No tears, no loss: Funeral home holds open house

July 31, 1994|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Writer

In Annapolis, the path out of this life often passes through the John M. Taylor Funeral Home across from city hall on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Yesterday, a few dozen people gathered there once again. The black-suited funeral directors were in attendance. A Catholic priest said a few words. A Methodist minister led those assembled in prayer.

But this time there were no tears. No casket. No eulogy. No loss to mourn.

Local history and modern marketing came together as the Taylor family's 132-year-old funeral business held its first open house. The first open house at a funeral home, in fact, that anyone could recall.

The open house was the idea of Stewart Enterprises of New Orleans, which company officials said is the nation's "third-largest death-care provider." Stewart acquired the Taylor family business in 1992, though the company prefers the term "merged with," said D. Blair Adams, 32, general manager of the Taylor home.

"It's a softer word," he said.

Mr. Adams said the open house was planned to honor the Taylor family and to celebrate the completion of extensive renovations to the building, which dates from 1924.

"Our success stems from community involvement," he said. "We just wanted to open our doors."

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, 68, and his fellow Annapolitans said they had come to pay their respects to a venerable, home-grown business and to honor Donald Taylor, senior member of the clan that has buried the lofty and the humble in Maryland's capital since the Civil War.

"I know I will last be viewed in one of these rooms," Mr. Hopkins said.

He said he first attended a Taylor funeral, for an uncle, just after World War II; most recently he came to the service for an old friend and neighbor two weeks ago. In between there have been too many to count.

"It's almost like I come here on a regular schedule," he said.

Mr. Taylor, a licensed mortician for 46 of his 64 years, beamed at family and friends, dusted off some old stories and enjoyed, for once, greeting visitors and not having to be dignified and somber.

But he admitted that the notion of an open house at a funeral home might strike some as unusual.

"Around here, I've never heard of such a thing," he said.

It was a quiet celebration.

There was a brief ceremony in the chapel. Visitors toured the three "visitation rooms," named for famous admirals and decorated to suit various tastes: the Halsey Room, "lighter, more on the feminine side," said Mr. Adams; the Nimitz Room, "bolder, more masculine;" and the Benson Room, "smaller and more intimate."

Upstairs, caskets were on display: starting at $585 for a simple casket of "cloth-covered pressed-board material," and climbing to $11,700, for an imposing mahogany model.

At the beginning in 1862, the trappings presumably were simpler.

James Steele Taylor, an Annapolis carpenter, joined the town undertaker, Daniel Caulk, when the death rate among prisoners of war at nearby Camp Parole increased his work.

James Taylor took over the business, operating from a small building on Fleet Street. Records from the early days are kept in tiny notebooks: "They say, 'Joe's father died,' 'Joe's mother died.' No last names," Donald Taylor said.

James' son, John M. Taylor, whose name is still on the business, was honored in 1905 with the task of transporting the body of John Paul Jones from City Dock to its burial place at the Naval Academy Chapel when it was brought back from overseas where the Revolutionary War hero had died in 1792.

In 1918, when an influenza epidemic devastated the town, Taylor undertakers worked day and night for seven days to care for the dead. "They describe in the newspapers how the coffins were stacked high" outside John Taylor's building, said local historian Mame Warren.

Since the business moved to its current location in 1924, ace pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, U.S. Sen. John Glenn and President Jimmy Carter have attended funerals there, said Donald Taylor, John's son.

In 1987, another generation of the Taylor family took up the business when A. Sean Wilson left his catering career to become a funeral director.

"It's something I wanted to carry on," said Mr. Wilson, 29.

Mr. Wilson remembers stopping off regularly as a child to visit older family members at work at the funeral home.

"I'd peek in the chapel and see people viewing the deceased," he said. "I was never scared. This is what my family did."

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