Ms. Ruby McFarland — a long-time Owensboro philanthropist, activist, businessperson, and more — died Saturday at 103 years old. Known by most as Ms. Ruby, some of McFarland’s most notable titles include mother, grandmother, funeral director, nurse assistant, first lady of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, and friend.
McFarland was the first female African-American licensed mortician in Daviess County, a feat she accomplished in her 50s. To add to her prestige, she changed her career while raising 8 children and commuting to Louisville weekly for her studies.
During McFarland’s tenure, Danny Percell was president of both the Kentucky and National Board of Funeral Directors. He said she was a devoted member of both associations.
“Ms. Ruby believed in giving service above all else,” Percell said. “She was an innovator in our industry and an excellent embalmer who was ahead of her time.”
Percell recalled an evening during the annual state convention in Louisville when he received a “death” call from Owensboro. He went to McFarland to see if she knew anyone who could handle the situation. Her response was simple.
“Well, Mr. Percell, both of our embalmers are here right now, but for you, I’ll go back right now and take care of that for you, ” she said.
Naturally, he advised her to enjoy the convention, and he would handle it. He said, “That’s just the type of person she was.”
McFarland was born in 1920 on a small farm in Sorgho. She often told stories of riding a covered wagon from the farm to Owensboro with her family. The Little Flock Baptist Church doubled as McFarland’s church and school during her formative years.
Shortly after moving to Owensboro, she graduated from Western High School in 1939 and married the soon-to-be Rev. R. L. McFarland during the summer of 1940. She then entered a 25-year-long stint as a nursing assistant at the Owensboro Daviess County Hospital before purchasing the funeral home with her husband.
“She was always there – always there for young people, young married couples, and young mothers,” her daughter Patricia McFarland Oberg said. “She had so many tips for raising a family, mainly because she had so much experience.”
Oberg said the family didn’t have a babysitter. Instead, her mother would work midnights at the hospital, send them off to school, and greet them when they returned home. Then, she would prepare them for bed before venturing out for her shift.
Oberg recalled one night when she was about 6 and simply wanted her mom. She embarked on the several-block trek from their home on Elm Street to the hospital on 9th Street. Somehow, she made it all the way there, rode the elevator to her mother’s floor, and safely jumped into her arms.
“She had a knack for helping others, especially at the church and in the neighborhood,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it when she went to mortuary school in her 50s. She drove to Louisville for the week and returned home on the weekends, taking hard classes like chemistry and anatomy.”
Over the past century, McFarland didn’t just live through the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements; she was a trailblazer, shining a light for the many generations to follow.
The Rev. Rhondalyn Randolph, pastor at Pleasant Point Baptist Church and president of the Owensboro-Daviess County NAACP, said McFarland was the ultimate inspiration.
“I’ve always looked up to her regarding her female strength and how she embraced her roles as a mother, grandmother, and first lady without forgoing her individual pursuits,” Randolph said. “She never gave up on things that were important to her. Imagine everything she went through – it’s remarkable. It’s not so much what someone has said as it is the example they’ve shown, and her legacy is proof of that.”
Randolph reiterated that McFalrand was a beautiful, Godly, smart, and strong woman from an era that produced some of society’s best women. Amidst times of division, she persevered, and her struggles helped to shape her.
“She left an example that’s good for us to follow,” Randolph said. “People like her have paved the way for what we enjoy now. She was always a lady. She never had a lot of words. But, what she and Rev. McFarland accomplished with teamwork is a testament to what’s possible if you work together.”
The Rev. Larry Lewis has been the pastor at Zion Baptist Church for 47 years, serving the community alongside McFarland. He’s 75 and said McFarland has always been an integral part of his life.
“She always had something funny to say about her husband, especially to church members,” Lewis said. “She had a contagious spirit and personality with a wonderful smile. People just enjoyed being around her.”
McFarland was a Kentucky Colonel, as well as a member of the Mother’s Board at church, the Missionary’s Society, and the Amaranth Chapter No. 46 Order of the Eastern Star. Her daughter Susan recalled McFarland’s pride in her Eastern Star membership, often touting the standard all-white dress in public.
“She came with my aunts to an important track meet I was running in at Murray State,” Susan said. “She was determined to take me out to eat, but we didn’t have much time. My race was moved up, and we had to rush back to the stadium. With my spikes in my hands, I raced to the starting line and saw my mom and aunts in their all-white at the finish line.”
Susan won the race, much to the satisfaction of her coach and the cheering section of Eastern Stars.
Her brother Dwight served as their mom’s apprentice at the funeral home. He started washing cars and cleaning the funeral home before going to school and obtaining his license.
“My mom taught me all of the things I needed to know, including the principles of embalming,” Dwight said. “We worked side by side doing funerals and removals. During the early years, several people thought we were brother and sister because she always looked very young for her age.”
Folks in the funeral industry shared a common thread in McFarland’s attention to detail and commitment to the families she served.
“We would always hear, ‘Ms. Ruby was always there for so many families,’” Dwight said. “They would always speak of how well she was able to help them during their time of sorrow and how pleased they were with how she treated the deceased. It comforted the families.”
Glenn Taylor, Chairman of Glenn Family Services, comes from a long line of funeral directors and considers McFarland one of the best. He remembers when she decided to enter the profession, and she contacted him to see if he had any of his old notes and books from school.
“She was someone that was in funeral services for the right reason, who wanted to take care of her families and her community, and she did that,” Taylor said. “It couldn’t have been easy to make that jump in the middle of her life with 8 children, but she did it, and she did it well.”
Taylor referred to her as the ultimate role model for funeral directors across the country.
“She was always concerned about the best interests of families,” he said. “She took time to explain things, and she listened. She wanted to learn what was important to that family at that moment. I’ve always thought very, very highly of Ms. Ruby.”
According to friends and family, McFarland always seemed only to find the good in others.
Like many others, Jeanetta Robinette joined her at Mt. Calvary Baptist in 2004. Robinette had fallen on tough times and said McFarland made her feel like part of the church before joining.
“She made me feel so welcomed and loved,” Robinette said. “She never called me by my first name – it was always, ‘Ms. Robinette.’ That lady has love all in her. I knew she loved me, and she knew I loved her.”
Robinette said she struggled with self-worth, but McFarland was there to show her the way, encouraging her to join the Mother’s Board.
“I’m so glad she was there when I needed someone. She was such a lovely lady,” she said. “No one has ever made me feel that way. She was a true child of God and grand lady. I just loved her.”
Bruce Crump has been a lifelong friend of the family, growing up with McFarland’s son Alison.
“I remember when Alison and I enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University, and our mothers took us there for orientation,” he said. “The only way to get there was with our parents and on single-lane roads. We had a flat on the way there, and thankfully, I could change it.”
Crump said that after all these years, McFarland still recalled that story until her passing.
“I loved her and the family,” he said. “She was always so supportive. She was always very spiritual, and she and her husband were always proactive in helping others. Anyone who knew her had major respect for her and the legacy she and her husband left.”
As the community mourns the loss of McFarland, her legacy stands as a testament to a life well-lived, dedicated to service, compassion, and breaking barriers. Ms. Ruby’s impact echoes through the corridors of Owensboro, leaving an indelible mark on the fields of mortuary services, community engagement, and family devotion.
She was a trailblazer, a compassionate soul, and a pillar of strength for the community and beyond. Her legacy will live on in the hearts of those she touched as a beacon of inspiration for generations to come.
McFarland’s obituary and information on services can be found here.
Author’s note: Many thanks to Belinda Haliburton for connecting with me with the community to bring this story to fruition. It was an honor to tell Ms. Ruby McFarland’s story, but the confinements of one article hardly do it justice. I’m forever grateful to the family for trusting me to share Ms. Ruby’s story and to the many community members who shared their experiences with me.