Frank Campbell knew there had to be a better way. At 18 years of age he began conducting funerals but was soon distressed over the crude methods of funeral customs in that day. None knew then that this young small-town man would be instrumental in creating the standards of modern funeral service.
Campbell was born July 4, 1872, in Camp Point Illinois. His father, George S. Campbell, a Civil War veteran and blacksmith, provided a meager income for his family. His wife, Melvina, a homemaker, sons Charles and Frank, a sister Cora and his mother-in-law, Lydia, all contributed as they could.
At the age of twelve Frank began work at the Baschey-Liggett Lumber Co. on the corner of N. Jefferson and S. Vermont in Camp Point. Before long he moved to the furniture shop, making tables, chairs and coffins. A natural extension of the casket builders was undertaking so many furniture dealers were also funeral directors. Liggett Undertaking was started south of the lumber yard, little more than a room with a desk and a few coffins. The casket, livery carriages and gravedigging were services arranged by the firm. Body preparation and embalming, if it was done, was performed at the deceased’s residence by the director and/or family members. Families would accept mourners in their home parlors where their loved ones were reposed. Services were at church, but overall, an awkward and stressful experience for grieving people. Frank was determined to dignify the event.
Unable to earn enough to help his family, 20-year-old Frank made arrangements to move to New York City to study at the Stephen Merritt Burial Co. Rev. Stephen Merritt was a forward thinker and had an embalming school in Manhattan. He conducted funerals out of his location, developed as a type of non-profit co-op. Frank worked and studied at Stephen Merritt by day and also studied at the first school established for embalmers, the Renouard School of Embalming.
A thoughtful, confident Campbell was soon winning approval to advance his ideas on how a proper funeral service should be conducted. He became General Manager and Vice President at the age of 25 and one of the highest paid funeral executives in New York City.
Before long Merritt’s volume forced the move to Eighth Ave. from W.23rd. Soon after the move, Mr. Campbell with his reputation well known at the old location, left Merritt and established his own firm back on 23rd. Thus, the Frank E. Campbell Burial and Cremation Co. was created in 1898. This was the first funeral business developed to handle all aspects of the funeral; arrangements, embalming, visitation, and a chapel for services at one location.
The firm was soon renamed Frank E. Campbell “The Funeral Church” to better reflect his focus. His facility was lavishly decorated with museum quality objects of art, tapestries and luxury furnishings. Soft, mellow lighting and potted plants took the gloom from the atmosphere. The different floor levels had varying styles of visitation rooms from which a family could choose.
Although Mr. Campbell offered the best he also believed a respectable funeral should be provided for all people. He was caring and sensitive to the poor and his “Funeral Church” accommodated all.
Frank’s father became a resident of the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy in 1900. He died in 1910 and was interred in Woodland Cemetery with Daugherty Chapel handling the arrangements. Rather than remain in Camp Point and live on her $4 per month Civil War widow’s pension, his mother moved to New York City to live with her son and his family. Frank had married Amelia Klutz in 1905 and had a son.
In 1915 Campbell moved his business to Broadway at 66th St. in New York City to serve the population that was moving north. His business grew with his reputation. It was the August 1921 funeral of world famous operatic tenor Enrico Caruso that set Campbell’s far above all others. Then in August 1926 the funeral of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino was conducted and “The Funeral Church” became world famous. The heartthrob’s untimely death attracted the media from all over the world to witness the ceremony along with thousands of mourning fans. Even with this outpouring of grief, it was told that Frank hired fainters and sobbing women to keep the crowds of the proper mindset. Frank E. Campbell served most of New York City celebrities from that point forward including: Irving Berlin, James Cagney, Ed Sullivan, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, George Gershwin, Rita Hayworth, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and John Lennon.
Innovations were abundant in Campbell’s vision of funeral service. He was the first to use “paid advertisements” in newspapers that spoke of a deceased’s life and gave funeral service details, now known as the obituary. He was sensitive to the care and needs of women and children. He felt women would be better caregivers, particularly when there was the death of a child or death of a child’s parent. Through his own embalming school, he taught and hired women embalmers and arrangers, the first to do so. He was the first to have a fleet of custom built motor hearses, always backed up by a horse drawn hearse, in case of breakdown. He later replaced these with an all Rolls-Royce fleet.
Frank Campbell died in January 1934 and was interred in a New York City mausoleum next to his mother. His wife Amelia moved the business to 81st and Madison Ave. in 1938, where it stands today. She insisted on continuing his dreams and managed the business until her death in 1948. The business was sold and is now a corporate owned firm but Frank E. Campbell “The Funeral Chapel” is still serving New York City’s celebrities.
Who could have imagined that a visionary young man from Camp Point, Illinois, would develop the standards of modern funeral service. Most of Campbell’s innovative customs are still used today.
Brown, Bob. “Legacy of the Frank E. Campbell E. Campbell Funeral Chapel: The Chapel that Housed Thousand of Celebrity Ceremonies,” Entertainment, Jan. 25 2008. (http://www.abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/story?id=4193797&page=1)
Camp Point Journal, March 2, 1910.
Frank E. Campbell, The Funeral Chapel. “Our Heritage,” http://www.dignitymemorialpremier.com/frankecampbell/en-us/about-heritage.page
“Funeral Notice.” Quincy Daily Whig, February 27, 1910.
Jaynes, Gregory. “About New York; 90 Subdued Years of Funerals for the Famous.” New York Times. June 8, 2008.
Oppenheimer, Jerry. “The Only Way to Go.” New York Post, September 14, 2014.
United States Census, 1870, 1880.