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The morbid element of old homes

February 8, 2014

Over the past ten-plus years working the “Homes” beat for the Herald-Times, I have wandered through hundreds of houses, asking questions and recording information that never made it into print for one reason or another. One recurring item that always fascinates me is when owners of old houses say (with a barely visible shudder) “Old So-and-so, who owned a prominent local business, built this house in the 1890s, and they say he died in the top left bedroom and was laid out in the parlor.” This kind of information–a corpse in the parlor–is always seen by those who pass down the legend from owner to owner as exceptional, not the rule. Quips about ghosts and hauntings are bandied about, because it’s assumed that the presence of a dead body in an old house is a very rare thing.

But if the truth be told, every single house built in Bloomington before the early 20th century, whether wealthy or poor, most likely had at least one corpse in the parlor. Bloomington had no city hospital until 1905, and in its first years the institution was a small and limited place where appendixes were taken out and grievous injuries addressed, not a place where people went to die. From time immemorial, ill people had always been tended by their relatives in the comfort of home, and if they required a doctor’s services, the doctor came to them. Why on earth would a sick person haul himself or herself up out of a sickbed and totter to a doctor’s office?  Or to a hospital, for that matter? In that era, one’s own bed was the proper place for a sick or dying person.


Every furniture store in the 1800s stocked coffins, and this remained the practice until professional funeral homes appeared in the early 20th century.

This means that virtually every house built in Bloomington before the turn of the last century experienced one or more deaths within its walls, often of small children. But houses built in the 1910s and ’20s, after the concept of migrating to the hospital to die had taken hold, would have been largely death-free (unless the owners had been extremely impoverished). Beginning by the ’20s funeral homes began to offer grieving Bloomington families an alternative to laying out Granddad in the parlor.

But once upon a time, the elderly and the ill died at home. Grieving families washed and laid out the corpse of their loved one as a matter of course, and friends would come with food to share in the time of grief. A coffin would be purchased at the local furniture store, and the memorial would be held at home in the parlor. We of the 21st-century are so divorced from the process of death that we regard it as a gruesome oddity when we learn that a former owner of an old home died in his own bedroom. Just remember: this wasn’t a case of just one Victorian businessman in the bedroom of one old house; it was everyone, and everywhere: rich and poor, genteel or criminal. But lest you stroll through the city’s historic districts and contemplate all these deaths with a shiver, remember that any morbidness is yours, not theirs. Death prior to the 1910s was accompanied by warmth and love and care. And ask yourself, in your heart of hearts: wouldn’t you rather breathe your last in the comfort of your own bedroom with your loved ones around you? I certainly would.

  1. Brenda permalink

    My grandmother was “laid out” in the front bedroom of the family home in Western Owen County in 1948. She had died in a hospital after a fall at her daughter’s house in Martinsville. In the 1920s my grandfather had sold caskets in his hardware store, but funerals were all at a local church.

    • Thank you for writing! So many people responded to the Facebok posting, and they all seemed to feel that a laying out at home is normal and good. And I feel the same way. Death at home is much less common nowadays but still happens occasionally. A recent death in a house is considered a bad thing in terms of resale (suicides at least are considered to be capable of blowing a deal and/or harming the value). My feeling is that death is an inevitable part of life and ought to be acknowledged as such by society at large, without prejudice from realtors, owners or buyers.

  2. Dave Parsons permalink

    Another thoughtful and interesting article on housesandbooks. When I see an email come in, I get an anticipatory thrill, knowing that the chances are good I will be entertained and enlightened in some fashion.
    Isn’t it interesting that this generation has looked at both birth and death and some of us have decided that a more humane approach is needed. Having our loved ones and near&dear friends involved while at home, in our own domain becomes important in humanizing these major life events. It seems to be a reclaiming of central experiences both for the individual and the family.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Dave. This article must have touched a nerve with many people because it was widely reposted on Facebook. We all have lessons that can be learned from from lives well lived and from deaths met with courage, resolution and love. Many thanks for reading my essays.—-Carrol

  3. Michal crum permalink

    I read a fascinating book about this called Grave Matters. It’s available at the mcpl (library).

    We cared for my great aunt in our home when I was in high school, and she died in her bed at our house. I wish we had been able to lay her out at home. It’s a beautiful thing to carry for the dying in one’s home when possible.

    • It IS a beautiful thing to care for our loved ones up until the end. Thank you very much for writing, Michal!

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