Brice Stump: Funeral home’s closing ends a legacy in Bivalve

 

Several years ago, this same time of the year, I visited Jean Messick  at her home in Bivalve.

Spring had arrived with fresh, tender grass and blooming lemon colored forsythia and daffodils that bobbed and swayed in the cool breezes. It began as a cloudy day, then peeks of sun, robin-egg blue sky, and more fluffy clouds.

She greeted me at her back door, the traditional entrance by Eastern Shore folks.

On the stovetop, a plumb little cake and nearby a flickering candle in a jar made the room warm and cozy. I took my seat in the living room and began a conversation that lasted for hours but seemed remarkably short.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I liked this lady. Engaging, fun, sincere and effervescent, she made for the ideal interview.

It was easy to relax in the living room with all those little extras  — nic nacs, family photos and country decorating accessories — that made for a livable, intimate, comfortable space.

And through the doorway into another room, I could see the front of a casket. This was, of course, the Messick Funeral Home which has operated in the community since 1859.

Jean reminded me that this was her home, and as had been the custom for centuries on the Eastern Shore, the deceased were cared for at home.

That was what made the business so important to families in Bivalve and surrounding communities. The dearly departed were always cared for by the Messick family, their extended family.

Jean has cried, smiled, hugged and worried through every family loss in the community. Everyone was family, and she almost always knew the deceased. Instead of someone mourning the loss of a parent or sibling, Jean mourned the loss of everyone. That included the black community which the funeral home had always served since it began operating.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, after she married funeral director Corney Messick in 1955, Jean became the face of the funeral business. Her purpose in life it seemed was to comfort the many families through their loss. It was demanding because she and her family were “on call” every minute. There were no “off days.”

That spring morning, seated in the living room, I was soon to find out just how important the funeral home was to area families and why it was so important to them to have the deceased in a home.

Jean took me on a tour of the adjacent two rooms, one where the casket was displayed and the other a unique museum of sorts of the family business.

I walked up to the casket and recognized the young man inside. I had taken his photo just a few years earlier for a feature story. As Jean had gone to answer the phone, her son, Glenn, who was handling the business then, relayed the details of the boy’s death.

On the phone was the young man’s father who talked to Jean for a few minutes, then asked to speak to Glenn. It was not a “business call.” It was family talking to family about a loss. I could barely hear the conversation, but it was a father expressing his relief that his boy was in the care of family in their home. His son was in the care of the much respected, much beloved Messick family.

There was a lot to be learned about life in the Messick Funeral Home in Bivalve. It seemed the most unlikely setting in which heart and soul could find the very best in life in the darkness of death.

That day I learned how important the Messick family was and had been to their community. Most important I learned that this was more than a business to them. It was simply destined as their role in life to help others during life’s saddest moment.

Over the decades Jean had become the mother, the grandmother, the sister, the daughter, the wife, the aunt and best friend to thousands of grieving people. She welcomed everyone into her home and into her heart.

Over the years, as many of the old families passed and younger generations moved away, the cord that tied all to the past slipped away and there were fewer funerals, which meant less business.

Jean and her son, Glenn, were struggling to keep the business, that was started by her late husband’s family in 1859, going. By the time of the death of her husband, Corney (Cornelius) in 2005, it was  evident that the world and traditional funeral business was changing and a lifestyle of old was coming to a close. Rural funeral homes were becoming a thing of the past.

With the recent passing of Glenn, Jean has closed the business, ending a legacy, ending an era.

A celebration of the legacy of the Messick family to the community will be held Saturday.

Through the good times and tough times, Jean has stayed the course, held the line. Through her strength, compassion and love, hurting people have found a genuine and sincere comfort.  This wasn’t business, this was life and family.

If there are angels on earth, surely Jean Messick of Bivalve is one of them.

Contact Brice Stump at myshorehistory@gmail.com.

 

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