It’s all Good…Sixth-generation Reamstown funeral director under takes lecture on the business of death

By on January 28, 2015

The setting was dismal — sleet sliced through the murky winter night. The building was dark save a blazing fire. Folks listened intently as the subject centered on death.

It was not a scene out of a scary movie — it was the first lecture of the year for the Reamstown Historical Society and Museum. and the setting was the historic and antique-filled Good Funeral Home in Reamstown.

Michael Tod Good, sixth generation owner of the funeral home, led the discussion on the customs of caring for the deceased. Funeral music played in the background along with ticking and gonging of an original Reamstown Breneisen clock, which has been keeping excellent time since 1846.

The "Good" name arrived on the scene when Harry H. Good married Hallie Weitzel, funeral home founder Elias Weitzel Sr.'s  granddaughter, in 1893.

The “Good” name arrived on the scene when Harry H. Good married Hallie Weitzel, funeral home founder Elias Weitzel Sr.’s granddaughter, in 1893.

The major topic of discussion was embalming.

In 1900, Harry H. Good attended a four-day seminar in Harrisburg to learn a revolutionary new practice of the art of arterial embalming. The chemicals used contained arsenic.

“Embalming was horrifying to people when they first found out about it,” said Good. “During the Civil War time, a doctor found out a way to remove a lot of blood and replace it with a chemical that would preserve the body.

“The government promoted it because they wanted to send some of their generals and captains back home because the Union Army could have a funeral for them. That made people support the war effort by having these big funerals. When Abe Lincoln was assassinated, they also embalmed him, took him on the train, and had viewings all over the country.”

One of the first embalming procedures in the area came from Auman Funeral Home in Reading.

In 1895, funeral director T.C. Auman was asked to handle the body of a burglar who apparently committed suicide in Berks County Prison. The man had refused to provide officials with his name and his body went unclaimed. Auman promised if the family ever showed up, he’d assist them with a decent burial for him.

Auman, one of the first funeral directors to experiment with embalming, was at the time experimenting with various fluids and tried one out on “Willy.” It worked and reportedly the funeral home still houses the body, now mummified with time.

“Stone Man Willy is still in the warehouse behind Auman’s,” said Good. “They no longer show him to people, but he’s still preserved. They used to actually take all the kids from Reading School District to go there for a tour of Stone Man Willy. His suture marks still show. They bathed him every once in a while to clean off the mildew and then gave him festive pajamas.”

Good contends the Auman funeral home keeps it quiet now because over the years there have been movements to give him a proper burial.

Good then gave a tour of the preparation room, of which some in attendance opted out.

Michael Tod Good and one of the tools of his trade.

Michael Tod Good and one of the tools of his trade.

“I had to push the two bodies into the back room, so there’s no embalming table in the room,” said Good, who does all the embalming himself. “We don’t keep the heat on in here. The body is put in front of the machine on a table. The tubes connect to the arteries and veins. The pressure and rate of flow machine pumps the chemicals into the arteries and the blood flows out the veins and into the drain.”

Good does not allow public viewing for unembalmed bodies.

“I could bring that unembalmed person out here without all the treatments I do with embalming and a family could be viewing and all of a sudden, they could have a gas bubble that would trickle out the mouth, the nose,” said Good. “That would be a memory that would be horrible for a family. There could be blood at the mouth.”

Good does all the cosmetics on the bodies and is known for it. After viewings, women often tell him that he “better do a job like this” on them, or they are waiting for their “facelift.”

“When it comes to the work I do, I think I’ll put my embalming and cosmetic skills up to anyone in the local area, if not further,” said Good. “I stopped going to other funeral homes because I just hate the way they look. I want to get in there and correct it sometimes.”

At 58, Good has been doing this for decades and he knows 70 percent of the deceased that ultimately are served by his home.

“At 13, when I told my dad that’s what I wanted to do, he said I better see what’s going on,” said Good. “He showed me and you know it’s just part of the game.

“Just yesterday, (it was) the lady that lived across the street all my life; she was in a nursing home the past three years. I picked her up, brought her back, did the embalming, and I’ll do her makeup, dress her, and get her ready for the funeral. I’ve known her all my life and it’s like a part of my childhood is gone.”

Good’s grandmother, Miriam (Buch) Good, turned the business over to him in 1982.

Miriam Good, Michael Tod Good’s grandmother.

Miriam Good, Michael Tod Good’s grandmother.

“I always loved going to Grandma and Grandpa’s,” said Good. “When they had a viewing going on and I was there, there was a door in between and I’d go and listen to all the people in there and watch them come and go and you could smell the flowers through the door. I almost felt like my family was really having a party for everyone.

“I knew there was a dead body there but at 5 years old, the concept of people grieving, my grandmother wasn’t crying, she was just helping people. Everyone was coming to our place to say goodbye and I liked that. It was neat being part of it.”

Good said his grandmother would hear the door rattle and know it was him, who he said was “her favorite.” She’d have him come in and “meet the people” (family members of the deceased whose arrangements his grandmother was working on).

Good said he could “go on and on” about how society has changed.

“Back then you knew your neighbors, you knew everyone,” said Good. “People are private and want their space. You don’t talk to people across the street, sometimes because you don’t want to, and sometimes because it just doesn’t happen.”

There will not be a seventh generation taking over the business.

“I’ll be the last of the family line, I knew at a young age I never wanted children,” said Good. “My sister never had children. The only Good is a distant cousin.”

Many small funeral homes are being absorbed by other funeral homes and are not as lucrative as they were one time. With many directors retiring and dying as the Baby Boomer generation ages, many will fold over the next 15 years. People are choosing cremation and spending less money on funerals than what they did.

“I don’t mind some slow days,” said Good. “If I want to watch ‘Days of Our Lives,’ I admit it-can’t keep up with it,anyway, I can.”

Appreciation for funeral directors has also shifted.

“People appreciated every little detail that you did,” said Good. “People wanted to do the best they could for their loved ones and a funeral meant something. Today we have a large number of people, people who have money and paying for the funeral isn’t an object, but they see no value in it.

“People are less churched and they dislike ritual. Almost everyone 40 years ago had some affiliation to a church. Today I would say that’s less than half of the people.

“Because they are less social, not knowing their neighbors, they also don’t want to stand in line and find out what to say to people and put up with what people say to them and have to respond to it. They also don’t want to get dressed up, even though we don’t require a dress code. They don’t even like someone coming in and looking at their loved one in a casket.”

Good does not have a crematorium on site, but uses his friend’s facility in Lebanon.

“They are quite sophisticated machines today,” said Good. “Yes, it’s an oven, but the smoke stack and exhaust has to be a certain length out of the building. It has to reach a certain temperature before they can even place the body inside. 1,800 to 2,100 degrees really destroys any tissue. All that’s left is larger bones and teeth, things like that that are processed into a mixture of gravely dust.”

Good has a large store at the home to purchase anything from a casket like Michael Jackson’s, to a keepsake teddy bear with a zipper in the back to store a little urn. Customers can buy an urn locket to wear as a necklace, or get the deceased’s thumbprint made for a keychain.

Specialty necklaces sport tiny urns in which to keep remains of loved ones.

Specialty necklaces sport tiny urns in which to keep remains of loved ones.

Good sells dresses looking like they are out of “The Lawrence Welk Show” because “some ladies still want a new dress.”

Good holds progressive views on the role of a pastor in a funeral, which may be controversial in a small town located in a Bible-belt area.

“I no longer recommend a pastor,” said Good. “The ones who will do it want to ram religion down people’s throats, that want to save souls. A funeral, in my opinion, is not the time to win people to church. This is the time to be consoled and comforted and they want to hear about their loved one.

“To use the funeral as a time to say ‘if you don’t do this, you’re going to go to hell’ or ‘you need to find your way and come back to Christ and all,’ I’m sorry, that’s not what a funeral is for. I’m not going to go to church because you tell me to at my mother’s funeral, so I don’t recommend ministers at all anymore and I won’t call. If you don’t have a minister, what do you want a minister up there for? That’s my comment to them. You didn’t go to church, he didn’t go to church, why do you want prayers and Scripture now?”

Attendees at the lecture were curious, and for some, it hit close to home.

“My house is 115 years old in Ephrata and I started noticing some architectural clues that funerals took place in it,” said Gary Klinger, on the board of directors for the Lancaster County Preservation Trust.

“I wanted to get confirmation that what I’m seeing architecturally is actually remnants of funerals taking place there from the 1930s. Some of the mortar around the back door had been disturbed and it made me think to get the casket in, they came in the back door, took the casing and some of the brick out to get the casket in. It’s interesting to look at a house built in the 1900 and try to determine the history of it and try to imagine what it must have been like to have a funeral out of my living room.”

Good has a good reputation.

“He always does a good job,” said Clarence “Shorty” Weinhold, caretaker of Muddy Creek Cemetery.

All lectures of the society are open to the public and they are always looking for new members. For more information, email Martha Brunner at masb51@gmail.com.

Michele Walter Fry welcomes your comments at michelewalterfry@gmail.com.

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