JOLIET – He’s a former candidate for Will County coroner, telephone operator and a former birthday party clown. He’s also ventriloquist, puppet collector and Civil War re-enactor.
It’s that last role that led Chuck Lyons, funeral director at Woodlawn Funeral Home in Joliet, to bring a replica of President Lincoln’s casket to Joliet in honor of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, and to offer a program and artifact display Feb. 7 once the casket is here.
“Kids aren’t learning history like we did in school,” Lyons said. “We feel that, as re-enactors, we’re not just out there playing army. We’re becoming living historians. ... There’s a lot of misinformation out there. We’re going to set the record straight.”
Because he is a Civil War buff, Lyons said he knew the casket was available to funeral homes. In fact, they are in such demand, it took Lyons six months to arrange an appearance in Joliet.
“He [Lincoln] was killed in April but I figured April might be a busy month for the casket,” Lyons said. “But I thought if we could get it in February close to his birthday, that might create a lot of interest. It’s a fascinating story.”
What makes a presentation about Lincoln’s death fascinating? For one, Lyons said, it’s a murder mystery, and that makes most people curious about the details surrounding the event.
“We all know that Lincoln was at Ford Theater,” Lyons said. “We know that his guard was not present, that he was with a general – we believe it was a general – and his wife, and the general’s companion, although we’re not sure if she was his wife or not.”
As an actor, Booth was familiar with the theater and knew Lincoln was going to be there that night. A kidnapping originally was planned, Lyons said, but it turned into murder.
“When Booth killed the president, that co-existence ceased to exist,” Lyons said. “People in the North blamed the South and so the South paid a heavy price. Booth fled and thought the South would claim him as a hero. But because the war was over, and the people wanted to become one country, Booth found himself vilified.”
The casket replica is exclusive to funeral homes, Lyons said. About 10 years ago, staff at the Abraham Lincoln Museum contacted Batesville Casket Company in Indiana to make the replica.
The company made five, donated one and the other four are available for special programs. Lyons said the mahogany casket – with black broadcloth and silver tacks – is identical to the coffin built for Lincoln.
“Lincoln, by the way, was one of the first to start the embalming craze,” Lyons said. “He had one of his sons embalmed and was so pleased with the results and how lifelike his son looked in death that when he was assassinated, Mary Todd had the same embalmer treat the president.”
Lyons said his program will consist of a PowerPoint presentation, a time for questions and a display of various artifacts, such as embalming equipment, mourning garments and badges, photos of the president and various Civil War memorabilia.
“The Assassination and Funeral of President Abraham Lincoln” initiates a quarterly informational series, Lyons said. Part of its purpose will be to educate people on funeral planning, but it won’t be exclusively so.
For instance, one future program Lyons is planning at Woodlawn Funeral Home will explain the Vial of Life Project and how to safely store vital information in case of an emergency.
“We want people to know we care about the living, too, that we’re a resource and that we want to help them,” Lyons said.
It’s this desire to help people that led Lyons – who once sold robots that taught safety to kids – to attend mortuary school more than 20 year ago and then work in profession that Lyons had desired since he was 16, one that he calls rewarding.
“We take people from that moment of sincere grief and tragedy and walk them through the point where the find some comfort, are ready to start the grieving process, and – hopefully – once they come out of that tunnel,” Lyons said, “to have joyful memories and live life again.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The Assassination and Funeral of President Abraham Lincoln”
WHEN: 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Feb. 7
WHERE: Woodlawn Funeral Home, 3201 W. Jefferson St., Joliet
ETC: Power Point presentation, questions and answers, replica of Lincoln’s coffin, artifacts. For high school age and up.
COST: Free. Reservations required. Seating is limited.