Stevens Mortuary occupies the historic Cedar Grove estate nestled in north Knoxville, Tennessee. When one arrives at the mortuary, surrounded by flowering dogwood trees, the stately antebellum era house, with wide, inviting porches, is reminiscent of a simpler time when friends came to call on Sundays after church and death calls were sent via messenger.
Keeping with their longstanding hospitality tradition, all guests and families are greeted in the foyer by staff. The first thing guests notice when entering is a massive, sweeping staircase. Carved by hand, it’s one of the many prominent features of the historic house. But Stevens Mortuary isn’t merely an attractive facility, it holds the distinction of being operated by perhaps the oldest working embalmer in America, Mary Evelyn Cantwell. When Mike Squires first reached out to Cantwell, who is ninety-one, to see if Southern Calls could do a piece on her mortuary, she told him she’d have to think about it as she was very busy. That day she was out on her tractor mowing the grass on the 322 acre family farm. To trot out an old adage: Mary Evelyn Cantwell literally and figuratively doesn’t let any grass grow under her feet.
Cantwell became the president and CEO of Stevens Mortuary in 2018, at the ripe age of eighty-eight following the death of her sister, the co-founder, Bernice Cantwell Stevens. Even the use of a walker, from a fall in 2012 that broke her hip, doesn’t slow Cantwell down. She has the energy of someone half her age. “I’ve embalmed fifty-two bodies so far this year,” she tells me in her clear, strong voice when we finally get a chance to talk. It’s early October. That means by the end of the year, the spry Cantwell will likely do upwards of seventy preps. That’s a decent caseload for a young embalmer, not to mention a nonagenarian. Though it’s clear as we talk, Cantwell has a passion for funeral service, one would be hard pressed to find a recent mortuary school grad who can match her vim and vigor. Cantwell, with amazing recall and attention to detail, walks me through the history of Stevens Mortuary and the storied property it sits upon.
Stevens Mortuary was founded in 1958 by Thomas and Bernice Stevens. Tommy, as he was called, began driving ambulances for Rose Mortuary in Knoxville at the age of sixteen. He worked briefly as an electrician for Standard Knitting Mill, but the funeral bug had bitten him. Tommy enrolled at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, graduating in 1948, and continued working for Rose Mortuary and Berry Funeral Homes. He and Bernice opened their mortuary at 3701 N. Broadway on July 21, 1958, with a dedication by Rev. Ralph L. Murray from Smithwood Baptist Church. The announcement in the Knoxville Journal read, “All services rendered with sympathy, understanding and dignity.” Three years later they purchased a vacant property called Cedar Grove.
Built in 1833 by Colonel James Scott, Jr. for his wife Eliza Jane Ramsey Scott, the original eight room house was built with bricks made on-site and featured Parisian wallpaper (thought to be the second oldest in Tennessee) and a hand-carved staircase. After Eliza Scott’s death in 1858, the property was purchased by Union officer Colonel W.L. Ledgerwood who offered it as a field hospital during the war. Cedar Grove treated casualties from both sides after the Union forces took Knoxville in September of 1863 and later that autumn during the siege of Fort Sanders. (Ledgerwood
would later serve as a pallbearer for President Andrew Johnson.) After the war, prominent Knoxville families occupied Cedar Grove for the next seventy-five years before Oglewood Baptist Church—a mission of Broadway Baptist—purchased the property, worshiping there for about a decade before abandoning it. When the Stevens’ looked at the vacant property they saw Oglewood Baptist had turned an apartment behind the living room into a chapel, making it perfect for a future mortuary.
When Tommy and Bernice Stevens opened Stevens Mortuary, they had a dream. “Our unofficial motto is: ‘Service like it used to be,’” says Cantwell, speaking to the pathos of the firm. Tommy and Bernice had been married in 1940 when Bernice was only sixteen, and by the time they came into the dilapidated property had two children, Evelyn and Brenda. They immediately got to work fixing up and rehabilitating Cedar Grove and adding a small addition for the show and prep rooms, opening for business in early February of 1961. In a photo taken at the grand opening Bernice and Tommy embrace in front of one of the many antique pianos, Bernice in a blue gown, hair swept up in a fashionable beehive hairdo gazing into Tommy’s eyes. They continued to serve the community as a husband—wife team until Tommy’s death in 1978. Tommy made the arrangements, managed the services and embalmed. Bernice worked as a hostess offering hospitality to the bereaved and attending funerals.
A prominent feature on the Stevens property is the antique hearse sitting in a custom built, glass-walled enclosure. Lovingly restored by Amish craftsmen from Muddy Pond, the white eight-column, mosque deck horse-drawn hearse with a gooseneck coachman’s seat was built in 1877 by an unknown coachbuilder. The hearse was discovered behind a gas station in rural Indiana by Evelyn Stevens Grindstaff and her husband while travelling home from vacation. She told her father about the hearse, and Tommy purchased it, styling the mortuary’s logo after it.
Mary Evelyn Cantwell, Bernice’s sister, joined the firm in 1972 as a bookkeeper (and still does the books to this day, in addition to all her other duties). A graduate of Ward Belmont College, East Tennessee Baptist Hospital Medical Technology School and the University of Tennessee (UT), Cantwell had retired from her position as the chief medical technologist at UT’s School of Medical Technology to look after her father, who was alone on the family farm in Rutledge following her mother’s death in 1968. Shortly after Cantwell started, Tommy became ill with cancer. “He said, ‘You have to go to mortuary school so the family business will continue to be family owned and operated.’” Cantwell adds, “That was very important to Tommy.”
Cantwell enrolled in Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, graduating summa cum laude in 1978. She was one of two women in a class of thirty-three. Cantwell was forty-eight years old, the other woman, eighteen. The year she graduated is the year Tommy succumbed to cancer, and Mary says of the transition, “We got by with some good help.” Bernice took the helm of the company, and Mary served her apprenticeship, earning her embalmers license in 1979. For many years, the firm has employed three embalmers, but lately there are two servicing the roughly hundred call-per-year firm (that Mary says has a twenty-two percent cremation rate, of which two-thirds are full-service cremations).
When asked how she compares funeral service to the medical field, Cantwell responds in her usual spare manner, “I like funeral work better.” She pauses and adds, “I love embalming and if you are doing something that you love it is not work but a labor of love.”
Cantwell was born to Lon and Ethel Dalton Cantwell in Rutledge, TN on March 4, 1930. As a child on the family farm, she drove mule teams to cut the hay. When the family bought a gasoline powered tractor, she thought she’d died and gone to heaven, doing all the work a farm demands like plowing fields, cutting grass, and hauling hay. Cantwell also raised shorthorn cattle for fat cattle shows in the 4-H club at Rutledge High School and won eight blue ribbons. In addition to her chores on the farm, Cantwell was a star basketball player for the high school team. Outside of funeral service, Cantwell’s favorite thing to do is ride her tractor. When she joined Stevens, she cut all five acres, but has scaled back in recent years. She still mows three rental properties at the farm, a chore that takes upwards of six hours even with help from her two assistants Chip Leaner and Steve Vandergiff. Her current tractor is a red sixteen horsepower Gravely that she’s owned for forty years.
Cantwell recounts a recent story when she was cutting the mortuary property. “There’s a flower room where some of the staff gather. Two EMT’s came in and asked the people there, “Is there a ninety-year-old woman who has fallen and cannot get up?’ The assembled group confirmed there was a ninety-year-old woman who worked here. One of the EMTs said, ‘Her Lifeline necklace has gone off.’ So, I’m out on my tractor and three employees and the EMTs come running across the yard waving their arms and I stop the tractor. ‘Are you OK?’ one asked. ‘Of course, I am,’ I replied. ‘Why?’ ‘Your Lifeline alerted us that you’d fallen.’” Cantwell explains to me, “The tractor hit a bump and set the necklace off. We all had a good laugh over that.”
Cantwell is not one to sit idle in her leisure time either. One of her passions is travelling. She’s travelled to forty-four states and the District of Columbia (but not Alaska or the New England states),
six Canadian Provinces, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Athens, Greece, and Israel. Prior to graduating from the University of Tennessee in the summer of 1953 Ms. Cantwell worked at Yellowstone National Park for three months at the Ole Faithful Basin. In 1958 she went on a Caribbean cruise with a stop in Havana, Cuba. Cantwell recalls hearing gunfire in the hills as Fidel Castro and his guerillas clashed with the embattled General Fulgencio Batista’s army. However, the highlight of the trip was seeing Nat King Cole perform in a Havana nightclub. When asked her favorite travel destination, Cantwell doesn’t hesitate. “Israel. [It’s] seeing the Bible come alive for you.” And Cantwell hasn’t traveled everywhere on commercial flights. She earned her private pilot’s license, flying her first solo in 1962, complete with the time-honored tradition of having her instructor cut off her shirt tail. Then she signed it, dated it and pinned it to the wall. In 1977 Cantwell was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel and is a member of the Kentucky Colonel Silver Eagle Society.
Bernice began the tradition of hosting an Easter Sunrise Service in the mortuary’s gardens in 1979, an annual event that attracts upwards of two hundred guests. The service, celebrated by a different invited clergyperson each year, has been put on hold due to the pandemic, but Cantwell has faith they will be able to resume and continue the tradition for many years to come.
Keeping with Tommy’s dying wish, Stevens Mortuary is still very much a family affair. In addition to Cantwell, the Stevens’ daughter, Evelyn Stevens Grindstaff, returned to Knoxville in 1999 after a lengthy career as a corporate marketing executive to join the family firm.
Don Haynes, CFSP, CPC, MBIE, who originally started with the firm in 1978, and after leaving to work with the Champion Company, returned in 2006. Says Haynes of the Stevens difference, “We’re funeral service oriented, not funeral business oriented.”
Asked about her secret, Cantwell replies, “I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is a contributing factor to my long life and good health.” She adds,
“I have taken very little medication over the years, and at ninety-one years and nine months I don’t currently take any medication.”
So, what does the future of Stevens Mortuary hold? Cantwell remains indefatigable, saying, “I love serving our families, and I look forward to many more years of serving our community.”