In 1911, James Peters, age 35 died in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He was found unconscious in the snow, next to a rail fence, and was taken to a local hospital. He died on April 1, 1911 of pneumonia, 5 days after being admitted. His death certificate stated he was born in Greece, was married, but little else was known.
He was embalmed, but instead of being buried in the spring when the frozen ground softened, he was abandoned, his body left on a shelf in the local morgue. As the morgue experienced extreme temperature swings over the next 12 years, his body petrified. In 1923, he was finally buried but not until after his body was put on display. Gawkers came to look at “the mummy” (without a name). He was laid to rest in Pottstown Cemetery.
The undertaker stated he had embalmed the body in hopes someone might claim him. Perhaps the long delay was not due to neglect, but so that when the body was claimed, the family would pay for both the embalming and the burial. An unburied body, if there is sufficient storage space to hold out for 12 years, may have represented a potential income stream.
One year earlier, Jim Peter, a Greek laborer, also married, died of pneumonia on January 11, 1910. His death certificate also offers little information about his background: he was 40 years old, married and his father’s name was Peter Peter. He was buried in Monongahela Cemetery, in Braddock a town 4 hrs away from Pottstown.
Many of the Greek men who came to America in the early 1900s came alone without family. The plan was to work hard, earn money and return home. When they died, they were often forgotten, but few suffered the fate of James Peters: discarded for a decade, left to mummify and then made into a spectacle.
But this may not be the entire story:
The immigrants were men without women and expected to remain in America only long enough to accumulate savings. Bereft of mothers and sisters, they barely nurtured the culture that had come down to them from antiquity through the Christian-Byzantine epoch and into the kieftic era of insurrections against the 400-year rule of the Turks. Yet, so important were the rituals of death that the young men immediately built churches and sent for priests to insure the dead “not go to their graves unsung.”Wrestling with Death: Greek Immigrant Funeral Customs in Utah, Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 52, Number 1, 1984
IN THE EARLY YEARS OF THE CENTURY young immigrants regularly sat in Greek Town coffeehouses to arrange funerals for patriotes killed in falls of coal and ore, explosions, and spills of molten metal. “The gold-ornamented Minotaur [industry] of immigrant life is nourished on fresh Greek youth,” wrote a Greek woman journalist who toured the bursting industrial camps of Utah in those years. Sometimes a black-robed, tall-hatted priest, bearded and long haired, sat with the men. They did the best they could for each countryman but were able to provide little more than the rites for the dead and, at most, place a wedding crown on his head; for marriage, like baptism, had ties with death.Wrestling with Death: Greek Immigrant Funeral Customs in Utah, Utah Historical Quarterly, Volume 52, Number 1, 1984