Article Category: Pillars | Places | SC29

The NFDA Story

Posted Wednesday, Dec 09
Written By Chris Raymond, Edward J. Defort and Jessica Koth
Southern Calls, Vol. 29, September 2020


Come, gather, come, gather, ye knights of the grave,
A welcome awaits you right royally brave;
Our fields they look fresh and our brooklets they smile,
And the sweet-scented zephyrs, the senses beguile;
The birds of the air in unison sing
A welcome to you and a farewell to spring.
Our hearts are so full and our pleasures so great,
To know that your presence will honor our State.

So, gather, friends, gather, from Maine to the Gate,*
Come Hoosiers and Buckeyes, come Southrens – we wait;
Nay, seas may divide us, yet, Britons, you, too,
And any who follow the craft that we do –
Each, all are invited to share in our work,
And let none who can do so their duty here shirk.

Once more, I repeat it, come one and come all,
Let no one refuse to respond to the call;
And the sun of mid-June will gloriously set
On the grandest success we have ever had yet!
* Golden Gate (San Francisco)

The First National Meeting of the “Knights of the Grave”

Appearing beneath the title “Welcome!” in the June 1882 issue of The Casket, an early and influential trade magazine, this poem by “G.H.” encouraged readers to attend a unique event: the first-ever “national funereal industrial exposition.”

“To be held that same month, this proposed “commingling of inventors, manufacturers and professionals” in Rochester, New York, promised to provide practical instruction in the still-fledgling field of embalming. In addition, attendees could view “the most varied display of funereal equipments ever aggregated in the world,” as well as the “Old Coffin Shop” exhibit – a temporary display of “every oddity and ‘curiosity’ of the past and present relating to the funeral calling.” Finally, organizers planned to conclude this historic six-day gathering with a “grand complimentary fete and banquet” at Niagara Falls.

While this initial national conclave ultimately enjoyed mixed results – an estimated 50,000 people thronged the building during this open-to-the-public event but many non-participating manufacturers set up competing offsite “annexes” displaying their wares – a specific, long-desired outcome ensured history would forever remember this singular event: the formal establishment of a national association with “funeral director” in its name.

Funeral director Allen Durfee, Grand Rapids, Michigan, was an early proponent of the need for a national association and played a significant role in the foundation of NFDA

What’s in a Name?

Undertaker? Mortician? Funeral Director? In the late 19th century, a practitioner’s title was less a matter of semantics and more indicative of professionalism – at least according to a growing number of people seeking to elevate public perception. Silvanus Hawley of Wyoming, New York, for instance, wrote a letter, reprinted in The Casket, June 1881, in which he expressed concern about “unworthy persons” hurting the profession because of the lack of oversight and regulations governing entrance.

In this same letter, Hawley also suggested: “Perhaps in a few years we shall have a United States association . . . “

Earlier, in the November 1880 issue, the editors of The Casket addressed one reader’s insistence that the publication coined the title “morturion” and wished to see it become universally accepted. Denying this, but noting their belief that “undertaker” should be rendered obsolete, the editors stated: “The new phrase which strikes us at once as refined, appropriate, and in every way conveying the proper meaning . . . is Funeral Director.”

Shrewdly, they concluded, “And now that . . . Allen Durfee has taken kindly to it, we are very sanguine that [funeral director] will soon receive a cordial and universal adoption.”

Dropping Durfee’s name was no accident because this funeral director and embalming-fluid compounder in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was an early, prominent advocate of the need to elevate the profession through vocational association. In November 1879, for example, Durfee ran a circular in The Casket to assess interest among Michigan undertakers in holding a “State Convention of Undertakers at some central point [within Michigan] . . . for the purpose of forming an Undertakers’ State Association . . .

Response proved positive and that first Michigan convention occurred in Jackson in January 1880. Deservedly, Durfee served as the new association’s president for its first two years before stepping down at its third annual meeting.

But it was at this January 1882 meeting of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association that the hopes of Durfee, Hawley and others finally reached a tipping point that ensured fruition. After debate and several amendments, voters approved the following:

Resolved, That it is the opinion of this association that the time has come for the calling of a national

convention for the purpose of forming a national association, and that the opportune time would be the 3d [sic] week in June next, and the place in the city of Rochester . . .

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