Will Pumphrey took over the family business, Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Homes, in 1998. This horse-drawn hearse has been in the family many years, and was used during his grandfather’s funeral. Photo by Jordan Silverman
One question Will Pumphrey hears often: Do dead bodies ever sit up? Pumphrey is the sixth generation in his family to run a funeral business so he knows what he’s talking about.
“No, bodies do not sit up,” he answers firmly. “They’re dead. But people think that for some reason bodies move. I’d be the first one out the door if that happens.”
Another common question: Are funeral homes haunted? “If you believe in ghosts, they’re going to haunt the place where they died,” he says. “Nobody died here so there are no ghosts.”
No ghosts, but plenty of stories.
Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Homes is, by many accounts, the oldest business in Montgomery County. It was founded by William Ellican Pumphrey, who settled in Rockville in about 1840 and opened a carpentry shop. Building caskets led him to start conducting funerals in 1854.
In the early days, funerals were usually held in the home of the deceased and Pumphrey had to preserve his clients in “large portable iceboxes,” according to a company history. One of his services: tending the body overnight.
“The person that sat up during the death watch would empty the drip buckets where the ice dripped and put in fresh ice,” explains the history.
William Reuben Pumphrey Sr. succeeded his father in 1887 and expanded the business. A newspaper ad from the period announces a “new shop and warehouse” on Montgomery Avenue in Rockville and promises “everything furnished in as good style as in the cities, and at much lower prices.”
For many years, Pumphrey’s also provided the ambulance service for Montgomery County, transporting live bodies as well as dead ones in their fleet of horse-drawn vehicles.
“We had fast horses and carriages that could go from one way station to the next,” says Will Pumphrey. “We’d trade the horses and keep going to get somebody to the hospital.”
In the 1920s the modern concept of a funeral parlor—a home-like setting where a grieving family could greet mourners and hold services—emerged.
In 1928 the third-generation Pumphrey to run the business, William Reuben Pumphrey Jr., bought a mansion in Rockville that the family still owns. He and his wife, Irene, lived on the top floor and conducted business at street level. Six years later, the company acquired a large house on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda that’s now the main facility.
The current Pumphrey manager, who is 41 and lives in Poolesville, grew up in Kentucky; that’s where his father, who inherited the funeral business but never ran it, still practices law. Will Pumphrey decided to move here and take up the family tradition in 1998 after studying history and economics at Hampden-Sydney College near Farmville, Virginia, and later mortuary science in Cincinnati. But a big part of his job involves psychology.
“Some people come in, they’re upset,” says Pumphrey, a lively fellow in a natty bow tie, as we sit in a parlor often used for visitations. “Some people come in, they’re numb. Some come in and they’re angry at you, as if you had something to do with their loved one’s death. Our job is learning how to help them, seeing where they’re coming from—and not to take anything personally.”
The hardest days are when a young person dies. “Nobody can stop crying and you’re crying with them,” says Pumphrey.
The easiest are when the deceased has lived a long, full life. “It’s almost a celebration for the families, getting back together, which is odd for people to hear,” he says.
Funeral directors have a special insight into the changing customs of a community, and one trend Pumphrey has noticed is a sharp decline in church affiliation. Families don’t have their own pastors, but still want a religious ritual, so the funeral home maintains a roster of clergy who hire out to strangers.
Another trend is the increase in cremations, which now account for 60 percent of the home’s business. During World War II, Robert A. Pumphrey, Will’s grandfather, served in Burma and became fascinated by the ritual, widely practiced by that country’s Buddhist majority.
“He actually took pictures of cremations; he had a big interest in it,” says Pumphrey. That led his grandfather to install a crematorium at the rear of the Wisconsin Avenue building.
Several factors have contributed to its rising popularity: Cremations cost less than burials, and there is a prevalent myth—false, insists Pumphrey—that cemeteries are running out of room.
Many residents have moved here from elsewhere and don’t own burial plots in the area. Some of them—Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs—follow religious traditions that mandate cremation. In 1963 the Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation and in 1997 allowed cremated remains to be present at a funeral mass.
“We’re doing a lot of cremations and then going to do memorial masses at Catholic churches,” says Pumphrey. “That never would have happened 10 years ago.”
“The statistics say that the higher-educated and the wealthier a community is, the higher the cremation rate,” he adds.
“So it only makes sense that our cremation rate is so much higher.”
Then there’s the growing demand for speed and convenience. “It just seems that people are in such a rush to do everything now, they just want to glance over the whole deal,” says Pumphrey. “They’re thinking, I’ve got to get back to New York in two days, I’ve got to get it done, I don’t have time for a visitation and a funeral.”
There are also lighthearted moments that relieve the stress. Pumphrey points to a bier, a low, white platform used to display a casket.“As we were shutting up the shop one night, I went and lay down on the bier,” he recalls with a laugh.
“My buddy walked in to turn off the lights and he almost had a heart attack.”
That night the body did sit up.
Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to email@example.com.