Which Funeral Home Is REALLY The Oldest in America?
I love history. And I love the folks in the death care industry. Naturally, when I spotted the words “America’s Oldest Funeral Home” I wanted to know more about that place. Except… those words aren’t on just one funeral home’s website. As it turns out, at least four funeral homes now claim to be the oldest in America.
Wait… What? Wouldn’t the one that was opened first earn the right to be called the “oldest?” Seems straightforward enough. But… is it? (Cue the theme music to Unsolved Mysteries and read that sentence again in the voice of Dateline’s Keith Morrison). Don’t worry. Connecting Directors is here to uncover the truth for our readers.
Kirk & Nice, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania
According to the Kirk & Nice Funeral Home website, the establishment’s original location opened in Philadelphia in 1761. They relocated to the grounds of George Washington Memorial Park in Plymouth Meeting in 1999.
A 1988 feature in the York (PA) Daily Record offers more detail on the history of Kirk & Nice.
“It all started in 1761,” the article reads, “when the first customer walked into Jacob Knorr’s cabinet shop with a string the length of a corpse and ordered a coffin made to the same length.”
Knorr continued to build coffins, the article says, and the place became a full-fledged “funeral parlor.” A Knorr married a Nice, and about 100 years later an apprentice named Kirk became a partner. The two families intermarried often, and together grew the business. Today, the Nice line has disappeared, and as of 1988, the widow of the seventh-generation Kirk was the last true family owner.
If it turns out that Kirk & Nice isn’t the oldest funeral home in America, the institution has another claim to fame. Two men in one of its namesake families, the Nices, once had the honor of being the “oldest living twins in the United States if not in the whole world.” An Alabama newspaper shared the story in 1889 of twins Samuel and John Nice, who were born on May 11, 1805. The article mentions the two were the oldest living undertakers in the country at the “oldest establishment for burial of the dead” in the United States.
Bucktrout of Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia
Like Kirk & Nice (and other historical funeral establishments), Bucktrout of Williamsburg started out as a cabinet shop. The Bucktrout website says the shop was opened in 1759 in Colonial Williamsburg by Benjamin Bucktrout and Anthony Hay. The two originally included wooden caskets in their product line, but in time “transitioned into a funeral home” exclusively.
It’s not clear exactly when that transition took place, though. The business closed, reopened, and moved multiple times in its first 50 years. Since then, it has “changed hands many times,” according to the current website. An announcement in the April 4, 1908 edition of the Virginia Gazette proclaims that H. N. Bucktrout has opened a new “up-to-date” undertaking firm. It also says his father was in the business before him.
Like the Nice twins, the Bucktrout business has a separate and distinct claim to fame. It was the first funeral home (presumably in the United States) to own and operate a crematory. Bucktrout of Williamsburg is now owned by the Altmeyer family, who purchased it in September 2011. The Altmeyers have been in death care since 1917 and own 17 facilities in three states.
Bachman Snyder Funeral Home & Crematory, Strasburg, Pennsylvania
In 2014, CNN featured Bachman Funeral Home as one of “5 of the oldest businesses in America.” It was founded in 1769 by immigrant Johannes Bachman as a carpentry shop. According to CNN, the mass production of furniture forced the business to shift to coffin-making exclusively. When the same happened to coffins, the family “gave up coffin making altogether and started a funeral home” in the 1910s.
The CNN story doesn’t bill Bachman’s as “the oldest” in America — just “one of.” However, the business’ website says it is “the longest-running funeral services provider in the United States.”
Although the business was sold to Charles F. Snyder Funeral Homes in 2019, it is still operated by the eighth generation of Bachmans. The website says this makes it the “nation’s oldest and longest-running family owned funeral home.”
Guido Funeral Home, Brooklyn, New York
The homepage of the Guido Funeral Home website proclaims the business as “The Oldest Funeral Home in the United States. Est. 1883.”
Their historic location is a little older than the business, dating back to 1840. The current owner is the sixth generation to operate the family business, which was the first Italian undertaker in Brooklyn.
Who’s the oldest?
Confused much? It seems that three of these funeral homes — Kirk & Nice, Bucktrout, and Bachman — are indeed contenders for the title of “oldest funeral home in America.” (Guido’s falls short by about 124 years or so.)
But here’s where it gets sketchy. As they say, the devil is in the details. These three were all admittedly cabinet shops/coffin makers before they were funeral homes. If they made coffins, though, weren’t they technically in the death care profession?
Kirk & Nice started making coffins in 1761, but Bucktrout beat them at that craft by two years. It’s not at all clear when either shifted exclusively into the funeral business. Bachman states they became a funeral parlor in the 1910s. H. N. Bucktrout’s father was an undertaker before H. N. opened his own business in 1908, and it’s possible there were also previous generations before him. And we just don’t know when Kirk & Nice transitioned.
Well, well, well, as Keith Morrison would say in his creepy Dateline voice. We’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to solve this mystery.