by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 15, 2014.
Thomas Brewitt, the founder of Brewitt Funeral Home, had purchased the business in 1914 when it was a furniture and undertaking business in Epping. In the nineteenth century it wasn’t unusual for a furniture business to have an undertaking department. Caskets were, after all, produced by the same cabinetmakers who made tables, chairs and beds. In one of his early advertisements, Brewitt assured the public, “Having purchased the Furniture and Undertaking business formerly conducted by C.W. Chesley, I shall continue the business and am prepared to serve you. Thomas Brewitt, Undertaker and Embalmer. Telephone at store and residence – Lady Assistant.” Although Brewitt was serving a utilitarian role, it is clear he understood that this particular line of work required a level of comfort that, say, an appliance business would not. Having a ‘lady assistant’ answering the telephone most likely helped. In 1930, he expanded his business into Exeter. By this time, words like ‘undertaker’ and ‘embalming’ were no longer used, replaced instead with the use of ‘funeral services.’
When Brewitt brought the business to Exeter, he expanded his services. No longer tied to the furniture trade, his new advertising announced, “We are prepared to serve the people of Exeter and vicinity when in need of Funeral and Ambulance service.” Say what? To understand why the business took this seemingly odd turn, it’s important to understand how medical services functioned in the early part of the twentieth century.
Today if someone becomes suddenly ill or is injured, our first call is 9-1-1 to get immediate help. But this is a relatively new experience. In earlier times, when there were no emergency departments in hospitals, the first call would be directly to a doctor – if one could be found. Think of every old movie you’ve seen on cable, the cry of “Somebody call a doctor!” is heard instead of “call an ambulance!” Sure, some large cities might have had a hospital big enough to have an ambulance, but most small towns – including Exeter – had no such service. If you managed to get Timmy out of the well, you either tossed him in the backseat of the car and drove him to the doctor’s office, or you put him to bed and waited for the doctor to come to you. In fact, more effort was expended by local police and fire departments to get the doctor to a patient than to get the patient to the doctor. There seemed to be little need of an ambulance in the days of home care.
Exeter Hospital opened in 1897 and had the services patients required once they were there, but not the ability to get the patient to the hospital. There wasn’t even an emergency department until 1960. Before ambulance service, if someone needed to be transported due to illness or injury, the only vehicle in town that was long enough to move a supine person (other than, perhaps a delivery truck) was, you guessed it, a hearse. This wasn’t unique to Exeter. Across the nation the need for patient transportation had provided local funeral homes with the opportunity to provide ambulance services. Although funeral work is always needed, it wasn’t always particularly steady. Sending the ambulance – which was frequently the converted old hearse with an emergency light on top – filled the time and brought in a small income.
Brewitt Funeral Home, like other funeral homes, provided no-frills ambulance services. The patient was simply given a ride to the hospital in the most comfortable manner available. Of course, there was no expectation of anything further. The only place severely injured patients received pre-hospital treatment was on the battlefield. A 1966 report commissioned by the Johnson administration titled, “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society” concluded that for victims of automobile accidents, “chances of survival would be better in the zone of combat than a city street.” The report is largely credited with the creation of emergency medical services as we know it today.
Tom Brewitt, who currently owns Brewitt Funeral Home along with his brother, John, recalls that the ambulance responded all over Rockingham County, but didn’t bring in much income. People paid what they could and the Brewitts weren’t inclined to aggressively collect outstanding ambulance bills. When the service was turned over to the town, new regulations were enacted, which limited use to the confines of Exeter except in extreme emergencies and, “calls for the ambulance must be initiated by a doctor, the state, or county or local police.” Townspeople were reminded “Chief Toland urges all citizens placing phone calls through the operator to make sure it is specified whether it is a fire or ambulance emergency,” to avoid sending the wrong vehicle.
Ambulance services offered by funeral homes played an important role in the development of modern emergency medical care. They provided a bridge between the days of home care and hospital-based emergency care that we have come to expect today. Brewitt Funeral Home has expanded to three locations in Epping, Exeter and Raymond during its 100 years in business. The current owners are the third generation to operate locally and there will most likely be another generation to carry on the business in years to come.
Photo: On April 1, 1963 the Brewitt Funeral Home ceased operations of its ambulance service by officially donating the 1962 Cadillac ambulance to the Exeter Fire Department. Seen here (L – R), Selectmen Dean Thorp and Thomas Cronshaw, Carl Brewitt, Fire Chief Vincent Toland and Town Manager Elton O. Feeney.