Wednesday, December 7, 2022

A Past of St. Louis Funeral Crashers

In 2005, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn starred in the buddy comedy wedding Crashers. This movie was about two people who sneaked into wedding receptions to get free food and access for single women. Vaughn and Wilson have a falling out about a woman at the end of the movie, as is Hollywood’s norm for buddy movies. Wilson then visits Chazz Reinhold (played by Will Ferrell), who was Vaughn’s mentor. Reinhold’s ability to crash weddings has deteriorated over the years, and now he is resigned to doing so to meet single women. The two friends are shocked by Reinhold’s behavior and reconcile. Everyone lives happily ever after. The screenwriters assumed that crashing funerals would be absurd enough to work well as comedy devices.

The screenwriters have never visited St. Louis. When I was searching for an article about a different subject, I came across a headline that caught my attention. The expose “It’s Fun To Go to Funerals On Week Days; As Any St. Louis Regular’ Will TELL You” was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, morning May 24, 1908. Louis Post-Dispatch with images of the activities of this subset of the Gateway City’s population. Before we get into this fascinating group, the article interviews beer garden owners who once lined the roads between the cemeteries of the city.

The Post quotes William Ziegenhein as saying, “You would be amazed at the number of people who go to funerals who they have never seen or spoken of.” John L. Ziegenhein & Sons remains a St. Louis institution with two funeral homes on Lemay Ferry, one on Gravois, and close to several cemeteries. After being abandoned for many decades, Old St. Marcus was turned into a park. A beer garden was located north of Old St. Marcus. Because alcohol was not permitted in cemeteries it was a huge business as carriages would stop there to return to the city. Blue Laws forbidding alcohol consumption on Sundays meant that Adolph Welz, the owner of the beer garden, informed the Post reporter, that hearse drivers encouraged funerals to take place during the week to increase business after the burials. Because the beer gardens were closed on Sundays, the funerals were smaller and Mr. Welz noted that “everybody loves to have a large funeral.”

According to property records, Adolph Welz’s beer-garden building at 6432 Gravois is still standing. Thomas Schuetz was a colleague of Welz and owned a tavern located at 6801 Gravois. This location was near the corner of Gravois & Kingshighway. It was a convenient spot to stop mourners or funeral crashers returning from the many Lutheran cemeteries that crossed the city-county boundary. The site of Schuetz’s Exchange Saloon has been turned into a parking lot. Two photos from the Missouri History Museum collection show Schuetz’s tavern and its customers and employees. William Schoenlau also owned one of the establishments. He said that people need something to cheer themselves up after the funeral is over. These gardens are a great asset. What would regulars do without them?

These “regulars”, would be found along major roads from St. Louis, where there are still major cemeteries. One of the men interviewed by the reporter was a salesman, who waited along the sideline of the road for many hours in hopes that a funeral procession would appear. The salesman explained that loneliness and a feeling of belonging by joining the procession were major motivations. This gives you the chance to speculate.

Funeral crashers sometimes didn’t make it to the cemetery, but instead turned around at the beer gardens. They would then meet up with regulars, drink, and wait for the actual mourners. According to one estimate, three-fifths of the five funeral carriages would pull over after the funeral. It would be “a regular party in the garden, not funny or jolly, but enjoyable to sit and gaze at.” Women would also scan the obituaries rather than wait on the funeral processions to pass. This would have been unladylike. If a funeral from their area appeared in the newspaper, they would drive with their male counterparts to the celebrations.

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