Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Centurions: Stiff resolve

By Bill Thompson

Usually, one thinks of funeral homes as gothic, macabre structures that would be suitable for a vacation home for the Addams Family. That’s not the case with the McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium in Laurinburg, one of Scotland County’s oldest continuously operating businesses. Despite the cold, rain and wind of a recent winter day, I discovered that this parlor, once the residence of a prominent local family, is not a sad or scary place. Maybe because folks were putting up Christmas decorations, or because owner Sherrill Bumgarner was dealing with an errant squirrel that had gotten inside a heating duct, I felt like I was visiting neighbors.

In 1856, neighbors called on the McDougald and Currie store in Antioch, a community 20 miles north of Laurinburg, which advertised its “Hardware, Furniture and Undertaking.”  When the Civil War started, co-owner Malcolm McDougald ended his partnership and moved his family to Laurinburg to join the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherfordton Railroad, which moved its rail yards inland to avoid Union Army attacks. Following the war, Malcolm left railroading to open his own furniture and undertaking business with older sons William and Daniel.

After a fire destroyed their original Laurinburg building at the intersection of Railroad and Main streets, they built a three-story structure that sold furniture and hardware on the lower two floors and undertaking supplies on the top level. The building included a hand-operated elevator, the first of many innovations implemented by the McDougald family.

After Malcolm died in 1909, his youngest son, John, took over, having attended school to become the only licensed embalmer in the Sandhills area. In 1914, he purchased the first motorized hearse in North Carolina.

Early in his career, John McDougald made a decision that made his business famous. A traveling carnival worker believed to be Concetto “Spaghetti” Farmica was killed in a fight, and his body was brought to the funeral home in 1911. Because his identity was never officially confirmed, an arcane state law blocked the body’s burial. So an embalmed body stood upright in a box in the garage for 61 years, until U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi, a New York Democrat, raised money to pay for the burial of a fellow Italian-American.

Amid the Great Depression, John McDougald sold his furniture business in 1932 to concentrate on funerals. John’s son, Hewitt, took over management in 1935 and later moved the business to its present location on East Church Street in the former home of James Lytch McNair, scion of a Scotland County family prominent in banking, farming and textiles for more than 140 years. The late John McNair III was a senior Wachovia Bank executive for 21 years after it bought the family’s Laurinburg bank in 1968.

In 1975, Beacham McDougald became the fourth-generation manager of the family business. In March, 160 years after Malcolm McDougald started selling caskets in Antioch, the business was sold to Bumgarner and his wife, Melanie, the first nonfamily owners. They continue the tradition of being good neighbors, holding community services at Christmas and recognizing first responders. A hearse from the early 20th century is available for use in funeral processions.

With a website and technology that enable grieving survivors to study options for caskets via cellphone, the Bumgarners are changing with the times while still honoring the past.

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