Bradshaw Funeral Home in Crisfield
Bradshaw Family: Serving Somerset County Families for 126 Years
In the harsh winter of 1885 a young mother, Laura Bradshaw, died from complications in childbirth on Smith Island. Her husband, Aaron, wanted to bury her but he had no wood for a coffin. To make matters worse, the island was locked in a deep freeze.
A waterman on Tylerton did have some cedar cypress on hand for a new boat. He offered some to Bradshaw, who trekked across the ice to get the wood and drag it back to his home in Ewell. It was during that bitterly cold journey that he realized that he could save others from the same, sad experience. That realization led to the establishment of today’s family-centered and family-owned Bradshaw & Sons Funeral Home.
A Slow Start
In the 19th century, most families in rural Somerset County didn’t need a mortician or embalmer. When someone died, relatives washed and dressed the body for burial. Some families built their own coffins; some bought coffins from a local coffin shop. The wake was at home, often in a formal living room they called a parlor. Block ice was used to keep the body from decomposing. Burial was usually on the family homestead or in a churchyard.
Aaron Bradshaw decided that he could do many of those sad tasks for others. His son, John A. Bradshaw Sr., joined him in the business.
After his father’s death in 1921, John brought the business to the thriving mainland community of Crisfield. He was the first in the family to embalm, having learned the procedure from a book.
John obtained an embalming license and his wife, Evelyn, did the same. She was one of the first licensed female embalmers. He and Evelyn worked side-by-side and with them were their sons, H. Harvey Bradshaw and John A. Bradshaw Jr.
During the 1920s, many families still laid out their loved ones at home. But that was changing. In 1929, the Bradshaws built an all-brick, three-storey building in downtown Crisfield. It is located next to Dave’s RV on West Main Street.
The ground floor of the new building housed a new “funeral parlor” for families who didn’t want to hold a wake at home. There was also a casket showroom. Rent from occupants of the upper floors helped to finance the funeral business.
For extra cash, the Bradshaw men also hired themselves out as house painters. Their first job was painting the inside of the First Baptist Church. John Sr. was a two-fisted painter, according to old family stories.
For a number of years, Bradshaw’s kept a boat, the King Tut, built in 1935 in Rhodes Point. When someone died on Smith Island, one of the Bradshaws climbed on board and motored out to bring the body to Crisfield for embalming or to do the embalming on the island.
As bereaved families began to rely more on funeral “parlors,” the Bradshaws’ business grew. Harvey’s son, Robert H. Bradshaw Sr., eventually took it over – the fourth generation to do so.
In 1954 Hurricane Hazel roared through Crisfield. Bradshaw’s funeral parlor was flooded. In 1955 when another Crisfield funeral home on higher ground planned to move to Baltimore, the Bradshaw family purchased the business and the building – the same huge white mansion that houses Bradshaw’s today.
Robert H. Bradshaw Jr. – everyone calls him Bobby – said that 1955 was also the year that Bradshaw’s became Bradshaw & Sons. In 2004, Robert H. Sr. had the one-floor addition built. The funeral parlor now serves hundreds of families from Smith and Tangier Islands, from Crisfield, and beyond. He says the funeral home is the oldest business in Somerset County.
Bobby and his daughter, Mary Beth Bradshaw Pruitt – the fifth and sixth Bradshaw generations of funeral directors – now run Bradshaw & Sons together. Both studied mortuary science at Catonsville Community College here in Maryland and are licensed by the Maryland State Board of Morticians and Funeral Directors. Mary Beth’s husband Frankie Pruitt is on staff. Her sister Bobbie Lynn Bradshaw Tyler has joined the family business and her daughter Lainie Pruitt might someday be willing to represent a seventh generation.
Even Bobby’s mother, Betty J. Bradshaw, gets involved in the business. Over the years, many people have commented that her cheery personality has a unique calming effect on grieving families.
All in a Day’s Work
What’s it like to be a funeral director?
Mary Beth and Bobby say “it’s hectic. It can take three days’ work for just one funeral. It begins with the phone call that someone has died. Even if it’s the middle of the night, someone one goes immediately to bring the body here.
“We take great care to support the family in every way. We plan the viewing, the service, the cremation, the interment – whatever they wish. We might reserve a church, hire someone to open a grave, prepare our vehicles and arrange flowers. And of course there’s the embalming, clothing the deceased, cosmetology and hair dressing.
“We may scan family photos for a memorial DVD tribute. We print the funeral program and registry book. And throughout it all, there’s paperwork.”
On some days, there are two funerals at Bradshaw’s. Several times there were three. Each year, the Bradshaws are called to help with over 120 deaths.
Some funerals and viewings are huge, for example, the ones for Crisfield’s beloved photographer Scorchy Tawes and, early on, for Maryland’s late Governor, J. Millard Tawes.
“The most difficult are the ones for babies and children,” Mary Beth says. “It’s so sad. If I had to do it every day, I would just have to resign.”
At Bradshaw’s, there is never a charge for a child’s funeral.
On a Lighter Note
Occasionally a family wants unusual arrangements. Once the Bradshaws were asked for permission to bring a cooler full of beer because the deceased wanted all his buddies “to hoist one last toast” at his wake. Another family adorned the viewing room with playbills and played show tunes at the service. “I’m waiting for someone to request their loved one be laid out in a recliner,” Mary Beth said.
The most unusual viewing: A family came early for the service to set up their departed loved one’s kitchen and living room furniture the way she always kept it. The family brought her jewelry and her dogs, too.
“It’s difficult to lead the service when a dog is sniffing at your ankles, but our home is their home that day,” Mary Beth says.
Asked what leisure time activities they enjoy when there are no services scheduled, Mary Beth and Bobby roll their eyes.
“T.G.I.F. means nothing to me,” Bobby says. “Even if we’re not getting ready for a service, there is plenty to do. But first of all, we swap out our formal black outfits for jeans and a tee-shirt or khakis and no tie.
“When we get a minute we transcribe old hand-written ledgers of deaths dating back to 1925 on to the computer for easier access by local historians. We often spend time helping people pre-plan their funerals. If it’s paid for in advance, Mary Beth provides an irrevocable burial insurance policy that will earn interest until the money is needed. She has an insurance license.
Keeping her license current requires continuing education and periodic recertification. The same goes for both embalmers’ licenses.
Bobby is heavily involved in community activities. He is serving his second appointed term on the state mortuary board and administers the Immanuel Church memorial funds. He is a charter member and past captain of the Lower Somerset County Ambulance and Rescue Sqad and a member and Deputy Chief of the Crisfield Fire Department. The funeral home provided ambulance service to the area until the 1960s.
Mary Beth devotes so much time to her daughters Lainie and Dusti-Kate and their activities that she had to resign from some of her community work. She is, however, still the vice president of the Crisfield Area Chamber of Commerce and helps with Brownie Troop III.
Her husband Frankie is also community-minded – he’s captain of the first aid squad and is the chief of the fire department.
When either of the Bradshaws is out of town, the other has to cover the business. “Just once,” Mary Beth says, “just once, I’d like to arrange for someone else to run the place while we all go on a huge family vacation.” ~ Story by Marie Witt