Around here, captaining is something passed down from generation to generation,” says Robert H. “Bob” Bradshaw Jr., owner of Bradshaw & Sons Funeral Home in Crisfield, Maryland. “I think it’s in the blood.” He pauses and adds, “Like undertaking.”
Nestled in the windswept shores of the Lower Eastern Shore is the sleepy town of Crisfield where the Bradshaw family has served the community for six generations. And for 134 years Bob Bradshaw and his family have carried out one of the most unique burial traditions in America. Ten miles off the coast of Crisfield are Smith and Tangier Islands. When a resident of one of these isolated islands dies, Bradshaw & Sons is called out into the Chesapeake Bay to bury their dead.
The Bradshaw family dynasty began during the particularly frigid winter of 1885 when Captain Aaron
B. Bradshaw’s wife Laura died during childbirth at the age of 26. Aaron was a fruit farmer, owning a homestead named Pitchcroft in the village of Ewell (the locals pronounce it “yule”) on the western side of Smith Island. The Chesapeake was frozen solid and getting to the mainland for wood to build a coffin was out of the question. Aaron knew of a waterman in the village of Tylerton who had “laid in” (or, for you non-watermen, was drying some cedar) in preparation for building a new boat. Normally, Tylerton is only accessible by boat but Aaron trudged the two miles of frozen marsh and creek to barter, and then dragged the lumber home. He buried Laura in Pitchcroft’s yard.
Along with his sister and two brothers, Joseph’s parents also made the voyage. It is possible that his mother died aboard ship because archival materials indicate Joseph and his siblings were settled in Alexandria with their father, an Episcopal priest.
Not wanting his neighbors to undergo the same traumatic ordeal, Aaron circulated the word around the island he would help the community bury their dead.
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