- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Back when funeral homes offered ambulance services and bodies were embalmed in folks’ bedrooms, John Cox got his start in the industry.

That was in the late 1940s.

Cox has spent his entire adult life working in the funeral business. The 86-year-old retired when the Bartlett-Burdette-Cox Funeral Home closed its doors at the end of last month.

Cox has seen the industry change tremendously over the past seven decades.

A major catalyst for those changes, he said, was the construction of Interstate 64 through Charleston. As people began moving to houses outside the city, funeral homes were affected, just like any other business, he said.

In the old days, “the Elk River was the dividing line. People on the East End didn’t come to the West Side to do business,” he said, “and people on the West Side didn’t go to the East End.”

First opened on the East End in 1918 as Bartlett and Boyle Funeral

Home, the owners temporarily relocated the business to 120 West Washington St., where Winter Floral is now located, while its new building was being constructed at 513 Tennessee Ave.

The current location opened in 1930 and features items that still remain today.

Among them is a pipe organ made by Wick’s Organ Co., next to the funeral home’s chapel.

“Before the organ was put in, there was a button on the wall, and they had a Victrola player upstairs,” Cox explained. “(You) pushed the button when they wanted the song played, and a person would put the record on.”

While they haven’t been used in ages, there are still crypts in the basement dating back to the days before every road was paved.

“Years ago, you couldn’t get out in the country in the wintertime on the dirt roads to bury people. We’d store them in these crypts,” he said.

But things were done differently back then.

Cox got his start in the funeral business as a teenager in the mid-1940s, when “everybody went to war.” He started helping run ambulance calls for Elk Funeral Home.

Then he started working at Bartlett in 1948, where he washed cars and made ambulance calls.

“We transported (people), we ran to car wrecks, we did everything,” he recalled. They would travel everywhere from Marmet and Campbells Creek to as far as Bloomingrose and Ashford, in Boone County.

“We made ambulance calls until the federal government came along and said you had to do this and that to run an ambulance,” he said. “And then the city of Charleston went into the ambulance business. That’s when we said ‘amen’ and got out.”

Cox and the other employees had to take turns sleeping in the funeral home at night in case calls came in.

After he turned 18, Cox became an apprentice and helped embalm bodies in people’s homes, although one was performed at a hospital, he said.

“When I came here, everybody took the bodies home. Very few people had visitations in the funeral home,” he said. “And then, as time went on, things started changing.”

After he graduated from high school, Cox married his wife, Emma Lea Smith. He planned to attend embalming school, but the birth of his first son, and later, twins, ended those plans.

Instead, he got his funeral director license and assumed that title at the home.

Over time, the funeral home changed hands to Garnet Burdette, who owned it until his death in 1974. Cox bought the business from Burdette’s estate in 1976 for $250,000 and changed the name to Bartlett-Burdette-Cox Funeral Home.

Cox said his career has been a rewarding one, but it’s not for everyone.

“If you don’t love to help people, then you’re in trouble,” he said. “I’m serving them; they’re not serving me.”

It wasn’t until after the death of his son, Wade, in 1995, that Cox decided to sell the business a year later. His three children helped him run the funeral home up to that point.

“My business was growing so fast, I just couldn’t keep up with it,” he said.

He still owns the real estate and remains the funeral director.

He sold the business in 1996 to Stewart Enterprises Inc. for $3 million. That company was later acquired by Houston-based Service Corporation International, which made the decision to close the funeral home.

Cox said the funeral industry requires a “personal touch” that corporate-owned homes can’t provide, and thinks that was a factor in the funeral home’s decline over the years.

“You do what the corporation says to do. They don’t operate a funeral home on the community’s level - they tell you from their main headquarters how you’re gonna do things,” he said.

“We’re in the Bible Belt, and you don’t do things here like they do in New York, Philadelphia or Chicago.”

He noted that people who have already made arrangements with Bartlett-Burdette-Cox for their funeral proceedings can have them transferred to another funeral home of their choice for free.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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