A Brief History...
The Kirk and Nice Funeral Home is the oldest, continuously operating funeral establishment in the United States. Its history portrays the evolution of the funeral trade in America from its ancestor, the carpentry shop.
Jacob Knorr, an architect by trade, bought acreage in the village of Germantown, farmland outside of Philadelphia, in April 1761. There, he opened a carpentry shop that became a major source of furniture making and repairs for the inhabitants of the small town. At that time, only a small portion of his shop's orders was to make coffins. Coffin orders were placed with a mere string that had been measured against the deceased to be used to guide the carpenter's coffin dimensions.
Knorr mentored many apprentices of the carpentry trade at his shop including his sons George and Jacob Jr., who succeeded him after his death in 1805. In 1813 Jacob Jr. died and the business was purchased by William Johnson, who was the son-in-law of George. The ledger book of Johnson's business still exists. It records transactions with numerous Germantown families up to 1830, when the business was sold to John Nice, the father of twin sons, Samuel and John Jr., who were apprentices at the shop. The business ledger records the sale of the shop for $2,200.
Samuel Nice ran the shop, whose business remained mainly in the furniture trade. Benjamin R. Kirk became an apprentice in 1848. He eventually married into the Nice family. When Samuel Nice's son Charles died, Kirk bought the business along with Samuel's second son William. Since 1869, the firm has been called Kirk and Nice. Their establishment provided services ranging from carpentry to livery and expanded its funeral work to include the embalming and 'laying out' of the deceased.
During this period, there were various influences outside of Germantown that fostered the funeral trade. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Civil War had advanced the practice of embalming in order to preserve the bodies of deceased soldiers for return to their homes for burial. In 1865 the funeral of Abraham Lincoln further popularized embalming and fashioned the trend of mourning in the United States thereafter. He was the first public figure to be embalmed and was transported by train through the cities of Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago, among others, during a two-week period.
The earliest Kirk and Nice funeral records that exist date back to about 1872. Before that, though, accessories were itemized within its business ledgers showing an ever growing ornamentation of the coffins fashioned in the shop. Items such as the type of interior or handles were listed and priced in these pages with the funeral industry burgeoning each year.
With the demand for more elaborate burial preparations, Benjamin F. Kirk, described as an innovator, did much to fine-tune the undertaker profession. Aside from running the business, he served as the president of the Undertakers' Association of Pennsylvania and crusaded for a Code of Ethics for undertakers and occupational licensing by the state.
By 1917, the year of Benjamin Kirk's death, the funeral home was a well-recognized name throughout the Philadelphia region and employed numerous staff. Kirk’s grandson, John Henderson, then took on the business. In 1957, Malcolm Henderson, the great-grandson of Benjamin Kirk, inherited the business. He took a keen interest in the heritage of the funeral home and Germantown by promoting various activities: sponsoring a local radio show about history, holding essay contests in the area schools and having the first 30 years of burial records copied on to microfilm.
In 1993 Maryann Henderson, the widow of Malcolm and last family owner, sold the funeral home to Stewart Enterprises. The license was eventually moved to combine with two cemeteries in the area and continues to run a full service business.
Tens of thousands of funerals have been provided through the Kirk and Nice history. Evidence of those who lived in Germantown is preserved in the burial records that remain intact. The business ledgers are large, heavy books filled with pages that clearly illustrate the transition from the carpentry to funeral trade. In August 2006 the Kirk and Nice Funeral Home took action to preserve this valuable source of history through the efforts of the Genealogical Society of Utah, Germantown Historical Society and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where the original records will be permanently stored.