March 15, 2009 in Idaho Voices

Constance Cassedy made a big mark

By The Spokesman-Review
 

March is Women’s History Month. It’s a great time to learn about women who went about their daily business, helping to shape our communities and the lives of those they loved; most often with neither fanfare nor recognition. This is one such story.

Few homes are eligible to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places for their significance to a historic woman, but Rathdrum has one such home. In fact, Rathdrum’s Main Street pretty much dead-ends in the front yard of the former Cassedy Funeral Home, which Constance V. Cassedy built for her daughter upon her return from Chicago after attending embalming school.

While it may seem an unusual occupation for a young woman in the 1920s, becoming an embalmer was just following family tradition for Constance L. Cassedy.

John W. Cassedy and Constance V. Cassedy left Minnesota to settle in Coeur d’Alene in 1908, where they established the Cassedy Funeral Home. Both were undertakers. Constance V. had learned the undertaking trade and the art of embalming from her grandfather, who ran a funeral home and furniture store in Campbell, Minn.; and later from her husband.

“She was quite a lady,” according to her granddaughter, Virginia Penman, of Post Falls. “Grandmother divorced grandfather in 1915. How many women did that back then?” she asked. Following the divorce, Constance V. continued the business herself, becoming the first licensed lady embalmer in the nation. Her daughter, Constance L. Cassedy was raised in the home, where helping out with the family business was nothing unusual.

Once her daughter left for Chicago, Constance V. purchased two additional funeral homes, expanding Cassedy Funeral Homes to Rathdrum and Spirit Lake (Sept. 9, 1921). She transferred the property to her daughter on July 20, 1925. “Upon her return, mother began running the place in Rathdrum,” said Penman.

A fire destroyed the original Cassedy Funeral Home in 1924, one of 30 buildings that were lost in Rathdrum’s second big fire. The business lost two buildings and garages, funeral parlor, chapel, hearse and associated goods in the fire, according to news reports at the time. Cassedy began rebuilding immediately. As with most structures built following the 1924 fire, this new building was constructed of brick in an effort to improve the safety of the downtown area from fires.

During the construction, Constance L. developed a fondness for Bernard Nelson, one of the men helping put up the new building, and later agreed to his proposal of marriage. The two were married in 1925; and continued to run the undertaking business together until his death in 1951.

During their years in the home, a second generation of daughters, Penman and her sister Arlene Lindell of Moses Lake, were raised on Rathdrum’s Main Street in a building that was half family home and half funeral home.

Penman didn’t think anything unusual of her family’s living quarters. “The funerals were held on the left side, and the family lived on the right,” she said. Both her mother and father and sister were married in the home, according to Penman, and although she was married in a church, she recalls her wedding reception was held at the family home. She remembers other weddings being held in the home as well.

The small one-story building to the left of the home was where the embalming took place and also the “show room” where the caskets were on display, according to Penman. Vehicles would enter the property from the alley in the rear, lining up behind the hearse, which would be parked under the porte-cochere, or covered portico.

Penman’s grandmother continued to run the Coeur d’Alene funeral home by herself until her retirement in 1946. During her years in the business, both Don English, the founder of English Funeral Chapels and Crematory Home and Gilbert Yates founder of Yates Funeral Homes, Gathering Center and Crematory, did apprenticeships under her tutelage.

Constance L. retired from undertaking and embalming in 1952, turning it over to Penman and her husband. Although she wasn’t an embalmer, like her mother and grandmother, Penman did join the family business. “I wasn’t an embalmer, but I certainly helped with everything else,” she said.

Cassedy Funeral Home continued in operation until the Penmans closed it in the late 1950s. Following closure of the business, Penman continued to live in the home, raising her four children in the home their grandfather helped build.

Despite having been neglected since the home left the family’s ownership in 1987, when Penman finally left the home in which she was born, the two- story brick building and its adjacent building still maintain an important place on Rathdrum’s Main Street, where they stand in testimony to three remarkable generations of Idaho women.

Contact correspondent Mary Jane Honegger by e-mail at Honegger2@verizon.net. Previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/columnists.


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