stonecarving expertise to develop in central Virginia, despite the fact that the fall line held an abundance of exposed stone. Wood markers were easier to make, though a small number of families imported stone markers from England, from cities in the American northeast, or, apparently, from the early sandstone quarries on Aquia Creek. With the arrival of industrialization and the railroads in the nineteenth century, Richmond boasted its first stonecarving shops fulfilling local orders. These firms included J. W. Davies, Rogers & Miller, J. T. Rogers, W. J. McClay, Wallen & Wray, and J. Henry Brown, among others.

This page features studies of the dismal trade in central Virginia and associated activities beyond individual burial grounds.

“The Business of Death: A Study on the Antebellum and Wartime Activities of Undertaker John A. Belvin in Richmond, Virginia,” by Jason Spellman, 2010.

“A ‘Professor Without Degrees’: The Medical College of Virginia’s Chris Baker,” by Katherine Schmitz, 2011.

“Secret Societies and Dusty Records: Researching a Found Box,” by Ian Cashwell, 2012. [a paper on death records kept by the Independent Order of St. Luke in the 1930s and 1940s.]

For more information, see:

Martha Wren Briggs, “Charles Miller Walsh: A Master Carver of Gravestones in Virginia, 1865-1901,” Markers 7 (1990):139-72

J. Henry Brown Monuments Co. records, Library of Virginia

J. Daniel Pezzoni, “Virginian to the Grave: A Portrait of the Commonwealth’s Graveyards and Memorial Art,” Virginia Cavalcade 51 (Spring 2002): 62-71

Michael A. Plater, African American Entrepreneurship in Richmond, 1890-1940: The Story of R. C. Scott (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996)

Listings for Funeral Directors in Richmond Newspaper