Bear Funeral Home

Over 200 Years of Service

In the latter 1700’s, when settlers were making their way south from Pennsylvania to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Christian Bear (1783-1847) came with his parents, Andrew and Veronica (Graff) Bear, who were of Swiss descent, from Lancaster and York Counties to Shenandoah County, Virginia. After several years they relocated in Rockingham County, buying land and establishing a family of thirteen children. Christian, the eldest, became a skilled craftsman, serving his woodworking apprenticeship before twenty years of age.

Churchville had not been named and Augusta County was sparsely settled when Christian Bear arrived in 1809 from Rockingham County to manage a plantation for his father-in-law, Henry Hottle, and establish his woodworking trade. He and his wife Elizabeth later inherited half of this property (245 acres). In those early days the area was called “Jennings Branch,” later to be known as Churchville. Here Christian continued his craft, making caskets and many fine pieces of furniture (including items such as “betstets,” “fawling lieafe tables,” and “toomborts” as quoted from his ledger) for neighbors, friends and family. He also had a wool processing operation which involved carding, fulling, pressing, dyeing, and weaving. The earliest known records date to 1812. Since Christian recorded only charged accounts, not cash sales, it is not known how much earlier he may have been performing funeral-related services. Payment for a service was often made by barter, trading goods for services. Items such as flour, sugar, coffee, lumber, cloth, sheep, and cattle were given as payment. Day labor such as chopping wood, threshing wheat, hay making, soap making, weaving and shop work were also exchanged for services. An 1818 account states that one and one-half packs of clover seed were traded for a coffin. It became a pattern for Christian to assist the family with burial after providing the casket. In that day a member of the deceased’s family would bring one stick indicating the length of the body and one indicating the width to determine the size of the casket to be made. The customer was given a choice of hardwoods and interiors, with the interior trimming being done by the ladies in the Bear family. English currency was used in the account books until 1819. One of the last such recorded sales was a casket made in 1818 for one pound, ten shillings. After that, a new reference to currency was made, for example, “beafe” (beef) was sold in 1819 for 4 ½ cents per pound. Christian’s handcrafted furniture is eagerly searched for by collectors and many are now museum pieces. Christian also produced wooden clock cases for his brother-in-law and famous clockmaker, Peter Heneberger. Christian worked from a log and frame structured mill, using water as the only source of power. This mill contained both woodworking and wool carding machines. Later an adjoining brick mill was added with living quarters and facilities for grinding grain.

Christian and Elizabeth were the parents of eight children. The youngest son, Christian, Jr. (1818-1888), was associated with his father in the funeral business. He continued woodworking, farming, and wool processing. Some of his descendants still live in the handsome home which he constructed in 1852 from brick fired on site. Christian, Jr. faced many difficult times. He struggled with the effects of the Civil War, losing his eldest son, a brother, and three nephews. A time of hardship, great need and despair existed with the people of the Valley as recorded in his log books and related through stories passed down from generation to generation.

Third generation, Ephraim Baxter Bear (1842-1902), received his license from the State Board of Embalmers on August 18, 1894, becoming the eighteenth person to be licensed in Virginia. He was also a fine furniture and cabinet maker. Many pieces of his furniture can be found throughout the United States. He continued to make caskets while purchasing some from supply houses. Ephraim’s business card had a line which stated “Will dress flooring and weatherboarding at any time.” He met with an untimely death, having contracted blood poisoning from a corpse while embalming.

William Theodore Bear (1877-1970) and Frank Alexander Bear (1885-1958), sons of Ephraim, were associated together in the business as the fourth generation. William graduated from Renouard Training School for Embalmers in New York City in 1902, assuming the family business that same year following his father’s death. Frank graduated from Renouard in 1908. William “Will” was also a building contractor and was credited with building numerous schools, businesses and homes in the area. Frank saw service in World War I with the 37th Corp of Engineers in France and Germany. He returned to help his brother with the family business in 1919. Frank, too, was a talented woodworker, making many pieces of period furniture that today have become cherished heirlooms. During the first four generations, caskets and furniture were produced simultaneously in the Bear mill.

The original log and frame mill was rebuilt in 1908 and is still powered by the water wheel. The old brick mill was dismantled in 1926 to provide the brick for a new funeral home building. Since that time numerous additions and improvements have been made to the funeral home. Windows and lanterns from the horse-drawn hearses were retained and included in one remodeling of the building.

Fifth generation William Theodore Bear, II, son of Frank, came into the business in 1947 after graduating from the Cincinnati College of Embalming. William “Bill” enjoyed working with wood in the old water-powered mill at the same place where his great-great-grandfather opened his shop. He used his skills as a woodworker to restore the ancestral home built by his great-grandfather, Christian, Jr. Bill’s wife, Gladys (Heatwole) Bear, assisted in operating the business until her death in 2001. Bill continued to be an integral part of the business until he passed away in 2015 at the age of 90.

Sixth generation, William Theodore Bear, III “Will”, also a graduate of Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, and his sisters, Judith “Judi” Bear Delp and Jill Bear Bussiere, continue the care for the community that began over 200 years ago.

Bear Funeral Home, grateful for the honor and privilege of serving the people in this area for generations, is the oldest funeral home in the state of Virginia to have operated continuously by the same family, and one of the oldest funeral homes in the nation.

Bear Funeral Home
Phone: (540) 337-7188
14 Green Hill Ln., PO Box 602, Churchville, VA 24421

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