Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Brenan's Funeral Home Records, Saint John

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001    The records of funeral homes or morticians are not commonly found in archives but when such records survive and find their way to an archives the information contained in the records are a boon to a variety of researchers, including students, genealogists, and academics. Too often acts of nature, change in ownership, the short utility of a business' records, and other vagaries beset our documentary heritage, and interfere with such records being accessible to succeeding generations. Brenan’s Select™ Community Funeral Homes & Crematorium, of Saint John, ensured none of these things derailed the preservation of the records of its antecedent companies and that diligence provides us with a valuable resource for examining the past. With the recent increase in accessibility to Vital Statistics records the obvious question is whether funeral home records are redundant. Several factors make the answer to this question a resounding no. For the first few decades in which Vital Statistics were recorded, accuracy and comprehensiveness fell short of 100%. Therefore, Brenan’s records often document people who went unrecorded by the Provincial system, although the percentage of missed deaths is not known. On occasion the funeral home records contain notations which would not be included in an official death record. Sometimes these references provide links to other family members or to publications in which an obituary was placed. Funeral home records can also fill a void not covered by Provincial Vital Statistics records and solve a challenge many researchers cannot overcome. As it is today, it was not uncommon for New Brunswickers who had left the province to want their remains to be returned here for burial. Such situations are not often documented in other records and funeral home records can provide leads to find people whose documentary trail would otherwise remain invisible to the researcher's scrutiny.

    While the individual death records are of note, the Brenan’s Funeral Home records also encapsulate some of its administrative history and practices, providing insight to the funeral home business in the past.


History of Brenan's Funeral Home

    Nathaniel W. Brenan (ca.1842-1912), one of the first professional embalmers in the Maritimes, established a funeral home on Mill Street, Portland (later Saint John), New Brunswick in 1872, probably under the business name Brenan & Hatfield. Nathaniel married Charlotte Betts (1845-1907) on 1 January 1873, and two of their sons, Nathaniel Louis and Fred Betts (d. 1957), eventually joined the family business as morticians. N. Louis was among the first Maritimers to graduate from the Reounards School of Embalming in Boston. Fred B.'s son Fred K. Brenan joined the firm in 1930, and he, in turn, brought his son Wilmot into the business.

    Over time the business operated under several different names -- N. W. Brenan undertaker, N. W. Brenan & Son, and N. B. Brenan & Sons Ltd. It also relocated twice in the early years, first to 715 Main Street, and in 1926 to 111 Paradise Row, a stately home built for Saint John industrialist James Harris. In 1970 Fred K. Brenan sold the business to H. Douglas MacMackin (d.1987), a well-known Saint John businessman. His sons Stephen D. and William (Bill) F. MacMackin both apprenticed with the company and became licensed funeral directors.

    The MacMackin's expanded the business, purchasing McAdam's Funeral Home in Fredericton, the Minto Funeral Home in Minto (1990), Bell's Funeral Home on the Miramichi (1996), MacDonald Funeral Home and Florist in St. Stephen (1997), and the Sussex Select Community Funeral Home (1999). In addition the company opened a new funeral home in Oromocto 1991 and a second location in Saint John, Brenan's Bay View Funeral Home on Manawagonish Road in 1995. In February 2001 the company began doing business under the name Brenan's Select Community Funeral Home.


About the records

    The N.W. Brenan Funeral Home Records at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (MC793) cover the period of 1901 to 1971 and encompass just the records of the Saint John firm. For the years 1904 to 1971, the records comprise, firstly, account books in which the funeral home entered the name of the deceased, the death date, itemization of the goods and services related to the funeral and the respective charges, and usually the name of the person who engaged the company; secondly, 4" x 6" printed forms on which the funeral director entered information about the deceased. As a rule, these forms contain more information about the deceased than the account registers. A scan of a typical form is available as an example.

    A computer database was created to contain transcriptions of the information on the 4" x 6" slips or forms. This database contains the records from 1901 to 1971. For the years 1901 and 1902 the forms do not exist and the data is taken from the account book. In accordance with the protection of personal information requirement a 50-year restriction applies to these records, therefore as of 2009, only records up to and including 1959 will be available. On January 01 of each year, the next year in the series will be available.

    The amount of information for each record varies greatly and in many cases pieces of data were not filled in on the original record. This project has made every effort to include all the information on the original record and transcribed names and other information as it appears on the original. The single exception to this approach is with the cause of death. Approximately 11% of Brenan’s records contain a recorded cause of death. This information is invaluable to many researchers, particularly those pursuing sociological or medical research. Given the complex names of many diseases and illnesses, it was not uncommon for the records to exhibit inconsistencies in spelling. Where these were obvious, the spellings were corrected in the database in order to make the cause of death data accessible to users as an index. The slips or forms range in colour from off-white to brown and some years the information was recorded in pencil, making for little contrast between the two. Some of the writing has faded, and some is very difficult to decipher because of poor penmanship and spelling. Combined, all of these factors present some challenges in interpreting names and other data but every effort has been made to provide as accurate a transcription as possible. The name and age of the deceased, in most cases, were recorded both on a form and in an account book, at least providing one point of verification. The accuracy of the information provided on the forms is also dependent on the informant’s knowledge of the deceased. For these reasons, as is the case with all types of research, it is always good to compare sources to authenticate information.

    In most cases the funeral home took charge of the remains shortly after death and conducted a funeral, after which burial took place in a local cemetery, or the remains were shipped to a location outside the city. In some cases the death did not occur in Saint John, the remains came from outside the city and the funeral home took charge at the railway station or steamer wharf and conducted a funeral and burial, or took them directly to a cemetery for burial. In some instances the funeral home supplied only a casket or a case, or removed a body from a local cemetery for burial in another location. For some of these transactions there is only a brief entry in one of the account books, with no card or information about the deceased. Regardless of the amount of information, if the name of the deceased is in the record, an entry has been made in the database.

    Within the Notice field on the original form, abbreviations were sometimes used to distinguish where the death notice or obituary was placed. Although most of these refer to Saint John newspapers, the reference to which paper is usually obvious, a complete list of Saint John newspapers can be found in the New Brunswick Newspaper Directory on the PANB website. To browse these open the directory search page and select “View index by place” and scroll down to “Saint John.” The main papers in Saint John through this time period were the Telegraph, Sun, Globe, Times, Standard, and Star. Infrequently, radio station abbreviations may also appear.

    This site does not provide the option for a nominal search per se. Nominal searches do provide a certain type of precision but also have limitations. Names of the deceased were entered into the database verbatim, maintaining phonetic spelling and errors. A nominal search would limit users to finding those entries which match their exact search terms, meaning , entries with the aforementioned characteristics could be easily overlooked. Also if a name is common, hundreds of records can be displayed which can encumber a search. In this case, the use of a name index eliminates such issues and allows users to simply browse through surnames, revealing similar spellings of names that they might not have otherwise considered. These searches can be limited by a range of years to speed up the process or narrow the results set.

    While a 50 year restriction applies to Brenan’s records, the Statistics component is generated from data contained in all records from 1901-1971, broken down by year. This function allows users to access information regarding the number of records contained in each year, how many of these records denote males and females, and the age of each sub group. Finally, the majority of data contained in the Residence field refers to addresses in Saint John unless otherwise specified.