Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War
Westport Camp # 64
Kansas City, Missouri
Local Civil War Museum
Source: The Examiner - Independence, MO
Lee Ward of Independence usually has to warn people about his collection, before they go into the basement.
Ward turned his basement into a unique museum devoted to antique funeral and embalming equipment. The collection includes Civil War era embalming tools, photographs, manuals, and even coffins. So a trip to the basement can be unnerving, especially if you aren't expecting to see what is down there.
"If I have a repair man or somebody like that coming over, I sit them down and explain to them what they are going to see. I've only had about two or three get really freaked out and refuse to go down there," Ward said. "Sometimes people think it is kind of spooky, but I don't think of it that way. I just look at it as a museum. Usually, the people who come here on tours know I've done this my whole life."
Lee Ward rests on a leather embalming case with instruments from the 1880's that an embalmer would take to a house to use.
Ward worked as an embalmer and undertaker for 45 years. He trained at the California College of Mortuary Services in Los Angeles. After graduating in 1967, he returned to Missouri and for 22 years, he owned two funeral homes in Chilhowee and Urick, Mo. He sold the businesses in 1991 and moved to Independence, working for Speaks Funeral Homes for 10 years. He retired in 2001, and now is director of pastoral care at St. Mark's Catholic Church in Independence.
"I first decided when I was 9 years old, so that that would be 1955, that I wanted to be an undertaker. In the small towns back then, the undertakers were very much the heroes, so to speak. They were very well thought of, because they helped people in need. That was back when every funeral home was owned by a family," Ward said. "It's definitely a calling. People don't wake up and say, 'Gee, I think I'll be an embalmer today.'"
"His collection started from items found in storage at his funeral homes. Word started to spread that he collected antique funeral equipment and memorabilia, and it grew from there. Ward eventually wants to open a public museum.
Ward holds a Civil War surgeon's pocket kit in one hand and forceps and bullet extractor in the other.
"Most of my stuff comes from owners of small-town funeral homes who are selling their business to corporations, and they don't want it to get thrown out. So they give it to me because they know I will preserve it and not sell it," Ward said.
Many of his oldest artifacts came from a family friend, Jerry Brown, who sold the Reppert-Brown Funeral Home in Buckner in 1999. Now known as the Speaks-Buckner Chapel, the business started in 1868 and is believed to be the oldest continuously operated funeral home west of the Mississippi River. The funeral home was founded by Chase Henthorn and the collection includes his 1895 embalming license.
The prize of Ward's collection is a Civil War-era embalming surgeon's kit. It includes all the tools, pumps, jars, and equipment used by these early embalming pioneers.
"There was no embalming prior to the Civil War. It was unheard of except for in medical schools. It was also very dangerous, because of the chemicals they used," Ward said. "The Civil War threw a whole new loop into it, because parents wanted those boys brought home. So they had to figure out how to do that."
A post-Civil War child's casket covered in cloth sits on the floor in front of a turn-of-the-century carrying basket in Ward's collection.
Ward said early in the war, parents would go out to the battle fields, search for their loved ones, dig them up, and bring them home for burial. He said it was a gruesome practice, because there was no preservation performed. The government eventually was hiring private individuals to serve as embalming surgeons. The cost was about $50, which was a lot of money considering most troops only made about $14 a month.
After the war, embalming was often performed in the home as a family event. Later, the bodies were taken to the embalmer's work place in wicker carrying baskets and then brought back to the home for services. Ward has examples of these rare wicker carrying baskets, as well as several other types of coffins. His collection also includes a specially made replica of a Civil War-era pine coffin, which he plans to be buried in.
Ward is writing a book about the history of embalming between 1850 and 1880. He hopes to have it published in 2007, on his 40th anniversary as a licensed embalmer. The book will be published by Two Trails. It will focus on early embalmers and their techniques, and have chapters on Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln's death and funeral, and Jefferson Davis' death and funeral.
Ward encourages tour groups to view his collection, and he gives lectures. Tour groups usually include Civil War buffs, doctors, and funeral home directors interested in research, but anyone is welcome with an appointment. He can be reached at (816) 373-2600 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"It's not supposed to be morbid. Most of these artifacts are related to Jackson County history, and help tell its story," Ward said. "I hope people can appreciate the history of this and what families had to go through to get their loved ones home. It's something we all take for granted now, but it used to be a very difficult process to be buried in the little church cemetery in the town where you grew up."
A plate reading 'Our Darling' is on a Civil War child's casket. Placed on the casket is a picture of a young child in a casket.
Ward has already commissioned his Civil War replica casket, which he keeps in his collection, made to fit him someday.