wned and operated at the same site by only two families since its founding in 1826, the Morse and Son Funeral home has a rich and colourful past dotted with characters and traditions that are distinctly Canadian. Some of the original furnishings, newspaper clippings and correspondence, dating back to the 1800's, grace the building today, providing curious reminders and proud reflections of 160 years in the funeral service. This is a history treasured and willingly recounted by the Morgan, a part of that history since 1971.
Austin Morse, founder of Morse & Son, was born in Nobleton, New York on January 6, 1800. His family moved shortly thereafter to Detroit, in what was then Michigan Territory. In 1821, he relocated to Niagara County and settled in the then unnamed community developing at the junction of Portage Road and Lundy's Lane. This village boasted a thriving population of 130 and was officially named Drummondville in 1831.
Local records indicate that Austin purchased a lot and an additional acre of property on the west side of Main Street on January 8, 1826. There he set up his home and a furniture store. This land was to be owned and maintained by four generations of the Morse family.
Austin was a cabinetmaker by trade and earned a reputation throughout the Niagara peninsula for his exceptional craftsmanship and custom-made furniture. Coffin making was a natural extension of the cabinetmaker's place in the community. At first there was only a limited need for this facet of Austin's service. As the population grew, the demand upon the cabinetmaker to supply coffins increased. At this time he also began to meet the other needs of the families he served, including transportation of the deceased from home to grave.
|It has been said : "The 19th Century funeral directory required only a fine pair of black horses and a black suit to adequately serve the needs of the community." In February of 1826, equipped accordingly, Austin Morse was officially in business and the legacy to Canada of Morse & Son Funeral Service was initiated.
Before long he was manufacturing coffins proper to need and charging a fee of only $2.00 for pine boxes. An inventory of coffins was hitherto unheard of and thus Austin's decision to establish production was both a tremendous stride in funeral practice and a tremendous shock to the community. Austin has made his mark in Drummondville, and he continued to operate his business quite successfully, until his death in 1874, at the age of 74.
Marsena Morse, one of Austin's seven sons, purchased the business from his father's estate, at the age of 43. Marsena decided to rely solely upon funeral service for his livelihood. He is credited with manufacturing, in his Main St. workshop, the first cloth covered casket in Canada. The complexion of Morse & Son Funeral Home and the very nature of funeral service tradition would change greatly under the direction of Marsena Morse.
|In the 1880's, in response to rising public concern for improved health conditions and sanitation, Marsena adopted the then new idea of embalming. He graduated in 1883 from the Rochester School of Embalming with Torontonion Mr. Stone, and Hamiltonion, Mr. Blachford. Together they pioneered the practice of embalming in Canada.
Another milestone in the year 1883 was the establishment of the first Canadian professional funeral service association. Leading members of the profession sought recognition and founded the Canadian Undertaker's Association, which later became the Canadian Embalmers Association. This original organization was succeeded by the Ontario Funeral Service Association (O.F.S.A.) which exists today. The O.F.S.A. is still undergoing changes and adaptations, as the funeral profession itself changes. This professional organization provides its members with a code of ethics and plays an active role in current legislative issues. In 1985, members of the O.F.S.A. were bonded to protect trust funds and investments of those individuals who choose to preplan and prepay funeral services. This trend is indicative of the continual advancement since the association;s establishment in Marsena's time.
|In the 1800's, funeral services and practices were far different from those known and accepted today. Marsena's era was characterized by embalming at bedside, funeral services in the parlour of the family home and the horse drawn hearse.
The nature of the parlour funeral precluded the need for a funeral home as we know it today. The buildings erected by Austin and also occupied by Marsena, were not designed nor did they need, to accommodate funeral services. The premises on Main St. consisted only of the Morse family homestead, the casket workshop, furniture showroom and the business office.
Although funeral customs were slow to change, it gradually became apparent that the family home was not always appropriate for the funeral service. in anticipation of a growing need for chapel facilities, Marsena opened the first Morse & Son Chapel on the main floor of the building in the original furniture showroom. A warning light installed in the workshop upstairs flashed 'silence' so laborers would refrain from casket construction while the funeral services took place downstairs. This light fixture is still in place today for us to see as an unusual reminder of the changing times. As the community grew and the number of people using the Morse & Son Chapel increased, Marsena responded to the trend by opening additional rooms on the second floor for family visitation.
|On the evening of November 13, 1891, the original Morse & Son Chapel caught fire and the building was completely destroyed, in an uninsured loss. The adjoining building, Marsena's home, was saved by the great effort of the Drummondville Fire Brigade. Despite the blaze and the extensive rebuilding, business ledgers indicate that services continued at Morse & Son virtually uninterrupted.
As the oldest funeral home in Canada, Morse & Son has served the families of many faiths and all walks of life. Marsena's dedication to funeral service and reputation for kindness are well documented. According to local history, Marsena was a most compassionate man. He operated his funeral home with dignity and charity to 'many a friendless one' for 37 years, until his death in 1911.
|At the age of 32, George Morse succeeded his father Marsena, and became the third generation of his family to enter funeral service. George was responsible for the modernization of the face of the funeral home and the installation of a large electric clock on the sidewalk, directly in front of the building. This stately clock, now maintained by the Morgan family, has been a local landmark since the late 1920's. George also purchased Niagara's first motorized funeral coach, a magnificent Packard hearse.
Wesley, a fourth generation Morse, born in 1906, assisted his father George in the operation of the funeral home. Together they rebuilt, after fire razed the garages in August of 1929, and they made numerous renovations to accommodate the demand for larger funeral services. The main floor chapel was believed to be the largest in Southern Ontario. It has a separate entrance and a new Northern Hammond Electric Organ that anyone was welcome to play. The casket display room was moved to the second floor and featured the finest display of caskets in the Niagara District.
|On December of 1937 the community was saddened by the sudden death of George Morse, "a dear friend and trusted servant." The local newspaper headlines read, "Public-Spirited man's death is shock to community." Ownership of Morse & Son passed to George's widow Mayme, who had been the firm's bookkeeper since here marriage to George in 1903.
Under Mayme's direction, Wesley continued to manage Morse & Son, assisted by his sister Maryon and her husband, Archer Urquhart. After Wesley's death in 1965, and Mayme's death in 1969, Maryon and Archer assumed sole responsibility for the operation of the funeral home. The Urquharts managed the property and business until their retirement in July of 1971, at which time Morse & Son was purchased by Gordon E. Morgan. This ended an era spanning 145 years of continuous owner-operation by the Morse family and marked the beginning of a new era, led by the Morgan family, characterized by a continuation of the Morse traditions in funeral service. The distinctive personality of the funeral home remains, as does the dedication to public service and the pride in achievement.