Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to show Mary Evelyn Cantwell is one of the oldest working embalmers in the country, not the oldest as previously stated.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – It’s a stately setting for final farewells.
Stevens Mortuary has been a fixture in North Knoxville since 1958. It’s president and CEO turns 92 years old today, March 4. That makes Mary Evelyn Cantwell one of the oldest working embalmers in the country. She’s not about to quit a service, along with her family, that she’s proud to provide.
Amid the beauty and elegance inside Stevens Mortuary, designed to add comfort to grieving families, is someone who provides another important part of the process in another part of the building.
“This is actually where the preparation of remains is actually done,” Mary told us, as she prepared for another day in the morgue.
It’s a curious profession for someone who would rather be outside.
As a girl born in 1930, growing up on a farm in Grainger County, Mary remembers, “we had about ten cows and I milked five of them every morning before I went to school.”
She took home eight blue ribbons at local livestock shows and found time to show her skill on the basketball court at Rutledge High School.
“That’s when you played half court and I was a forward,” Mary told us.
She was at home on a tractor then , “that was a big John Deere, and I was able to do the driving of the tractor , haul hay, and whatever else needed to be done,” she said, and still operates a lawnmower today.
She later took to the sky after earning her pilot’s license. A daredevil who admittedly enjoyed Finishing School at Ward Belmont. Mary graduated from UT in 1955 with a major in bacteriology and a minor in chemistry, going to work at the new UT hospital lab as a medical technologist.
“I think there were seven of us that opened the lab,” she said,” and I worked there for 13 and a half years.”
Mary quit to take care of her ailing father. Then, in 1972, showed her dedication to her family again by joining her sister Berniece and brother-in-law Tommy who had co-founded Stevens Mortuary 14 years before.
“Tommy, my brother-in-law, he got ill with cancer, and he asked if I would like to go to school to help my sister when he passed away because he knew he wasn’t going to make it,” Mary said.
She started with bookkeeping, then decided to go to mortuary school, graduating in 1978, one of two women in her class.
“She was 18 years old, ” Mary said of the other woman in her class, “and I was 48. “
Now at 92, Mary still puts in the hours at the morgue, in the service of helping others through some of their darkest days.
“You’re not doing it for the person (who died),” she said, “you’re actually doing it for the people that are left behind.”
We had to ask Mary’s secret for a long healthy life.
She said it’s her faith in God, she doesn’t take any sort of medication, and she eats healthy foods, but does enjoy the occasional Krystal burger.
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