For one immigrant, funeral business was a way out of the mines. The faces in the old photo are
serious. Wearing black coats and somber faces, these men offer a stark contrast to the women in white
gathered on the South Bethlehem sidewalk.
The open hearse with casket tells the story of death. From the windows the shawl-draped figures mourn
the passing of a loved one. The loss and the pain on the faces is clear.
It's the turn of the century. Industry, built by the hands and backs of these ethnic Europeans that look
back at us, has transformed the nation. But a price had to be paid. It came in the form of long hours,
crippling illness and sometimes death.
The grim reaper was not an unfamiliar figure in their lives. These immigrants had seen his shadow all too
often in the Old Country. And their lot in America was not always much better. In the mines or factories,
a death with dignity was usually denied. But a decent funeral was one way to grab back some of their
humanity. And that's where the man at far right came in. With his shiny top hat, frock coat and wing collar,
the funeral director, or undertaker as they said then, represented dignity and respectability. And for the
ethnic people of South Bethlehem, the man who filled this role was a talkative Irishman named Joseph F.
Kinney. It is his business that, under the name of Downing Funeral Homes, recently marked its 100th
Being among the early waves of 19th century immigrants, the Irish took the lumps first. And Joseph Kinney
knew what those lumps were from personal experience. Born in Ashland, Schuylkill County, in 1863, he went
from a few brief years in public school to the coalmines. There, like a lot of other children, Kinney began
as a coal breaker boy. Next to him, picking slate, was a boy who would become the Catholic Cardinal of
Philadelphia, Dennis Dougherty.
At age 14, Kinney survived a mine explosion that killed six of his friends. He never forgot those years and
for the rest of his life tried to help those who followed in his footsteps as an active member of the Ashland
Sometime after this event, Kinney decided that a life in the mines was not for him. He went to Girardville and
apprenticed himself to learn the trades of cabinetmaker and undertaker. In 1883, Kinney went off on his own to
set up a business in the town of Mahanoy City.
Kinney's training was not unusual. As was the case with most professions in America 100 years ago, funeral
directors did not attend professional schools. Like the doctors and lawyers who learned by working with someone,
an undertaker had to be an apprentice. And combining the jobs of furniture maker and funeral director was not
unusual. Many 19th-century funeral directors also sold furniture.
It was May 30, 1889, when Joseph F. Kinney arrived on the South Side of Bethlehem. He opened his
first funeral home at Third and New streets. But by 1892 he had
moved to 308 Brodhead Ave., where the business was to remain until his death.
It was not until 1895 that the first state licensing laws for funeral directors were issued. Kinney received
his 10 years later in 1905. By that time, Kinney had married Elizabeth O'Reilly, joined Holy Infancy Catholic
Church and became a charter member of Trinity Council 313 of the Knights of Columbus and St. Bernard's
But Joseph Kinney was not all wing collars and top hats. He was a star football player on the Temperance
Athletic Club's football team. For years, old timers would talk of Kinney's skill on the field on the day
that Temperance walloped the Lafayette College football squad 78-0.
Joseph Kinney was also drawn to politics. He became active in the Democratic Party and served a term as "poor
agent", the borough official that dealt with the poor. In 1916, Kinney expanded his business affairs with the
purchase of the Broadway Hotel at the corner of Broadway and Gorham Place.
With his hotel and funeral business, Kinney was able to support himself, his wife and three children, Mary,
Joseph Jr., and Elizabeth. But young Joe had no interest in following in his father's footsteps; at least as
far as the funeral business was concerned. He graduated from Lehigh University with a civil engineering
In the Depression years, Joseph Kinney Jr. became proprietor of the popular Kinney Café, Later the
Wyandotte Hotel. His large Lehigh University student clientele gave him the nickname "Mr. Lehigh." Kinney
eventually took up a career in engineering in New York City, where he lived until his death in 1959.
Realizing that his son was not interested in the family business, Joseph Kinney turned to his daughter
Mary and her husband, Herbert F. Downing, a native of upstate New York and former employee of the Wall street
firm Bankers Trust. It was in 1923 that they went into a partnership as the Kinney-Downing Funeral Home. But
in the early 1930s, an illness struck Joseph Kinney Sr. He died on Oct. 23, 1931. With that, the business
adopted its current name, Downing Funeral Home.
In 1947, Herbert's oldest son James T., who had just returned from service in the Army Air Corps in World
War II, joined the business. At Herbert Downing's death in 1967, his wife Mary received a widow's license
(a license unique to the funeral industry) and ran the Downing Funeral Home with her sons, James and Charles,
until 1978. The newest member of the firm, Charles's son Robert, received his license in 1979. With the death
of James Downing, Charles became the firm's senior member.
A lot has changed in the funeral business since that May day in 1889 when Joseph F. Kinney Sr. first put on
his top hat and headed down South Bethlehem's muddy streets. But for the Downing's, 111 years of tradition
define who they are. And that is something that we vow will not change.
Charles M. Downing, 3rd. generation funeral director, is involved in many community organizations. He has had
his license in funeral directing since 1969.
Jason Hennigh is the 5th. generation funeral director in the family. He also is involved in community
organizations. He has had his license since 1994.
Charles and Jason both believe in serving one family at a time. After all, they have been serving some of the
same families for over one hundred years. They pride themselves as the oldest family owned funeral home in
Bethlehem. Downing Funeral Home is here to serve you and give guidance when you feel help is needed.
1002 West Broad Street | Bethlehem, PA 18018 | Phone: 610.867.5841