When you enter Leavenworth’s Davis Funeral Chapel, you may not expect the first two things you see.
When you enter Leavenworth’s Davis Funeral Chapel, you may not expect the first two things you see. Windsor, a big, radiantly friendly yellow lab, may greet you at the door. And you might presume an extensive doll and toy collection in a funeral home would be macabre. You would be wrong.
The doll collection began simply enough — with a Princess Diana wedding doll Davis Funeral Chapel’s patriarch, Davis Moulden bought for his wife and business partner, Debbie.
The collection has now grown to include a dozen more Dianas and other royalty, a Gary Cooper, a Grace Kelly, a Howdy Doody, a Buffalo Bob Smith, and a Li’l Abner. To round things out, there is also an assortment of trains and Disney characters housed in the glass cases lining the lobby and entry to the chapel.
“One time I was at a toy show,” recalls Moulden, “and I bought something to put in the case, and I said, ‘Don't be startled with this check — it is a funeral home check.’
“And she said, ‘You're that guy! We heard about you at the Chicago Toy Show — a funeral home with dolls.’ I said that's me.”
“It's tough for anybody to lose somebody — but you don't have to be morbid about it,” said Moulden.
“Just do whatever you can to make it easier. It is never going to be easy, but it can be somewhat easier.”
Windsor joined the family seven years ago this October, and by all accounts has left his mark on the business.
“I have seen families sitting down here, absolutely wiped out,” said Moulden. “I mean just wiped out. I guess Windsor senses that because he'll come over, put his nose on them or his paw, and you can just see that heartbreak melt away.”
“That dog just knows when somebody's heartbroken.”
“And he just comes over and works his magic.”
While Windsor doesn’t participate in the services, families frequently request his attendance at visitations.
“I can remember when funeral directors smoked cigars,” said Moulden. “And had a Shrine pin on a lapel. Now you're not sure what they're going to wear. “
“And funeral homes had purple drapes and artificial palm trees. Look at us. History photos. And toys. And dolls. How many people have a riverboat in their lobby?”
But, things have been different at the Davis Funeral Chapel from the beginning.
Davis Moulden’s greatgreat-grandfather, J.B. Davis and his wife Matilda left Crab Orchard, Ky., because their anti-slavery positions were not welcome. He started the business that now is located at Sixth and Shawnee streets in 1855, when this area was still Kansas Territory. By several accounts, that makes Davis Funeral Chapel the oldest continuous business in the state, and by Moulden’s account, the 74th oldest in the country.
They came to Leavenworth as Free-staters and set up a furniture shop, making a few caskets on the side. The business grew, and forthcoming generations took over — Moulden is the fifth generation at the reins.
Their building has been at its present location since 1912. It was the first Oddfellows (a fraternal organization dedicated to community service) hall in the state of Kansas.
It originally had a third story — lost to a cyclone in 1935.
But when Moulden talks old buildings, it is clear the one he cherished most was “The Castle,” the stately Davis home that once sat across the street from the current business, and where Moulden was raised.
At 73, Moulden remembers clearly the fire hydrant out front, which he would perch on as a child, waiting for his grandfather. He bought that very hydrant when the city was ready to replace them and has it still.
“Downtown was sort of my playground,” Moulden recalls.
The Castle was torn down in 1946, to make way for more parking — a decision Moulden clearly still regrets.
“We should have preserved it,” he said, “but we needed a parking lot. We used to see five people in one car, and then we started seeing five people in five cars.”
“Today we would not have torn it down.”
That regret fuels Moulden’s present-day efforts as a member of the Leavenworth City Commission to preserve historic buildings.
“I like to restore old buildings,” Moulden said, “that's what gets me in trouble in the City Commission. I get in trouble with the city commissioners because I want to save everything.”
In the 49 years he’s been carrying on the family business, Moulden has seen all manner of death.
Moulden remembers an incident from when he was about 5 years old. “During World War II, the Army hung 13 German POWs at the old DB.
“They were U-Boat people and they were die-hard, and they had killed one of their own men so we tried them. And hung 'em.
“As a child I remember seeing all those caskets in a semi-circle in there, all those young men — I'm probably the last living person to have seem them.
“They’re buried up at Fort Leavenworth and about every five years I go up and look at their graves.“
Moulden says his father’s “15 minutes of fame” was handling the burial of infamous gangsters George C. “Bugs” Moran — whose gang was killed by Al Capone’s people in the Chicago Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1932 — and George Celino Barnes, a prohibition-era mobster better known as “Machine Gun Kelly.”
“One night,” Moulden remembers, “they hung two notoriously bad, bad people — by the name of (Richard “Dick”) Hickok and (Perry) Smith. Of ‘In Cold Blood.’
“I didn't see the execution, but I went in, when they cut Hickok off the rope. I was pretty young at that time and that was a little unnerving.”
Moulden credits his business’ longevity with the family’s willingness to adapt to changing times.
“You've got to re-invent yourself,” he said.
For the Davis Funeral Chapel, that has meant a number of changes.
“The business is changing rapidly,” said Moulden. “In the old days you did everything you could to get the body ready and prepared and everything, and then you'd have a visitation that lasted three days until 10 o'clock at night.
“Well, that's pretty well gone away. Now it is the night before and sometimes we don't even do that — we do it the same day.”
Another change has been the music chosen for services.
“We used to know we'd have an organist at every funeral,” Moulden said. “Not any more. People are downloading favorite songs, putting them on a disc and they want them played at the funeral. Which we can do.
“The old days of the "Old Rugged Cross" are rapidly fading away.
“Now, they want to hear Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw.”
However, one thing has stayed constant, said Moulden, “Probably the hardest thing to do in the funeral business is when you're dealing with the death of a child. It’s just — there's nothing you can do that's right.”
But the (Davis) Moulden family business has been doing something right.
“There's been three and four generations of us burying three and four generations of a family,” says Moulden.
“It's been an interesting life, I'll tell you that. Its never been boring.”