year was 1818. The month was December. James Monroe was in the
White House, as our fifth President. The War of 1812 had been
over for nearly four years, and Spain had ceded Florida to the
United States as a result of the Seminole War. There were now
21 States in the Union, since Illinois had just been admitted.
few miles from here, Ralph Waldo Emerson was busy writing essays
as a freshman at Harvard. Many miles away, Washington Irving
was in the middle of writing "Rip Van Winkle" and
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."
was happening here in Needham in 1818? Well, the paper mills
of Amos Lyon and Company were in full production, as was Rufus
Ellis' cotton factory. But most of Needhams more than 1000 residents
made their living as farmers, tradesmen, and craftsmen. Among
the latter group was a 25-year-old carpenter and furniture maker
named William Eaton.
William Eaton was skilled in carpentry (in fact, some of the
houses he built are still occupied as residences in Needham),
it is not surprising that he was asked to build the coffin for
a John Beaverstock who died that December. This in itself would
scarcely be notable.
makes the incident worth noting is this: it marks the start
of what is probably Needham's oldest continuing concern... and
the founding of one of the oldest funeral directorships in all
the United States.
much of the 19th Century, funerals were, of necessity, kept
very simple and concluded very quickly. Services were almost
always held in the home of the deceased. It was quite natural
that the man who supplied the coffin should also be respondsible
for transporting it to the cemetery by wagon.
William Eaton found himself becoming more involved in handling
the details of funerals for his friends and neighbors in the
community. However, he was never a "funeral director"
in any sense of the title. It would be a great many years before
a funeral service would shift its emphasis from being a simple
tribute to the dead to becoming a consolation for the living.
SECOND AND THIRD GENERATIONS
the middle of the 1800's William's son George, was helping him
in conducting funerals. This always remained, however, an incidental
part of his livelihood. George was primarily in the insurance
was Alger E. Eaton, George's son, who represented the third
generation in funeral service. Alger was born in 1863 and was
active in the family firm until his retirement in 1940. He started
out by working with his father on the farm and later helped
him with his insurance and funeral responsibilities. Then, in
the early 1890's, he bought out his uncle Everett's livery business.
By 1900 he'd expanded so that it included a stable with 23 horses,
farm wagons, carriages, sleighs, pungs, hacks, and a hearse.
He supplied the horses that pulled Needham's fire-fighting apparatus,
and Alger E. Eaton's was the first firm in the area to establish
an automotive taxi service.
again it is easy to see that "funeral directing" in
Massachusetts was pretty much a sideline for the man who got
involved with those chores as well as his regular business obligations.
But one significant advance came about in 1906. The legislature
passed a law requiring any person practicing embalming to be
licensed by the State. Alger presented himself before the State
Board in Boston and recieved Massachusetts Certificate No. 191,
which he held until his death in 1943.
NEW CONCEPT: THE FUNERAL HOME
after World War I, many of the features we now associate with
funerals began to be put into practice. An important development
was taking place: funerals were transcending the old limitations
and were becoming services for the living as well as for the
of the major inovations was the "funeral home". During
the 1920's Alger Eaton was one of those funeral administators
who, with increasing frequency, made part of his residence available
to the public for services. As time went by, he realized he
needed larger quarters and, in 1928 purchased a building in
the business section of town.
is the property that, greatly expanded, is still being used
today. Ideally located on Highland Avenue, between Needham and
Needham Hieghts, it was established as a funeral home right
from the start. Alger and his family lived up stairs and the
entire first floor was devoted to funeral facilities -- the
one aspect of his enterprises that had come to recieve more
and more of his attention and time.
FOURTH GENERATION: A BREAK WITH THE PAST
the 1920's funeral directing became the one profession that
the Eatons, from that time on, would devote their interests
and talents. This change was inevitable as Alger's two sons
-- Laurence E. and Chester W. -- came to have a stronger voice
in decision-making for the firm.
E. & Chester W. Eaton
men became dedicated to the funeral-service aspects of the family's
enterprises at an early age. Even as teenagers in high school
they had assisted thier father, and knew that funeral directing
was the profession they would choose. (It's interesting to note
that Laurence worked with his father as far back as 1918 --
which means that 1968 marked his personal "50th Anniversary"
as well as the firm's 150th!)
completing their education in Needham schools, the two boys
went on to college. Laurence was graduated from Norwich University
1n 1923: Chester from Dartmouth in 1925. They then became licensed
funeral directors by passing the Massachusetts State Examinations
and began full-time careers with their father.
new generation in the firm meant new ideas. In 1929 Laurence
and Chester recommended that the family dispose of all other
interests and concentrate on offering Needham and surrounding
communities an exemplary funeral home in the best and truest
sense of the term. Thus, the break with the past became complete.
The funeral director had now earned recognition as ths man to
whom his commumity could turn for knowledge and assistance in
the event of death. His organizational ability, professional
training and facilities eliminated the confusion of troublesome
details. His understanding softened the sting of sorrow. He
was a reassuring hand in a time of greatest need.
THE FIFTH GENERATION
directing has long been an honored, full-fledged profession.
It is nothing less than an affirmation of this fact that the
fifth generation of Eatons carried on the family enterprise.
Laurence G., & Robert Eaton
their fathers before them, the men of this generation channeled
their interests toward this profession at an early age. All
of them worked at the Home while attending Needham High School.
And all of them grew up in the spirit of a tradition that was
already well over a century in the making.
1950 Laurence's eldest son, Laurence G., was graduated from
Norwich and entered the New England Institute, a Boston school
for funeral directors. He passed the State examinations the
following year and thus led the fifth generation into the firm.
him were his two brothers, Stephen and Robert, and his cousin,
Richard (Chester's son). All had been graduated from their fathers'
colleges -- Stephen and Robert from Norwich, and Richard from
Dartmouth. And all joined the firm in the same year, 1954.
1970 Laurence R. came into the firm, thus becoming the first
member of the sixth generation to do so. He was joined in the
intervening years by his brother David. These young men along
with Kevin Greene, all licensed funeral directors and embalmers,
and funeral assistant Robert T. Timmerman, help Laurence G.
carry on the Eaton tradition in its striving for excellence.
R. Eaton, Robert T. Timmerman, Kevin J. Greene,
and David E. Eaton