An Embalming Kit from Lynchburg's Oldest Business

Belonging to Walter A. Shaw, this embalming kit (ca. 1918) was used by the Diuguid Funeral Service, Lynchburg’s oldest surviving business and the second oldest funeral home in the country. While many might find this artifact a morbid oddity, this embalming kit gives us an opportunity to consider the history of this significant Lynchburg firm and the often overlooked work of the mortuary profession.

From Furniture Making to Funerals

The firm’s founder, Sampson Diuguid (1795-1856), was a furniture maker by trade, who settled in Lynchburg in 1817. Diuguid was a descendant of French Protestant Huguenots, and his unusual family name is believed to be a contraction of “Dieu Guide” meaning “God our guide.”(1)

Diuguid was initially a partner in the firm Winston and Diuguid, described as “Cabinetmakers, Upholsters, and Undertakers” in this December 14, 1818 notice in the Lynchburg Press: “In expressing their gratitude for past favors, [Winston and Diuguid] respectfully informs the public that they have on hand a general assortment of furniture which they will sell on accommodating terms . . . They have likewise an assortment of cabinet makers materials for sale on the most accommodating terms, also an assortment of Windsor Chairs of good materials and workmanship. N. B. Their Hearse will in future run for customers free of charge[.] W&D” (2)

In the 1820s, Diuguid started operating independently, beginning to establish the respected funeral service that continues to the present-day. Recorded in 1820, the first entry in Diuguid’s burial records indicates that the furniture maker agreed to make a coffin for the child of John Victor, a Lynchburg silversmith, who repaid Diuguid with a set of silver spoons.(3)  In 1827, Diuguid purchased property at 616 Main Street, where his business remained for over 100 years until moving to 1016 Rivermont Avenue in the 1930s.

Diuguid's Legacy of Innovation & Record-Keeping

After Sampson Diuguid’s death in 1856, the business passed to his sons, and by 1880 his son George and grandson William were partners in the family firm. Inspired by seeing President James Garfield’s coffin during his elaborate 1881 funeral, this father and son team invented the wheeled catafalque, also called a church truck, which is still used to roll caskets down narrow aisles.(4) Grandson of the founder, William Diuguid, carried the firm into the 20th century and owned the funeral home at the time when embalmer William A. Shaw would have used this kit.  William Diuguid’s daughter Mary Sampson Diuguid, great-granddaughter of the founder, operated the funeral home from 1927-1948 and had a reputation for conducting weekly cleanliness inspections of the facility.

In 1946, Diuguid’s conducted their largest funeral, that of Senator Carter Glass. James P. Wilkerson, Jr., who worked at the home for over 50 years, remembered that the funeral procession stretched all the day from Diuguid’s to Spring Hill Cemetery.  Diuguid’s was the first funeral home in Virginia to use a motorized hearse although the firm also maintained a horse-drawn hearse for those who preferred it. Through the mid-twentieth century, funeral homes, like Diuguid’s, provided ambulance service as part of their business, although this transitioned to being the job of hospitals later in the century. Diuguid’s remained within the family for just over 130 years, being sold in 1948.(5)

In addition to Diuguid's contributions to Lynchburg business history and the funerary profession, the firm has left a valuable legacy through their careful record-keeping. In 1866, their records aided the United States government in moving the bodies of Union soldiers from Lynchburg cemeteries for re-interment in a National Cemetery near Norfolk.(6)  Now available online at the Old City Cemetery’s website, the Diuguid Burial Records include all the services provided by the firm from its first entry on January 14, 1820 through April 28, 1951, serving as an indispensable resource for genealogists and historians. Visitors to the Old City Cemetery can also view artifacts relating Diuguid’s, funerary practices, and mourning customs at their Mourning Museum and the Hearse House and Caretakers’ Museum.  

  1. History of Diuguid Funeral Service, (accessed 1 October 2013).
  2. Diuguid Biographical File, Lychburg Museum System.
  3. Diuguid Burial Records at the Old City Cemetery: About the Records, (accessed 18 October 2013).
  4. History of Diuguid Funeral Service, (accessed 1 October 2013).
  5. Christina Nuckols, “Longtime owner of Diuguid’s recalls business’s earlier days,” The News & Advance, Lynchburg, Va., Sunday, February 12, 1995.
  6. Diuguid Funeral Home Business File, Lynchburg Museum System.

--Author: Brandi Marchant, Museum Guide