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.
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Southern Calls Issue 34
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