by Alex Lorch, Former Personal Papers Archivist
Acquired in the late summer of 1993, the L. T. Christian Funeral Home records rested on the shelves of the fourth floor stacks as an untapped historical and genealogical resource until processing of the collection began earlier this year. The collection consists of approximately 43 cubic feet of records pertaining to the funeral and burial services provided by the still extant company for decedents from circa 1912 until 1986. Processing of the records of this premier Richmond, Virginia, funeral parlor will conclude later this summer, and an accompanying online database will allow patrons and staff to quickly locate any decedent's file in the collection.
Langdon Taylor Christian (1853–1935), the future owner of the prominent funeral home, began life as the son of a Charles City County farmer who emphasized field work and not education. Christian had acquired only an elementary education when he decided to leave his family at the age of eighteen and work in Richmond. After laboring for a time in a tobacco factory, Christian entered employment with John A. Belvin in 1872 in the leading furniture and undertaking establishment in Richmond. Christian applied himself in this endeavor as a fine finisher, varnisher, and cabinet and casket maker. When Belvin died in 1880, Christian succeeded him, reorganizing the business to bear his name.
The files kept by L. T. Christian and his funeral home contain a mass of biographical data relative to every client of the company. As the funeral director, Christian and later his son and successor, L. T. Christian, Jr. (1893–1975), were charged with the responsibilities of initiating and filing the required death certificate with state authorities and posting obituaries in newspapers. These tasks required amassing significant genealogical knowledge of each individual including his or her full name, date and place of birth, date and place of death, cause of death, marital status, spouse's name, parents' names and places of birth, residence address, occupation, military service, education, religious affiliation, burial location, and surviving family members. As standard procedure, the funeral home completed a sales agreement for each client that contained this information. Sales agreements are found in each decedent's file along with copies of every obituary posted and paid for by the funeral home. These documents alone provide an accurate if not humanizing exhibit of the family network and personal history of a myriad of Richmond area citizenry.
The files of each decedent also contain correspondence, notes, receipts, and memorabilia that provide deeper insight into the often–difficult logistics involved for this long–lived perpetual care business. Numerous files exist for World War II soldiers killed and temporarily buried overseas who were transported and re–interred in Richmond cemeteries after the war with the aid of Christian's funeral services. These soldiers' files contain many of the more interesting pieces of memorabilia in the collection, including what appear to be "dog tags" and "pine box" identification plates. Other memorabilia are found in the file of Hugh C. Tucker (d. 1956), who prior to his death commissioned a full–scale sketch of his headstone with a local tombstone artist. Correspondence and receipts found in the file of Horace A. Gray, who died tragically along with his wife and three children in a fire at their Windsor Farms home in 1958, detail the intricate role the funeral home played during times of family tragedy.
Notable decedents included in the collection are former Virginia governor James Hubert Price, department store founder Webster S. Rhoads, Pulitzer Prize—winning historian Douglas Southall Freeman, renowned author James Branch Cabell, and pioneer aluminum magnate Richard S. Reynolds. Researchers will also find decedents whose vital statistics may breach the "missing" or "gap" years of 1896–1912 for state–kept vital records, as well as clients who were born prior to 1853. Notably absent through this stage in the processing are African–American decedents, who were segregated into black–owned funeral parlors and cemeteries until laws and customs separating the races began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. Students of race relations may find this evidence intriguing to the study of segregation in pre-Civil Rights Richmond.
A database is planned to provide ready access to the collection and allow researchers to locate files of interest quickly. It will be surname searchable and will include the decedent's death or disinterment date along with the box and folder location for the file. Boxes are numbered chronologically and within each box decedents' files are organized alphabetically by surname.
When the database is completed and the records processed, the L. T. Christian Funeral Home collection will begin to impart to researchers a plethora of accurate and in–depth information on generations of Richmonders. The collection promises to provide a wealth of information to genealogists, scholars of local history and Richmond personalities, and perhaps even students of race relations. Each successful use of the collection by one of these researchers will provide further proof that the processing of the archives backlog is a worthy endeavour.