Tell It Like It Was - Pitman-Thilking Part 3
Adapted from the original email-letters from Paul Ovaitt - Original date May 23, 2022
Eric Pitman – Mops! - Franz Mayer – the coroner – the Wizard of Oz - Ida Gerdiman – Phil Estes, town sexton – Dave Matthews?
"Movement" By Hozier as Performed by Paul Ovaitt
Dearly beloved, here we are at the final episode of my dismal trade stories and interviews. I think it’s an inexhaustible topic, but there are so many other Augusta stories I want to investigate, so I’m determined to wrap it up like a mummy, even if it goes into extra pages on my Word document.
Early on, I promised an interview with Eric Pitman, son of Jim, grandson of Tarlton, and the current director of Pitman Funeral Homes. We spoke via cell phone on April 8, 2022. He was hard at work driving from one funeral home to the other. I was at home luxuriating in my retirement.
Remember: anything (((in parentheses))) is my writing.
Eric Pitman: I was born in 1965 at St. John’s Mercy in Creve Couer.
Paul: Where did you go to grade school?
E: I went to Immanuel Lutheran School in Wentzville.
P: Did you play any sports at that time?
E: Well…Khoury League baseball when I was in grade school. And then in high school, at Wentzville High School…Holt is what they call it now…Wentzville Indians…I played baseball all 4 years there.
P: Augusta likes baseball.
E: We used to play Augusta, as a matter of fact.
P: Did you ever play music? And for that matter, what kind of music do you like?
E: I did not, but I like all kinds of music. I guess everything but opera. I listen to it all.
E: After I graduated high school, I went on to college…Missouri Baptist University…in STL where I received a baseball scholarship, and I played all 4 years of college. I was taken to Europe…I played over in Europe, and then was offered a professional contract over there which I denied. And then when I returned home, I told my father I’d work for him for a year and check it out…see if I could like this type of business. And after that, there was a gentleman there by the name of Brent Jones…we were about the same age…and he kept trying to persuade me to go to mortuary school…which I finally did. I went to mortuary school at Mid-America College of Mortuary Science, which is in Louisville, KY. I graduated and came back and worked a year of apprenticeship under Brent Jones who was a licensed embalmer with my dad.
E: 34, 35 years…that’s how long I’ve been doing it now. I really enjoy the profession. I really enjoy being a part of the community…all the communities…and getting to know the families and their friends. I just like being a part of all that, and that’s one reason I wanted to stay here. I like the area. I enjoy the people.
P: I think Doris Hopen told me you adopted some children…
E: Three. When they were adopted, there was one who was 4, one was 2, and the other was 1. Now they are 18, 17 and 16.
P: Do they ever make any interesting comments about the funeral business?
E: Ehhh…one comment they made when they were young…it was kind of funny…was that no matter where we went…it seemed as though people would all know me…and the kids thought I was famous. (Chuckle.) And we’re not famous.
P: But you are well known.
E: I think they’ve grown to realize the world’s a lot bigger than what they knew when they were little.
E: Oh, I will give you one more thing. I have a sister whose name is Angela. When we were kids and we’d come to Augusta, we’d always walk down to the little store at the end of the street (Walnut), and we’d always get candy and something like that…and what was the man’s name...he always gave us…something extra.
P: Mel Fuhr owned the store then, but his cousin Mops…
E: Mops! (Marvin Fuhr.) That was it. He always gave us something extra.
P: I’m glad you brought up Mops. He’s my all-time favorite Augustan.
Gentle readers, now I want to share with you an event from the last century. Back in the 1990s, my friend, Franz Mayer, along with his family, held a modern-day wake for his mother, Elisabeth Mayer. I called Franz on April 21, 2022, to ask for his recollections of the event.
Franz Mayer: The year was 1997…on June 18 my mother died.
Paul: Who had the idea to do a more traditional wake?
F: We had talked for a long time about it…we all resisted…going through a…demonstration and a layout… The way funerals are conducted now never did appeal to us.
P: When you say “we” do you also mean your mother?
F: Well, my mother, when we talked about it…and she wasn’t afraid to talk about it…she would say, no, I want to lay right here…because that’s the way they did it in Europe.
Rebecca Weis Mayer (Franz’s wife): Franz’s sisters, Lore and Maria, were here the last days.
P: So, all of you felt comfortable that your mother would want it that way.
F: Absolutely…no question. Becky just pitched in and helped like a family member, and both my sisters were here, so it wasn’t just a burden on one person…really a family operation.
P: Let’s talk about the operation then. There must have been certain logistics…things you had to deal with…maybe some unexpected. What’s the first thing you did?
F: We called Pitman. Hospice was not present at the time of our mother’s death, but on call, and they came very quickly when we called. They were most kind and helpful in addressing first things first.
R: The first thing they did was have us cut up the morphine patches…and flush them down the toilet. Franz called Pitman to make the arrangements.
P: Did hospice call the coroner or some official?
R: I believe hospice did. And the coroner showed up.
F: I think there has to be a pronouncement of death.
R: …right after she passed…I went and got Johanna (their daughter) from somewhere…she came down and she picked flowers and she put them all around her grandma in the bed.
P: That was nice.
F: We had a church service at Immaculate Conception, and then they (Pitman) carried her to Bridgeton, because that’s where my father was buried.
P: I remember many local people showed up at your mother’s house. How did they know about it?
F: Well, that’s very interesting…we talked about that here. People came out of the woodwork. That’s something we’ve always remembered, and it made a strong impression…because we made no announcements.
P: Did the church spread the word because they knew there was an upcoming funeral service?
F: All you need is one neighbor or one person.
R: It must have gone through the church, because all those people came to the funeral.
F: There was a pretty good crowd at the church…and my mother had only moved in here nine years before.
P: Did you receive any comments…anything memorable that people said about how you handled the wake?
F: Oh, sure. They were amazed that you could do it. People kept coming in…and they brought food…and turned it into a visitation right in my mother’s house in her bedroom. Everybody loved it. They thought this was a really good way to do it. Probably the biggest impression we had was…all the people who helped…without being asked. Everybody in the community, who knew about it, did what they could.
P: I’m sure I’ll never forget your mother’s wake.
People, what do you know about coroners, and where did that word come from? As always, Wikipedia offered to help: “A coroner is a government or judicial official who is empowered to conduct or order an inquest into the manner or cause of death, and to investigate or confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead within the coroner's jurisdiction. A coroner's office typically maintains death records of those who have died within the coroner's jurisdiction.”
I also searched at least 20 minutes for the name of our county coroner. I struck out, but I did learn that our county, Franklin, Jefferson and STL county all have their office at 6039 Helen Ave, STL. So, we’re in the STL jurisdiction.
I still had the taste of defeat in my mouth, so, I endeavored to find the etymology of that dismal word, coroner. Again, Wikipedia: “The office of coroner originated in medieval England and has been adopted in many countries whose legal systems have at some time been subject to English or United Kingdom law. In Middle English, the word "coroner" referred to an officer of the Crown, derived from the French couronne and Latin corona, meaning "crown". The office of the coroner dates from approximately the 11th century, shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066.”
“The office of coroner was established by lex scripta in Richard I's England. In September 1194, it was decreed by Article 20 of the Articles of Eyre to establish the office of custos placitorum coronae (Latin for keeper of the pleas of the Crown), from which the word coroner is derived. This role provided a local county official whose primary duty was to protect the financial interest of the Crown in criminal proceedings. The office of coroner is, in many instances, a necessary substitute: for if the sheriff is interested in a suit, or if he is of affinity with one of the parties to a suit, the coroner must execute and return the process of the courts of justice.”
I was starting to feel better, but then…with no segue…the article goes on to say, “The person who found a body from a death thought sudden or unnatural was required to raise the "hue and cry" and to notify the coroner.”
What? That’s all? I’m feeling defeated again. But on a lighter note, does anyone remember the Munchkin Coroner from the classic film, Wizard of Oz? Maybe this short clip will jog your memory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vFRB61xyls
Gentle viewers, may I now call your attention to some historical writings that Nancy Overstreet of Schluersburg shared on the Augusta Museum Facebook page on March 20, 2022? She wrote, “Sharing a little Schluersburg history. My Grandpa was Andrew Maschmeier, and these were passed on to me after his passing. These were written by Ida Gerdiman (who was my teacher in Bible School at the church in Schluersburg when I was little). She also has personally shared things with me.”
I have included a photo of the funeral related part of Ida’s article for you. I was most struck by these words: “As the dirt was shoveled back into the grave it gave a cold, lonely, eerie sound as it fell on the coffin. Hymns were sung, perhaps to break the sound of the falling dirt. Later straw was placed on the coffin to prevent the hollow, eerie sound of the falling dirt.”
If you want to read the full article, use this link. And you don’t have to be a member of Facebook to access the story. (If anything pops up asking you to log in, just x it out and keep reading.) https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=2819789074987773&set=pcb.295456799381218
BTW I knew Andy Maschmeier. I helped put up hay a couple times on his farm and was fed a sumptuous feast come dinnertime. I also did some painting for him. I’m not so sure that I ever met Ida Gerdiman, but I do remember meeting Ida’s husband, Carl, when I was painting in Schluersburg, at the home of Carl’s brother, John.
Ida Gerdiman was a charter member of the Boone Duden Historical Society. Here’s a link to a Boone Country Connection article highlighting a reward she received in 2017. https://boonecountryconnection.com/news/community-interest/5418-dar-honors-ida-gerdiman-with-women-in-american-history-award
Friends, we’ve been to the funeral home and met the director. We’ve attended an in-home wake. We had a chat with the gravedigger. With the help of the Fulkersons we found Olie down by the MKT tracks with his storage tanks. And thanks to Ida Gerdiman, we even heard the heartbreaking sound of earth striking a wooden coffin. (And truthfully, I know the sound from just a few years ago in Franklin County. But that’s a different story.) And yet, we haven’t heard from our town sexton, Phil Estes, who happens to be a pastor in West County.
I couldn’t commit that sin of omission, so I tracked him down via cell phone. But first, let me give you a little background…because…you are no doubt wondering what a sexton is or does. Maybe you know already. However, Clayton Byers, the founder of Montelle Winery, once advised me to never underestimate a person’s intelligence, and simultaneously, never overestimate their information. You, my dear reader, are a smart reader, but how do I know what knowledge you have stored away?
Traditionally, the sexton is an employee of a church, who cares for the buildings and the grounds. In smaller village churches he also served as the gravedigger. The sexton could also be an employee of a municipality, and his principal duty was the care of the town graveyard.
So, our town sexton, Phil Estes, oversees the Augusta town cemetery, but he doesn’t mow grass, straighten tombstones, and definitely doesn’t dig graves. I had a phone conversation with Phil on May 9, 2022, and I learned more about him and his town gig.
Paul: I know you live on Jackson Street, but when did you move here?
Phil Estes: May 1st, 2015.
PO: I didn’t know you’d been here so long. How long have you been the sexton?
PE: I guess this is the end of the 2nd year now.
PO: Were you appointed, or did you volunteer for the job? How did it happen?
PE: I was contacted by Vic Brown. He asked me if I’d serve.
PO: Was there a waiting line of people wanting the job?
PE: You know, I really don’t know. But after some thought, and conversation with my wife, I was happy to volunteer. I’d been looking for ways to serve the town since I moved in…so this was probably a good first.
PO: I think most of us know very little about the town sexton. Do you get paid to do it?
PE: I don’t get paid, but there is a marking fee…of $50 that goes to me. If there’s a death, and a gravesite is sold…I have to mark the location for the gravedigger and the monument company.
PO: What is the cost of a cemetery plot now?
PE: It’s $450 for a resident, and $900 for non-resident.
PO: In a recent story I used a photo of Paul Kamphoefner in a double-deep he had dug. The grass was well over his head. Are there many double-deeps in the town cemetery?
PE: I really don’t know the inventory on that, although we just set up a Cloud based database, a software program, and that should allow us to get a better inventory…on questions like that. Once it’s up and running completely, it will be available to anyone…just go online…locate loved ones…or plots.
PE: The other job of the sexton is oversight of the groundskeeping. Now honestly, Vic (Brown) is interested in that and he’s kind of in the lead on that. We back each other up…if he’s not available, or if I get a call and I’m not available, they can call Vic…for things like the lawn service…tree trimming… I want to add that Paul Kamphoefner is a silent key player in the cemetery…he has a lot of knowledge of the layout…he’s been a good advisor for me. Also, I want to give a shout out to the whole committee including my predecessor, Jim Reed. He served for a year or so (following Earl Mallinckrodt). He has a great knowledge of the cemetery, and he was very helpful.
PO: Earlier today you said you were a pastor.
PE: Yes, I’m Executive Pastor of Operations and Generosity for Manchester United Methodist Church.
PO: In the past sextons were working for a pastor, so to speak, whereas you’re a pastor and a sexton. That’s kind of unusual, yes?
PE: (Chuckle.) Yeah, I thought it was kind of interesting. We have a cemetery at the church in Manchester, but I don’t have any day-to-day responsibility for that…there are volunteers who do that.
PO: Why did you choose to live in Augusta, as opposed to the Manchester area?
PE: Well, I was born in Carthage, MO, southwest Missouri. I spent a lot of time on the farm…growing up, every summer I was on the farm. Then when I grew up in the Maryland Heights area…when I was a kid, we moved into our neighborhood…I was 5yo. It was much less developed than it is now. Westport Plaza wasn’t there. 270 was under construction. I’ve always preferred a more rural atmosphere. My wife is from northwestern Illinois, which is a rural area. So, we used to spend a lot of weekend time heading out to wine country…as far as Hermann. We just liked to take a drive, or a motorcycle ride out that way. We grew to love the area…we liked the idea of a small community…where you know people…and just the beauty of the area.
Amen to that, Pastor. This is a beautiful place to live and interacting with the community makes it even better. Why, just the other day I was sitting outside on the beautiful Harmonie Verein grounds waiting for a photographer from the Missourian to capture my image for a newspaper article on Tell It Like It Was. Lo and behold, while waiting, I received a text from Justin Sincox telling me that the Dave Matthews song, Gravedigger, had been running through his head as he read parts 1 and 2 of my funereal tome. In fact, he sent me 2 different recordings of DMB doing the song. So, I’m bouncing my own just-learned-version of Gravedigger back at him and anyone who cares to listen.
"Gravedigger" by Dave Matthews Band as Performed by Paul Ovaitt
For your enjoyment, I included a few more photos of objects (like a mildewed men’s suit) within the vault…within the Bank of Augusta…within Pitman-Thilking Funeral Home.
Sincerely and curiously yours,