PHILADELPHIA — History's broom has swept away the names of the fallen Revolutionary War soldiers responsible for Jacob Knorr's cabinet shop becoming a coffin factory on an October day in 1777.
Some were British redcoats, others American patriots fighting under Gen. George Washington. They clashed in the Battle of Germantown, just up the cobblestone road from Knorr's firm. From that day forward, the shop found its liveliest business in handling the dead.
Today, humans have found more efficient ways to kill each other, and the world has changed in other ways: AIDS and cancer, not croup and consumption, are the killers people fear.
But death remains death, and the corner cabinetmaking firm that became Kirk & Nice Funeral Home--the mortuary that bills itself as America's oldest--is still burying Philadelphians, both renowned and little known.
Through all those lifetimes, all those thousands of funerals and tears, the way Americans view life's end has evolved as much as the nation itself.
"The funeral itself hasn't changed. It's the people who have changed," said General Manager Joseph J. O'Keefe Sr., leading Kirk & Nice through its first year ever under non-family ownership.
Jacob Knorr opened his cabinet shop in 1761, and initially coffin-making represented only a sliver of his furniture business. But on Oct. 4, 1777, the Battle of Germantown turned the fledgling community into a killing field.
Washington's forces lost the conflict, and Knorr's shop was commandeered by British soldiers. He built caskets for many of the 650 revolutionaries and 550 loyalists who fell that day.
"More coffins were made that day than any day before or after," Kirk & Nice records say.
For the next two centuries, the business--which evolved into a full-time mortuary--was passed down. A Knorr married a Nice, and in the mid-1800s, an apprentice named Kirk was promoted to partner. It remained in the family until being sold last year.
Today, the interior of Kirk & Nice--rebuilt more than once after fires and decay--is boastful of its history.
The bright, spacious anteroom is decidedly unfunereal. The expected chandeliers and candelabra are supplemented by unexpected touches. Grandfather clocks stand in every corner. A grand piano sits nearby, and one table holds an old Victrola and antique cylindrical records. Happy paintings and old documents adorn the walls.
In one room, an 18th-Century oak cabinet has become a showcase for cremation urns. Historical artifacts dot the place, from collections of tiny toy soldiers to the first foreign-language Bibles printed in the Colonies.
The feeling is more Den Display Case than Last Stop Before the Grave.
"From the moment people walk through the door, there's just so many things for them to keep their attention on," O'Keefe says. "It's a natural stress reliever for grieving people."
Call them what you will--undertakers, morticians, funeral directors--members of the funeral industry did not always worry about relieving stress. For decades, American funerals were staid affairs with little room for improvisation or personality.
Until World War II, most people died at home and funerals were held there or in churches. But smaller homes and apartments ended that tradition, and mortuaries evolved into funeral homes.
Most services before the mid-20th Century were religious, conservative--and often numbingly alike.
"Dad generally died before Mother," says Howard Raether, a Milwaukee funeral industry consultant who headed the National Funeral Directors Association for 36 years. "The funeral director had a record book, and when Mother would die the family would come in and say, 'What did we have for Dad?' And they had the same service for Mother.
"Today, the funeral of the kid who has been killed on a mountain bike is far different from the octogenarian who dies from Alzheimer's disease."
People today sing pop songs, give informal eulogies and place favorite possessions inside the casket--all anathema years ago. Meanwhile, the proliferation of counselors, bereavement groups and other support networks since the mid-1960s has brought death out of the closet.
"Death to many is still a pornographic word, but to more and more people it is not," Raether says.
Early 17th-Century colonists buried their dead in the bare ground because they couldn't afford anything else. The first evidence of coffin burial in America was in 1678.
By 1750, craftsmen specialized in coffin-making as part of the woodworking trade, and cabinetmakers became known as "undertakers."
Into this environment came Knorr, who opened his shop on a Germantown corner that was then a cow path. When it became a state highway, the business had to be torn down and moved 15 feet to accommodate automobile traffic.
Until the mid-1800s, the undertaker's job was only to build a coffin the length of a string used to measure the deceased. But by 1875, the job included laying out the body and transporting it to the grave. Funeral services were added a few decades later.