Imagine riding west on Washington Street where Liberty Place is today and seeing coffins in several styles being displayed in a glass exhibition window.
They were displayed there in the 1850s and 1860s. And the more expensive ones were elaborately hand-carved with intricate floral designs, a specialty, so said the late Joe McLaurin, local historian.
The coffin maker in this case was William D. Ussery (1811-1892).
In 1891, the Rocket newspaper in Rockingham advertised that merchant H. C. Watson, among his other dry goods, had just added a “full line of coffins and caskets and is arranging to get a hearse; and that he will supply the hearse free of charge to those buying a coffin from him.”
(A coffin is a tapered hexagonal or octagonal box. A casket is a rectangular box.)
Ussery in the 1850s had his coffin shop on the bottom floor of his house on Washington Street. The family lived above the shop. He “made about all the coffins for the section from $2 up,” according to the July 2, 1953, Rockingham Post-Dispatch.
Ussery’s occupation was “mechanic” and “coffin-maker.” He worked on mechanical devices such as buggies, wagons, waterwheels and grist mills. Ussery was also a blacksmith, carpenter, cabinet maker and builder of coffins.
McLaurin said Ussery’s coffins were considered among the finest in the entire area.
In 1854, Ussery charged from $3 to $8.50 for a coffin, and $1 to dig a grave and carry a corpse to it.
In 1868, prominent local farmer Mial Wall’s family paid $16 for his coffin. That same year, Col. Henry William Harrington’s family paid $20 for his.
Those fine coffins are all gone. If one exists, the Richmond County Historical Society would like to see it. They were buried before metal caskets and strong vaults were used to surround them.
In 1960, the tombstones of people buried in Old Town Cemetery (also known as Rockingham Graveyard or Terry Graveyard) were moved from the present site of Station One, Rockingham Fire Department, on South Lawrence Street, to a special section at Eastside Cemetery. Some caskets were moved. For example, the caskets of John Shortridge and his wife buried in the 1880s were moved to Mary Love Cemetery in Hamlet.
But for some, there was nothing to move except the tombstones, for those who had them. “Dust to dust” was fulfilled with the very early burials when the coffins and bodies blended in with the soil. Their elements remain.
Cadaver dogs were recently used in Rockingham to locate old burial sites. The dog handler said roots of trees near the graves absorb minerals – that are associated with human remains – by osmosis into the trees that the dogs can detect.