Although death and burial rituals have long been part of the human existence, funeral homes are a relatively new addition to the process. The Pence, Doolin and McNutt funeral homes provided these services to Conway and the surrounding area.
In the 1940s, burial associations often provided funeral products and services to their members. Each funeral home worked with an association. Their funeral home cars also provided another service, carrying members to Conway Memorial until a hospital ambulance service was initiated in the 1970s.
Pence Funeral Home was the oldest funeral home. John Pence established it in 1879 as a service of his Front Street woodworking and cabinetmaking shop. Families would give him the measurements and he would build a wooden casket for the departed.
The casket was usually of pine or oak, the interior lined with flannel, handles attached on the outside. Often an epitaph was placed on the simple flat top of the casket. Once a casket was finished, Mr. Pence would send word to the family waiting in the wagon yard.
In 1886, Pence’s shop was destroyed by fire along with most of the Conway business district. He temporarily moved into an old building outside the business district until he could rebuild. He and his partner, George Donaghey, then split the business. Donaghey took the cabinet shop and Pence the undertaking business.
A charter member of the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association and in 1909, Pence helped organize the Arkansas State Board of Embalmers. He was the oldest funeral director and undertaker in Arkansas at the time of his death.
The Pence Burial Association, started in 1934, had 20,000 members in Faulkner, Van Buren, Conway, White and Yell Counties by 1940. Pence Funeral Home kept ledgers from 1881 until 1971 listing the people for whom it performed funerals. It was eventually relocated on North Street (Sherwin-Williams location).
Doolin Funeral Home was founded by Trust Doolin in 1929. Trust Doolin worked in his stepfather’s Morrilton funeral home before he moved to Conway. Over the years, it was located at numerous sites, the last being on the corner of Caldwell and Faulkner. It remained there for the last 25 years of its operation. After Doolin’s death in 1960, his widow, Doris Egan Doolin, continued the business until her death in 1966. In 1969, it was purchased by McNutt Funeral Home and closed.
In 1931, Robert Arthur McNutt came to Conway from Newport, where he had been in the funeral service business. After working for Pence Funeral Home a short time, he opened McNutt Funeral Home at 609 Locust Avenue (Lifeword Ministries location) in July, 1941.
The funeral home was located in the former home of Leo Schwarz, co-owner of Frauenthal and Schwarz. Before McNutt bought the house, it has previously been occupied by Dr. C.H. Dickerson’s Doctor’s Clinic. Dickerson would build a new clinic on Center Street.
McNutt extensively remodeled the home. The chapel, which occupied the three large drawing rooms of the old Schwarz home, was beautiful with fireplaces and mantels of antique design, a beamed ceiling and hardwood floors. Rooms for caskets and burial merchandise as well as embalming rooms were located on the ground floor.
The McNutts occupied the living quarters on the upper floor. McNutt was assisted in the operation of the funeral home by his wife, Hazel, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Scott. McNutt’s furnished service for United Burial Association which had 5,000 members at the time McNutt’s opened in 1940.
McNutt was passionate about his business, eventually becoming one of the largest in Conway. In 1959, he expanded his operations by developing Crestlawn Memorial Park, east of Conway. In October, 1963, he suffered a fatal heart attack while making a speech to a civic club defending the cost of funerals. He was buried in the Masonic Garden at Crestlawn.
In 1965, a memorial was erected at Crestlawn to honor him. The inscription read, “It serves to perpetuate the memory of Mr. McNutt, not only for we who were associated with him, but also for you—the people of Conway and the surrounding areas whom he served and counted among his friends for so many years.”
Mrs. McNutt continued to run the funeral home until 1968, when Denver Roller purchased it. The business moved to its present location at 801 8th Avenue in 1978 and the name was changed to Roller-McNutt in 1987.
These establishments are often vividly remembered by locals. We tend to remember, in detail, those turbulent and emotional times when we have to say goodbye to loved ones. Many said those goodbyes were said at one of these funeral homes.
Cindy Burnett Beckman is a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history. She may be reached email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.