Lady Undertakers of Old Texas: An Interview w/ Author Kathy Benjamin
The intimate task of caring for the dead had long fallen under women's sphere of responsibilities. But after the Civil War, the sudden popularity of embalming offered new financial opportunities to men who set up as undertakers, pushing women out of their traditional role. In Texas, from the 1880s to the 1930s, women slowly regained their place by the bier. Many worked while pregnant or raising children. Most shouldered the additional weight of personal tragedies and persistent sexism. All brought comfort to the bereaved in the isolation of the Texas frontier, kept its cities free of deadly disease and revolutionized an industry that was coming into its own.
Kathy Benjamin is a writer, editor and humorist whose work has appeared on sites including MentalFloss.com, Cracked.com and Grunge.com. She is the author of Funerals to Die For: The Craziest, Creepiest, and Most Bizarre Funeral Traditions and Practices Ever (Adams Media, 2013), It's Your Funeral!: Plan the Celebration of a Lifetime--Before It's Too Late (Quirk, 2021) and Texas Mass Graves: Burial Grounds of Atrocity, Massacre and Battle (The History Press, 2022). She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Simon, and dog, Briscoe.
Buy the book HERE
Speakers: Benjamin Morris & Kathy Benjamin
Benjamin Morris (00:00):
Well, hello, Kathy. And from one Benjamin to another, welcome to Crime Capsule.
Kathy Benjamin (00:09):
Thank you. Thank you for having me. If you didn't say it, I was going to. Great name.
Benjamin Morris (00:13):
Kathy Benjamin (00:14):
Benjamin Morris (00:14):
I was wondering ... what is it? I'll take the high road, you take the low road. And who gets to Scotland first? I can never remember.
Kathy Benjamin (00:23):
I don't know.
Benjamin Morris (00:24):
Alright. We'll have to research that too.
Benjamin Morris (00:25):
Congratulations on your newest book, Lady Undertakers of Texas. How has it been so far?
Kathy Benjamin (00:35):
It's been amazing. Like I really enjoyed this one. It felt kind of the most research-intensive thing I've ever done, and I'm really happy with how it turned out.
Benjamin Morris (00:48):
Now, my understanding is that this is your fourth book overall, and it is your second book with Arcadia and the History Press.
Benjamin Morris (00:58):
For those of our listeners who are not familiar with your previous work, can you just tell us a little bit about your other couple of books?
Kathy Benjamin (01:05):
Yeah. They all have to do with death and funerals. It's a kind of weird niche that I fell into.
Kathy Benjamin (01:13):
So, my first book was with Adams Media, which is now, part of Simon & Schuster. It was independent then called Funerals to Die For, which is a kind of funny lighthearted look at just kind of like interesting funerals, funeral customs through history.
Kathy Benjamin (01:31):
My second book is It's Your Funeral!, which is kind of like a history slash modern slash workbook on planning your own funeral, so you have kind of a document to leave your loved ones. And it's very funny, like very funny in tongue in cheek, so it's not painful to go through and plan that.
Kathy Benjamin (01:55):
And then my previous history press book was called Texas Mass Graves. So, not funny, I should point. The first two, funny. Texas Mass Graves not so many laughs.
Benjamin Morris (02:09):
Less on the amusing front. Oh, well, oh boy. It's interesting.
Kathy Benjamin (02:15):
And then Lady Undertakers. Yeah.
Benjamin Morris (02:18):
Yeah. So, I should note before we get any further that we may have a special guest on Crime Capsule today. It being the start of our third season, it being October and it being spooky season all at once.
Benjamin Morris (02:33):
I have invited my cat, Snickers, who is a brown, black, and orange Tortoiseshell, the color of Halloween. She's joining us in the studio today. Normally she's exiled, but it's a special day. We're kicking things off with the bang. She may well talk to us at some point.
Benjamin Morris (02:51):
She's currently sitting on my show notes, which means she's doing her job. But she's going to be hanging out with us today. And she sends you her very best regards, Kathy.
Kathy Benjamin (03:01):
Aw, she's beautiful. She's showing me her butt, but that's fine.
Benjamin Morris (03:05):
That's what she does. She's never met a Zoom call or a recording that she didn't like, and she likes the show off her assets. What can I say?
Benjamin Morris (03:12):
So, no, this notion of planning one's own funeral is a very old tradition, but it's interesting to see, I think of the theologian, Tim Keller, who passed away this summer. He very famously set out notes in his very public funeral, very sort of major event in New York earlier this year.
Benjamin Morris (03:34):
He had planned the whole thing out. He'd chosen all of the hymns that he wanted people to sing, and he'd written in the funeral bulletin why he had chosen those things.
Benjamin Morris (03:44):
So, in a sense, he was still there present at that particular service, which I imagine is something that you see quite a lot in your research, that the deceased wants to still sort of have a say or have a presence in some way, don't they?
Kathy Benjamin (03:59):
Yeah. I think one of the questions I get asked a lot is are funerals for the living or for the dead. And my answer is always they’re for the living, but for me, that includes the person who will be dead while they are still alive.
Kathy Benjamin (04:14):
So, I think that planning your own funeral gives you, while you are still alive, a kind of sense of control, a sense of not being as afraid of the inevitable for exactly the reason you said, like you feel like you will be there while you are still alive to have those feelings.
Kathy Benjamin (04:35):
And I think not only that, but it's also, just important to see your loved one's fingerprints on their goodbye. Because one of the things when I was writing this book and I talked to just like normal people, they would say, "I go to these funerals, and they don't reflect the person I knew at all."
Kathy Benjamin (05:00):
It's like, "Oh, they never mentioned religion and it was held in a church and there were all these very godly things." That was a very common one.
Kathy Benjamin (05:09):
But it's like, at the same time, you understand like if someone dies and you don't have any plans, well you know funerals get held in churches, so call a church.
Kathy Benjamin (05:17):
So, planning ahead means you have more options, and you can make it more a reflection of you, which will then help your loved ones grieve more effectively.
Benjamin Morris (05:29):
Yeah. The other worst thing that happens is when you go to a funeral, I've been to a couple of these like this where it's quite clear that the officiant or the celebrant didn't know the person at all, and they really have nothing to say about them in particular.
Benjamin Morris (05:44):
They might've spoken to the family members once or twice, but they're just there kind of like doing a job. There's no sense of warmth or like the intimacy of personal knowledge, that sort of thing.
Benjamin Morris (05:56):
And you're just like, "You could've gotten Mickey Mouse off the street to do this." And where's the love here? Where's that sense of really having celebrated the person as opposed to just all of us killing an hour before we go get some sandwiches. You get all kinds, don't you?
Kathy Benjamin (06:15):
Yeah, yeah. And again, that's exactly what I've heard. It's like they got up there and they just kind of set platitudes. And sometimes depending on how the family feels about speaking in public or how upset they are, and if they're able to speak, that might be the only person speaking at the funeral. Like you can't guarantee there's going to be like a eulogy about the person in particular.
Kathy Benjamin (06:41):
So, yeah, I don't think it helps, if anything, I think it hinders the grief process because you're in this position where you're like, "Oh, this is supposed to be the moment where I really feel something and like say goodbye and remember the person." And you're sitting there going, "Who is this person they're talking about?" That's not going to help you grieve.
Benjamin Morris (07:03):
Yeah. That's a really good point. Appreciate you bringing that up. Now, I'm going to kind of thread a needle here, as rare as a lady undertaker in early 20th century Texas is, is also as rare as a researcher who specializes in the early 21st century Texas.
Benjamin Morris (07:29):
So, how did all of this start? Where did your interest in funerary practice arise? Or were you born into a mortuary family?
Kathy Benjamin (07:42):
No, I have no personal connection with mortuary with death care in anyway. What happened was I was terrified of death. I mean, absolutely like triggered panic attacks kind of thing.
Kathy Benjamin (07:56):
I went to only a couple funerals when I was young, and I wasn't prepared for them, and they weren't even people I was close to. But you see a body in a casket when you're 10 years old and no one has prepared you for that. It's something that traumatizes you.
Kathy Benjamin (08:11):
And so, this was in my early adulthood, but it was affecting my life in a very bad way. And so, I was like, "Okay, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to learn about it." Like if you intellectualize it, if you learn more things about it, it's harder to be afraid of it.
Kathy Benjamin (08:28):
And so, I just kind of did that on my own for my own personal development. And then I had written some articles online and was contacted by my first publisher, and they said, "We have this in-house idea. It's kind of weird." And they didn't say what it was.
Kathy Benjamin (08:42):
And when I read the email, I was like, "Please let it be about death. Please let it be about death." And then it was, and then it just went from there.
Kathy Benjamin (08:49):
So, I highly recommend it. It's a good way to get over your fear.
Benjamin Morris (08:56):
There you go. I also love it. That's like you had me at weird. It's like, "Good to go. Good to go."
Benjamin Morris (09:03):
Well, so tell us then about Lady Undertakers. Out of your previous research and kind of all of the threads you were picking up on in your other books, how did this one in particular come to be?
Kathy Benjamin (09:17):
It was actually when I was researching my previous book on mass graves. I was just on newspapers.com and one of the articles that came up is heavily featured in this book. And it's from 1912, and it's specifically about what they claim is the select few women undertakers in Texas. They were wrong about the number by quite a lot.
Kathy Benjamin (09:43):
And it interviews the women, there's photos of the women. It was like a syndicated all over the country kind of thing.
Kathy Benjamin (09:50):
And it had nothing to do with the book I was writing at the time, but I just went, "Oh, this is intriguing. This is an interesting thing, and I will save it." And so, as soon as I finished Mass Graves, I was like, "Let's look into this." And I pitched it, and they accepted it, and I just went from there.
Benjamin Morris (10:09):
Hey, that's great. It's interesting, isn't it? It's sort of like one project sometimes does lead very directly to the next. You never know exactly what it's going to be, but you're going to find something down there, which is great.
Benjamin Morris (10:21):
So, in this particular volume, you take an encyclopedic view of your subject. I mean, you even have a list of all known female undertakers in the back of the book.
Benjamin Morris (10:41):
And you put an asterisk on that list because you of course record that in some cases, records have been lost or burned in fires or there were sort of culls and purges of records by different authorities and entities and so forth. It does happen. I mean, we do just lose things throughout the passage of time.
Benjamin Morris (10:56):
But you really do have this kind of soup to nuts comprehensive vision of as many of them as you could possibly find from this particular period. You must have done an enormous amount of research to arrive at this list.
Kathy Benjamin (11:13):
Yeah, at one point, because I have all the article links and newspaper links and census links and everything all organized. And at one point I was like, "Oh, I'll just right click, see how many links are in every folder." And I added it up, and I think I had like 5,000 sources at one point. And they didn't all make it into the book.
Kathy Benjamin (11:32):
But the problem was, is that I read that 1912 article, and one of the things I mentioned in my book is they actually talk about 15 women in that article. Although the headline says like 12 or 13 or something, I think it's 13. And I was like, "None of the editors who syndicated this ever actually read the number of names in the article. It's 15."
Kathy Benjamin (11:54):
And I was like, "Oh, okay. So, there's going to be like a couple dozen of these women. That's fine. I can handle that." And then literally until, I mean, probably a couple weeks before I submitted the final — I'd been working on it nine months, and until the last month I was finding new women.
Kathy Benjamin (12:12):
And so, in the end, I researched almost exactly 200, and then about 30 of those I couldn't confirm ... like in my own mind, I feel that it was likely that they were working as undertakers as opposed to in other parts of the undertaking business. But I didn't feel I could prove it.
Kathy Benjamin (12:34):
So, I think in the end, in my appendix list, there's 171 over a 50-year period in the entire state of Texas. So-
Kathy Benjamin (12:43):
... when You break it down like that, yeah.
Benjamin Morris (12:45):
Just to be able to say that is a monumental achievement. And folks I'm sure will be responding to your work for many, many years to come.
Benjamin Morris (12:55):
Now, before we turn to the profession itself, I just want to ask one or two more questions about your methods and about your research because it is fascinating.
Benjamin Morris (13:06):
How do we learn the things that we know about such a complicated time politically and socially, such a remote time geographically? In many cases you're looking at these tiny little towns scattered all across Texas.
Benjamin Morris (13:19):
So, just describe for us what a day in the life of an undertaker's researcher looks like.
Kathy Benjamin (13:31):
Yeah, I don't know. Tedious, I suppose. It's a lot of tedious research, a lot of proving things wrong that will never go in a book. You think something can't be proven and you prove that it can't be proven, so it doesn't go in your book. And that's been two days that you've made sure that you knew it couldn't be proven.
Kathy Benjamin (13:52):
But yeah, I love research. It's my favorite thing in the whole world. And so, I will just for fun, be like, "Oh, okay, my day job is done and now, I'm going to sit here and go through Ancestry, or go through newspapers.com or go through the university of North Texas History Portal." Which is a great resource for people in Texas if they don't know about it.
Kathy Benjamin (14:17):
And yeah, I mean, it's what I do to relax and entertain myself. So, yeah, it's just going through documents, documents, documents. Coming up with different way to phrase things to search for them. Because if you just search for example, the census record for undertaker, you're going to miss hundreds of people.
Kathy Benjamin (14:37):
So, you have to come up with all new different ways of finding people, just reading newspapers, tiny newspapers from these tiny towns. They all had a newspaper, so somewhere they got a record of some name or some ad, and then you just go from there.
Benjamin Morris (14:53):
As I was reading, I was really struck by the fact that you have such a wide variety of sources that you draw on in your book. You have letters, you have newspaper articles. Of course, you have ads, you have photographs. Newspapers tend to be king, sure. I mean, that's understandable, especially given your specific time period.
Benjamin Morris (15:15):
But I was curious, how much traveling across Texas did you have to do in order to find all of these sources? Was it sort of half at the desk trawling Ancestry and so forth, and then half in the field? Or did you have longer sustained research trips out into these tiny little panhandle towns? How'd you do it?
Kathy Benjamin (15:41):
Yeah, no, mostly desk. And I know that there's a part of me that's like, "Oh, you should say that you did all this traveling. Went into dusty archives and everything."
Kathy Benjamin (15:51):
And it's like there's so much, especially for something that is more broad than this. For something that's broader, where you're looking at all these women but you're not doing like a deep dive into their life or anything like that, where you need to find out if they had a diary that's somewhere.
Kathy Benjamin (16:09):
When you're looking at just records of what they did, you can find almost all of that online at this point, or enough that you can get a very good picture of their life.
Kathy Benjamin (16:20):
So, I did a few research trips. I went up to Mineral Wells, which is an important point in kind of the beginning of women undertakers in Texas. And so, that was really fun. A couple other little towns kind of more than I just wanted to go to.
Kathy Benjamin (16:35):
Went to look at some of the historical monuments, the markers that are in my book that reference them, just kind of get an idea more than anything of just where these women were. Even if I'm looking at it in modernized, like where were they doing this? Especially in West Texas, in places that were more rural.
Benjamin Morris (16:57):
Now, like a true nerd, I have to ask you, did you make a map?
Kathy Benjamin (17:02):
Benjamin Morris (17:04):
Yes. We'll take a kind of.
Kathy Benjamin (17:07):
I had to. It was on Google, and you can put the little pins in or whatever, but at some point it just became crazy, especially San Antonio, which seems to have a huge number of lady undertakers over the years.
Kathy Benjamin (17:21):
I could have gone further, but I also found it a bit confusing because I was covering a 50-year period. You almost would've had to break it down and see like the development over time of where the women were and where they moved to or from.
Benjamin Morris (17:39):
So, now, I mean, call me a low hanging fruit plucker, but I got to ask, what about San Antone drove the mortuary industry? What's going on over there?
Kathy Benjamin (17:53):
Genuinely, I tried to figure that out. It is amazing how many ... one of the things I talk about early in the book, trying to explain, I think I used the word incestuous because it's so small. There's so few people men or women who were undertakers, especially in the beginning period that I cover in my book.
Kathy Benjamin (18:14):
My book kind of unofficially starts in 1880 and it goes to 1930. And so, in the 19th century, you have so few people that you can find marriage connections, working connections, like business connections.
Kathy Benjamin (18:29):
And I use as an example San Antonio, and it is just three sisters who all married undertakers. Two of them became undertakers, and then they worked together, but then they worked with other undertakers who then married this other woman, who worked with this person who buried this woman undertaker. And just on and on and on.
Kathy Benjamin (18:48):
And then also, during the very brief mention I get to make of cremation in the book, I also mentioned that San Antonio had a cremation society in, I believe is 1885, which wasn't just weird for Texas, it was weird for the entire country.
Kathy Benjamin (19:04):
So, even then, for something about San Antonio, they were like, “Let's talk about death. Let's think about it. Let's have lots of it here.”
Benjamin Morris (19:14):
Well, let's talk about death, shall we? I mean, like let's just dive right in.
Benjamin Morris (19:19):
So, one of the interesting claims that you make very early on in your book, and I thought this was really provocative and really helpful to kind of think about, was of course part of your argument is that women in the profession early on are very rare.
Benjamin Morris (19:38):
But you argue that ... and this is looking at your particular place and time period. But then you also argue sort of in the broader context of funerary practice, that for decades in the United States prior to reconstruction during the Civil War and Antebellum period and so forth, women actually were largely more responsible for dealing with the dead than men were.
Benjamin Morris (20:08):
So, unpack that claim for us a little bit.
Kathy Benjamin (20:13):
Yeah. So, what you have, and I mean, I go so far as to say, and like most societies through most of history, which if I had to, I could probably almost certainly back that up, that death care, dealing with dead bodies is something that fell to women.
Kathy Benjamin (20:28):
The things that you have to do in those periods with dead bodies, cleaning a body, dressing it, doing its hair, making it look presentable, those are things that fell into the domestic sphere. You wouldn't look to the man of the house to do the hair of a dead woman. That's not something you would look to.
Kathy Benjamin (20:50):
And so, it just became a natural thing for women to take care of the dead, at least. I'm not saying they went out and dug graves or built the coffins, but actual specific care of the body fell to them.
Kathy Benjamin (21:05):
And yeah, you see it completely across cultures. You see it in, you drill down into just like individual families, that was what women did.
Kathy Benjamin (21:17):
There's also, it's, I believe in a one of Dickens' book books that has a shrouding woman in it that makes the point that women are there during birth. So, they're there before you're born while you're being born.
Kathy Benjamin (21:34):
So, women should be there at the end as you're leaving this world. And it's that kind of natural bookend to a human life is that women should take care of you on both ends of that.
Benjamin Morris (21:46):
That's really interesting. Yeah. I mean, I think of instances in which my own mother had to care for her departed friends, and she was the one doing their presentation and the coffin and hair and makeup and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (22:01):
And it's sort of like a last gift that you want to give to someone who you were very close to or your best friend or something like that. And it's a really sweet gesture and it should not ever be overlooked.
Benjamin Morris (22:18):
But I have to ask, I mean, you write in the book that something changed. Technologically something began to change, and so this gender division of labor began to get a little fuzzier. So, help us to see how that was the case.
Kathy Benjamin (22:34):
Yeah. You can see the same parallels for anyone who's familiar with the history of gynecology, for example, because what you get is you get something that was kind of considered in the home, like midwifery or caring for the dead.
Kathy Benjamin (22:57):
But then something happens, usually something technological, where suddenly you can make money from it and it becomes more technical. And then men discover it, and then they go, "Oh, actually this is our job now."
Kathy Benjamin (23:11):
So, you see that in a very similar time period. You see that with birth being taken away from women and given to men doctors because women midwives did not go to medical school. For most of that time, they weren't allowed to go to medical school.
Kathy Benjamin (23:28):
So, suddenly it was something they weren't good enough to do because they didn't have the degree in it. So, suddenly men are delivering babies, and for the first time in history, that becomes the proper way to do things.
Kathy Benjamin (23:40):
It's the same way with taking care of the dead. During the Civil War, even though embalming had been invented in Europe about a hundred years before the American Civil War, during the Civil War, you suddenly have a real need for embalming because you have to get all of these men and boys, you have to get their bodies home.
Kathy Benjamin (23:59):
And so, there are photos, I think Brady took photos of you see these incredibly rugged setups on battlefields of like, "Okay, we're going to embalm a body here."
Kathy Benjamin (24:12):
It didn't work to the extent that we would expect it to today, but you could at least get a body home without it being a health hazard. And so, you already had a lot of families who had lost children and had had their children embalmed.
Kathy Benjamin (24:26):
Then Abraham Lincoln is embalmed, and his corpse travels from DC to Illinois, and they stop it along the way. And the embalmer is with them and fixing him up, and all the northerners are coming out and looking at him and they're going, "Oh, he looks great."
Kathy Benjamin (24:42):
He did not look great. But he looked better than maybe what they were used to seeing after two weeks of a dead body.
Kathy Benjamin (24:50):
And it literally just influenced an entire generation of especially in that area, is like embalming. This is Keeping Up with the Joneses, we all have to be embalmed.
Kathy Benjamin (25:01):
The thing with embalming is that it is consistently described as a science. There are chemicals involved. You have to open a body. It's not just making the body presentable. It's like surgery, you are going inside a body.
Kathy Benjamin (25:19):
And also, because it was new, it was not something that women had learned as children from their mothers. And because it was technological, because you had to put this outlay of money into being able to do it, you could charge more money for it, which meant suddenly there was money to be made. Enter men.
Kathy Benjamin (25:39):
You have all these reasons of like, okay, it's new, it's a science, it started in war, it's all these things. And men are like, "Okay, yeah, this is a business now. This is something we're going to turn into a moneymaking endeavor and women cannot do it anymore. Embalming is not appropriate for women."
Kathy Benjamin (26:00):
Now, obviously, if you live in a small town and a family member dies and you're not going to have them embalmed, of course the woman of the family can still do what she would've always done.
Kathy Benjamin (26:09):
But you really very quickly within, I mean, essentially the 1870s, you see it go from being this at-home personal thing, death, to something that is an actual business and science that men do.
Benjamin Morris (26:27):
You have reminded me, Kathy, as you're describing these changes and in particular women's work in this sphere of I'm old enough that one of my absolute favorite movies when I was growing up as a kid was that old classic Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, Death Becomes Her.
Benjamin Morris (26:49):
Which is just, I mean, if you haven't seen it, everybody out there in podcast land, I give you permission to pause this interview, go and find a copy of Death Becomes Her, watch it, and then you can pick right back up where you left off. Both Kathy and I will be totally okay with that. She's nodding right now. I can see it. Just phenomenal.
Benjamin Morris (27:11):
And also, in a sense, kind of a feminist retaking of that that sphere, after it had become dominated by predatory men.
Benjamin Morris (27:21):
Now, I have to ask you because I'm curious, and this is a really unique topic. Your book is not just a social history, it is in fact a technological history. It is concerned with the actual steps in science and process of mortuary care.
Benjamin Morris (27:36):
And I am just curious, Kathy, what were (you can answer in terms of Abe Lincoln, if you like, or anybody who comes to mind) the earliest forms of embalming in that era that we have of this great shift, the sort of civil war era? What compounds were they using?
Benjamin Morris (27:57):
Was it still formalin or formaldehyde and the kind of the compounds that we commonly see today? Or were there other compounds that were being used? Were there new compounds that were being discovered in laboratories that were sort of ushering part of this shift along? Tell us just a little bit about the science there.
Kathy Benjamin (28:21):
Well, okay, I will throw my hands up and be like, "I don't want to say anything incorrect here, I'm not an expert."
Kathy Benjamin (28:26):
But what I do know is that it was very much trying things out because again, it was a process that had of like officially, officially been invented in the middle of the 1700s. But that is not to say that even by the Civil War, they had anything compared to what we could do today.
Kathy Benjamin (28:46):
And so, I know that formaldehyde was definitely early on. I also know that they were using toxic chemicals because I don't think I really touched on this, but there was a question of pregnant women who were working as embalmers. The chemicals that they were working with were not necessarily safe for their unborn child.
Kathy Benjamin (29:12):
And even past the period that I write about in 1930 in this book, it was hit and miss. It was really like people would have their own, almost like family secret recipe for how to embalm.
Kathy Benjamin (29:27):
One of the things that I mentioned in my book is that it wasn't until 1903 that Texas has an exam for embalmers. And before that it was, I mean, literally the Wild West. It was, there was no test. There was no standard, no one was going to question what you were doing up until 1903. So, anyone before that, if it worked for them, great.
Kathy Benjamin (29:53):
And then after that, things get a little more standardized. But still, then you have things that don't go great. And so, they learn from them.
Benjamin Morris (30:05):
We're going to spend a lot more time talking about Anna Mary Beetham next week. She was one of the pioneers in this field in your purview.
Benjamin Morris (30:14):
But I was curious, because Texas is such a large state, you must have seen wildly varying practices partly dependent, I'm sure, on what people just had access to and where they could get their supplies.
Benjamin Morris (30:31):
Or did the techniques vary out in the long dusty stretch to the west as opposed to closer to the more settled urban centers of Dallas, Houston, and Austin?
Kathy Benjamin (30:45):
Yeah, I don't know if I could prove this necessarily, but it did seem like in West Texas, overall embalming took a slightly longer time to become like the absolute way you had to do it. Again, it almost comes across like a fad.
Kathy Benjamin (31:04):
Like in the cities, they wanted to be like New York or Chicago or these places where everyone was getting embalmed now. It's like, "Oh, we're this big funeral parlor and this big happening metropolis here in Austin, so we're going to embalm everyone. Like it's just going to happen."
Kathy Benjamin (31:22):
And I kind of expected maybe the opposite just because it did start to become popular because of this idea of distance. And so, if you're out in West Texas or up in the panhandle where things are distant, you would think that having to embalm the bodies would be more of a necessity.
Kathy Benjamin (31:38):
And so, I don't know, like percentages or anything, but just an overall feeling that I got when researching was that it did seem to be more what was popular based in the same way that we might get like fashions moving here through the cities and then going further and what jeans people are wearing.
Kathy Benjamin (31:59):
Which was bizarre, but it did seem to be more what was in, as opposed to what was necessary.
Benjamin Morris (32:06):
Right. And that speaks to what we were talking about a while ago, which is that sense that your funeral, if it goes the way that you want it to, it might be the last thing that you have to say to the public. Not just that the public has to say to you.
Benjamin Morris (32:21):
And I'll just give you one quick example from here in New Orleans where I live, we had a very well-known musician named Uncle Lionel Batiste who was a member of the Treme Brass Band, very famous ensemble here, who he passed away a couple years ago, and you can look it up.
Benjamin Morris (32:40):
When he passed away, they embalmed him, and they put him on the back of a pickup truck and they rode him around town so he could see the city one last time. And it's who are we to begrudge the dead their last wish?
Kathy Benjamin (32:53):
Exactly, exactly. And I mean, these things that now maybe that will stay weird. It's not totally uncommon, maybe that'll stay weird.
Kathy Benjamin (33:03):
When I was doing interviews and things from my first book, which came out, what was it, 2013 (so, a decade ago) one of the things that I talk about is people being buried with cell phones.
Kathy Benjamin (33:14):
And I would have interviewers being like, "Oh, this is so crazy, why would you be buried with your cell phone?" And I was kind of like explaining people's motivation for it.
Kathy Benjamin (33:23):
Now, according to undertakers, it's like the most common thing that people are buried with.
Benjamin Morris (33:30):
Kathy Benjamin (33:30):
Yeah. These things change over time. What's important to us and what's important to the people we leave behind change. What we think of as strange and burial will become very common. And then once we, I don't know, move past smartphones, there'll be something else. So, yeah.
Benjamin Morris (33:47):
In a previous life, I've studied in an archeology department, and we talked a lot about grave goods and what one would find in a neolithic chambered tomb. Sure, there are certain things that you expect and certain things that you don't.
Benjamin Morris (34:00):
But I have to say, Kathy, about the only thing I can think of as far as usefulness for a cell phone in a casket might be is if it just so happened, and there's some instances of this in your book where someone was taking a nap rather than actually taking a dirt nap.
Benjamin Morris (34:16):
Maybe you would want to have that on hand in case you woke up and suddenly you were six feet under, you could make that call.
Kathy Benjamin (34:24):
I don't know if you're good service down there though.
Benjamin Morris (34:26):
Kathy Benjamin (34:27):
Yeah. I mean, six feet underground, will you get service? I'm not sure. I don't think so.
Benjamin Morris (34:31):
I don't know. There's only one way to find out. But at the very least, you could record a nice message for those who find you later. So, that is truly fascinating.
Benjamin Morris (34:39):
Let me ask you just one more question before we begin to wrap things up for this week. I am curious about the tension that you describe and there's a little bit of a tension in mortuary practice in this era between embalming and cremation.
Benjamin Morris (34:54):
Of course, there are certain belief systems which either permit or forbid cremation, sure. How do you see those lines kind of breaking down in old Texas? I mean, was cremation more a rarity or was it more common than we think?
Kathy Benjamin (35:14):
Incredible rarity. Incredible rarity. Even now, and I include the numbers in my book, that we are behind the rest of the country when it comes to the percentage of people who die every year who are cremated.
Kathy Benjamin (35:31):
We only just passed 50% recently. Like two or three years ago. I think it was about 2019 because it was before the pandemic. Whereas the rest of the country combined is about like 57, 58%.
Kathy Benjamin (35:48):
So, Texas, I think because as you say, like of like just kind of beliefs and religion is a little bit behind the rest of America.
Kathy Benjamin (35:58):
And the same thing was true back then with the exception of the crematory in San Antonio, which was very ahead of its time.
Kathy Benjamin (36:08):
I only have one story in my book, and believe me, I looked. I'm a big fan of cremation, big proponent of cremation. It's how I want my remains disposed of. And I was like, "There have to be lady undertaker stories. I have 50 years. There has to be one where it's a lady undertaker and cremation."
Kathy Benjamin (36:28):
And I found one. And she did not perform the cremation because the woman involved died in California, but her husband had been buried in Victoria, Texas.
Kathy Benjamin (36:37):
And so, she was cremated in California and her cremains were brought here. And the owner of the funeral home was a woman. So, she interred the cremains in the same grave as her late husband. But that is it up until 1930.
Kathy Benjamin (36:52):
Now, that's not to say there weren't other people, but when it came to lady undertakers, that was the only story that I could find where they overlapped at all. Which both shows how uncommon lady undertakers and cremation were.
Benjamin Morris (37:05):
And it shows that there's something going on in San Antonio, which may be the subject of your next book. Who knows? Who knows?
Benjamin Morris (37:14):
Well, as we begin to shift gears here, I guess the last question I have for you is, if you look at this particular volume of research in the context of all of your previous work, was there any other aspect of the time, the people, the place, the practices that you were really seeking to understand in a better way?
Benjamin Morris (37:45):
Any other dimension to what you're researching here that you wanted to fit in that kind of constellation of everything else that you had learned?
Benjamin Morris (37:56):
I mean, you're going to have to forgive me this terrible pun, but I was just trying to think as I was reflecting on your body of research to date that there must be something new that you were looking to flesh out. Right?
Benjamin Morris (38:07):
And I thought I can either speculate myself or I can just ask the lady herself, and I think I've hopefully chosen the better path.
Kathy Benjamin (38:21):
Yeah, no, for me, I'm not a Texas native. I've been here 15 years, but I did not like grow up learning the history of Texas the way a lot of people did.
Kathy Benjamin (38:32):
And so, for me, it was a combination of just wanting to learn more about not the earliest period, but an earlier period of Texas and specifically the women of Texas.
Kathy Benjamin (38:44):
When I wrote Texas Mass Graves, I learned a lot. I had a very big crash course in like Texas history and wars. Mass graves in general tend to involve men, which is fine. And I enjoyed the writing the book immensely, and I learned so much.
Kathy Benjamin (39:03):
But I was like, "Okay, what's happening with the women around this kind of similar time period? What are the women in Texas doing?"
Kathy Benjamin (39:12):
And that's kind of just how I approach just anything that I'm interested in. I think we know a lot about men in certain periods, and so, especially things like undertaking, which you don't immediately think, "Ah, women." It's like, while they existed, what were their lives like?
Benjamin Morris (39:29):
Well, speaking as one of them, I too would attest that there are too many of us and that yeah, we probably are about due for a cull in the herd.
Kathy Benjamin (39:44):
Benjamin Morris (39:45):
To use a Texas metaphor.
Kathy Benjamin (39:46):
... nothing Against men. You're all wonderful. I'm happily married to one. You're great. But yeah, history gets written a lot about dudes. So, add some history of women to it.
Benjamin Morris (40:01):
Yeah. Let's write that balance.
Benjamin Morris (40:02):
So, what we're going to do next week is we're actually going to do exactly that, and we're going to drill down into the lives of some of the specific women that you write about who have these fascinating journeys. And I am looking very much forward to that.
Benjamin Morris (40:16):
But for now, thank you so much for joining us on our first episode of our third season of Crime Capsule. And we will see you right back here next week.