The funeral home business is vital to the growth of a small town. In the case of New Albany, this business has been in operation since the turn of the century, beginning in 1909 with Haywood Hamilton making the top floor of his hardware store a funeral home.
In 1909, Hamilton owned the Hamilton Hardware store and saw a need to add a funeral home. At this time, there was no one to handle the consequences when someone died like having a funeral, embalming, and burial of the body. He saw a need for at least some merchandise, so he opened a funeral home on the top floor of the hardware store where it sits today and they carried the bodies up with a pulley and weight system with the elevator. They did the embalming on the top floor and casketed the bodies and the families usually had the service at a church or at home. The elevator is still there.
In 1937, Hamilton saw the need for hiring a full-time embalmer in the county because at that time, embalming was done out of Tupelo. To drive a Model-T or a team of wagons to Tupelo was pretty difficult, especially during bad weather conditions. Union County was not fully out of the Depression at this point.
United Funeral Service President Rodney Shands said, “The embalmer that had moved to New Albany from Corinth wanted to move back to Corinth. He knew a man named Freddy Stone, who was a licensed embalmer, that lived in Meridian, Miss. and called him and told him that Mr. Hamilton was looking to hire a full-time embalmer. Mr. Stone boarded the train to New Albany and came into Hamilton Hardware and told Mr. Hamilton that he was looking to apply for the embalmer job and Mr. Hamilton asked if he had his license. Mr. Stone said, ‘Yes, sir. I have it right here in my pocket.’ Mr. Hamilton said, ‘The pay is $75 a week and you will work at the hardware store as well as in the embalming business. You will be a full-time employee and if you don’t like that, the train leaves at 11:00. If you do like that, be at work at 7 in the morning to go to work.’ He showed up at 7 a.m. and never left the county.”
The funeral business then went through a lot of owners and buyers. In the 1930s, Jackson’s Hardware on Bankhead Street also got into the funeral business by also having a funeral home on the top floor of their hardware store. In December of 1940, Bill Smallwood Senior bought the funeral business from Hamilton Hardware and then called it Smallwood Funeral Home. In 1948, Bill Smallwood Senior sold Smallwood Funeral Home to John Maxey. Then, Mr. Stone bought out Jackson’s Hardware funeral business. In 1951, Mr. Stone sold to John Maxey so the funeral business was consolidated into one smaller funeral home and he stayed as the embalmer for Smallwood Funeral Home. In 1961, James Maxey bought out John Maxey (they were brothers).
In 1964, there was a group of six businessmen that bought out James Maxey’s part of Smallwood Funeral Home and then formed and incorporated United Funeral Service.
Shands said, “The idea at this time was to build a brand new first class facility where the Smallwood Funeral Home was, which was located near the Union County Red Cross building where is now. The businessmen ended up buying the land where United is now. They also bought Vista Memorial Park Perpetual Care Cemetery, which is located next to United. They wanted a location off from the road and a place that looked like a park; an area of serenity and tranquility and a peaceful setting rather than an urban setting. There has been two major renovations, the last one in 2002 where they doubled their size.”
Shands then said that a funeral is a celebration of life for the time lived. “The purpose of a funeral is not for the deceased. The purpose of the funeral is to say goodbye to those living. It is part of the grief process. It is so important that the family has closure and that it is dealt with. If you look through mankind’s history, there has always been funerals. When Jesus was crucified, his body was prepared, his body was embalmed, and his body was entombed. Modern psychologists understand that it is such a critical part of acknowledging and going through the grieving and closure process.”
There are people that are still looking for shards of bone from a military hero that died during wartime.
“If a shard of bone or bones are found, they are brought to forensic scientists to look for DNA evidence. If that body is identified, it is put in a full-size casket and draped with an American flag and it is flown back to the relatives and they will finally gather for a full military funeral and for the first time in years, they will have closure,” said Shands.
“Particularly in the South, it is so important for people to actually come in and see and touch and get a hug around the neck from people who come to visitation. It is a part of the grieving process. It is a part of the catharsis for all of them, including the visitors that come. Visitation are usually heavily attended and just a huge part of saying goodbye. When someone dies, it is not just a loss to that family. It is a loss to everybody that knew that person in the community. The visitation is often times as much for the people in the community as it is for friends and family. Knowing and feeling the love of the community is important,” said Shands.
United Funeral Service is the second funeral home in North America to create the memory chapel within the funeral home. It is a separate lighted room filled with a literature and resource center on loss and grieving, there are crosses and keepsakes, floral expressions, stationery, and information and keepsakes about pet loss. In another room, there is also a room of half-size caskets and a few full-size caskets. According to the memory chapel founder Alton Doody of New Orleans, having half-size caskets in a lighted room makes the process less intimidating for the family during the difficult time of choosing a casket.
The funeral business is going through economic strain currently just as many other business are. Shands said, “With death rates declining and people living longer, it gets difficult economically. Last year we had 10 months of deaths, but 12 months of expenses. United has always put aside 100% of the customer’s needs and expenses for the funeral. We have been in business for 100 years and we are debt free.”
Shands created the tree logo for United Funeral Service. “I looked for a logo that represented strength, unity, it has roots to grow, also symbolizing the roots to the community, and a canopy to offer comfort and shade.”
United Funeral Service Manager Larry Reedy said, “Death is not something quick to have a funeral and get it over with. You need to show honor to the life that was lived and the family needs that time too. They need to bring the family, friends and community members together so the healing process can begin. No one family or service is never the same. Funerals are important to the family that they have an opportunity for them to grieve and a place for them and the friends to meet and honor their loved one and reminisce and maybe tell the family information that maybe the family never knew about.”
For a free service, United requests photos from the family of the deceased and they put together a DVD for free to play at the visitation. Also, the funeral home requests that photos and mementos of the deceased be brought in for the visitation and service because each person is unique and so are their hobbies and passions.
“At United Funeral Service, we only hire people that are extremely caring and personable and truly love people and love being around people – we look at what we do here as a ministry of service. We are celebrating our first 100 years and look forward to100 more. We are united to bring a service to this community,” Shands said.