Recently we’ve seen media focused on elaborate memorial and funeral services for well-known figures. Regardless of amount of fanfare associated with the passing of a loved one, the grief and process of saying goodbye is common to all.
With many cultures and traditions worldwide, memorials and funerals take on many forms. Today, we’ll focus on what was typical for immigrants on the great plains…while respecting that other religions and cultures have their own traditions to honor their ancestors.
The longer that you work on your family genealogy and write your family story, the more your ancestors will “come to life” as people beyond names and dates. While we genealogists still are thrilled to find that ancestor’s missing death date, we start to realize the impact that a death had on the family. We can imagine the economic impact when a husband dies and leaves his wife with five young children with no visible means of support or empathize with the heartache of losing little children to a diphtheria outbreak.
What was it like in those early years when a loved one passed? Our families may have had a graveside service, simple and sincere. Perhaps there was no undertaker, or the family didn’t have the means to have a funeral. One of the more common practices in this area was to have the deceased lie in state in the family parlor or master bedroom on the main floor. A family member or friend always stayed with the body until the funeral and burial. Friends and relatives brought food and condolences. While I was aware of this practice, it wasn’t until a recently that I realized that if the master bedroom was used, the furniture had to be removed from the room to make room for the coffin. This mean taking apart and removing the bed. The coffin would then take a central place in the room, either on a long table or on a plank balanced between two highbacked chairs. Some families had flowers with ribbons commemorating “brother” or “mother” or “son”. It must have been a busy time for the family as they made these preparations while grieving for their loved one.
Funeral homes often started as furniture stores and it became natural for them to sell coffins. As embalming became more prevalent after the Civil War, the funeral home became established and the practice of having the viewing there became more common. In the small farming community where I grew up, neighbors and relatives brought food and kind words. That happens even today. Is it the same for you? Or has there been a culture shift with more activity focused on the funeral and post funeral activities?
Perhaps you don’t know if your ancestor’s viewing was at home or if it was at the funeral home. It’s a small tidbit but one that adds texture to your family story. There are some resources that might give you that answer.
Funeral Home Records/Funeral Home Bill
The funeral home bill can contain a surprising amount of information. Here is an example which notes the type of casket, the fee to transport the body to town and the itemized cost of various items. No where could you find this level of detail.
Newspaper articles about the funeral
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of obituaries and the wealth of information available. It wasn’t uncommon to have two newspaper notices…the death notice and the funeral information notice. Check to see if you can find both for your ancestor. Also remember to look for the “thank you” post funeral. Sometimes, the family will thank specific individuals such as the doctor or hospital who cared for the loved one.
While it is less common now, in the past, photos of the loved one in their casket or of the flower were taken as a last memorial such as the one at the beginning of this article. This one was for a relative who died from the influenza epidemic. He was only 30 years old and had been married for two years leaving a wife and daughter to mourn him.
Resources to learn more about the history of funerals and burials
They are useful to discover what your ancestor died from as well as where and when they were buried and the funeral home. Death records are a secondary source because it is a family member who is providing the information rather than the deceased. They may not have the correct spelling or information related to the deceased parents. Your state historical society or state health department offices are the best source for death records.
There are many websites that provide information about customs and funerals in your area. Spend some time searching on Bing or Google.
Find a Grave, Interment and Billions of Graves are resources for finding your relative’s grave if you’re not able to walk the cemeteries yourself. Some historical societies also have documented gravesites in your area.
The church where your relative’s funeral was held may also have burial records. These records are separate from death records or the funeral home records and can provide some additional information. Here’s an example of what might be found. If you can’t find a grave stone or death certificate or obituary, this might be a resource of value.
In the record of Interments, the following is recorded on page 3:
St. John’s Church Wahpeton, ND
Date of Death June 2, 1900
Date of Burial June 5, 1900
Name of Person Interred Anton K****
Place of birth Ostria
Age 66 years
Disease Old age
Priest R.A. Heingmann (sp)
Cemetery Calvary at Wahpeton, ND
Place of death Fairmount, ND
As much time as we spend in the past, genealogists enjoy making connections with others. As we think about our relatives who have passed, look for ways to add details to their stories, bringing their life full circle.
“Life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forward.”
With a lifelong passion for genealogy and history, the author enjoys the opportunity to share genealogy tidbits, inspiring others to research and write their family story.