Tutwiler Funeral Home

By: Dave Tell

Operated by town Mayor Chick Nelson, the Tutwiler Funeral Home played an essential role in the journey of Emmett Till’s body back to Chicago.

Till’s body was discovered in the Tallahatchie River on the morning of August 31, 1955. The body was so decomposed and its odor so strong, that Tallahatchie County authorities summoned Chester Miller and his assistant Simon Garrett to help. Miller was the black undertaker in Greenwood, and the owner of Century Burial Association. Miller and Chester deodorized the body, wrapped it in paper, and placed it in a casket. The body was so swollen that the casket would not close. They then took the body to their funeral home in Greenwood where it was photographed by the police and examined informally by Greenwood pathologist Luther Otken—the same Dr. Otken who would later testify on behalf of the defense that the body was so badly decomposed that it could not be identified.

Less than three hours after the body’s discovery, Chester Miller took the body to the East Money Church of God in Christ for a quick burial. The small black church was once led by Till’s great uncle Moses Wright and it was just a short walk from the Wright home. Wright was under the impression that the body was too decomposed to ship back to Chicago and consented to the burial. The grave was two-feet deep when Moses’s brother-in-law Crosby Smith arrived to halt the funeral. Smith brought word that Mamie Till Bradley demanded that her son’s body be shipped home to Chicago.

Miller brought the body back to Greenwood and met with Chick Nelson, who carried it to his funeral home in Tutwiler. The next day, Nelson and his embalmer Harry Malone set out preparing the body for shipment. It was a grisly task. The decomposition required twenty times the normal amount of embalming fluid. Malone soaked the body in formaldehyde for thirty-six hours and cut the flesh in several places to allow the preservatives to enter. The body was then placed in a plastic bag, then into a casket, and finally into a redwood box labeled “Emmett Till.” By evening on Thursday, September 1, not even two days since the body was discovered in the river, Emmett Till was a northbound train headed for Chicago.

When it arrived and once she’d identified the body as her son, Mamie Till Bradley, demanded an open-casket funeral. Tens of thousands of Chicagoans filed past the body, the contents of which would be immortalized by photographers from several black publications.