Sunday, November 22, 2009

It Shall Be Well With Them That Fear God

This memorial image of a deceased woman laid out in the parlor of her home was taken by Sterling of Beaver Falls, PA, most likely in the 1910-1920 era. The original image measures about 8 by 9 inches and comes on a 12 by 14 inch photograph mount. The photographer’s name and city are embossed in the lower right corner.

This is a fine example of the tradition of “laying out” the body at home, which many people continued to do long after funeral homes came into existence. On the wall hangs a cardboard plaque with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “It Shall Be Well With Them That Fear God”. A framed portrait of a baby can also be seen. The room is nicely appointed with Victorian wallpaper, rugs, lacy curtains, and the family’s piano. Opening the window to allow the sunlight in was probably the photographer’s idea and it definitely adds to the artistry of the image.

The casket is dramatically propped up to raise the head - this was probably done to increase the visibility of her face for the photograph. The ornately shaped casket, which is covered in fabric, features a two-piece removable lid. The upper part of the lid can be seen standing against the wall. Easter lilies figure prominently in the floral tributes, and this death probably occurred in the spring, when lilies would have been readily available.
© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Empty Chairs

This lonesome image affects one emotionally, reminding us that death is essentially a solitary experience, both for the deceased and for those most impacted by the loss. This snapshot depicts a fresh burial from the 1920s; it came from an Austin, Texas estate and was developed by Fox Photo of San Antonio. After the last rites, one or two close family members probably stayed to witness the closing of the grave, and they memorialized the final, solemn moment through this photograph. This calls to mind the famous poem Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air.
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
Grieve, and they turn and go.
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
But they do not need your woe.
Be glad, and your friends are many;
Be sad, and you lose them all.
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
But alone you must drink life's gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
But no man can help you die.
There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills, poem excepted

Burial in a Country Cemetery near Whitewright, Texas, about 1895

This wonderful old image is identified on the back, in period handwriting, only as “Whitewright Tex.” Regrettably, there is no further information as to the identity of the deceased or the cemetery. Whitewright is in Grayson County, Texas (due north of Dallas), but very close to the Grayson-Fannin county line, and this cemetery could be in either county. Below is the uncropped image including the mounting board.

There is a sizable crowd, organized in an interesting fashion, gathered to witness the interment of the deceased. Generally speaking, the women and girls are on the left, most wearing white bonnets with streamers, and the men and boys are on the right. In the center, near the casket, are a mix of people, presumably the nearest relatives. There are two black men in the back center of the photo. This is a strikingly artistic image, with lots of vertical correlation between the trees in the background and the brush in the foreground. Below is the cropped image without the mounting board.

A closer crop of the casket area reveals the large mound of dirt from the grave and the casket propped up unevenly over the grave using planks and pieces of wood. Two women dressed in black mourning from head to toe are seated at the head of the casket, which is propped higher than the foot, and a small girl is seated near the other end. Other implements of burial, such as poles, more planks, and what appears to be a white tarp, are scattered around.

This image, taken well before the rise of the modern funeral industry in this part of Texas, effectively conveys the physical labor that was required in those days to bury a person. Death and burial was very much a community event at this time, and the hands-on work of burial was shared by the men of the family and their neighbors. In addition to digging and refilling the grave, the casket had to be lowered by hand using poles, planks, or rope and pulley devices. Old cemeteries are not just places of burial - they are places where our ancestors socialized, shared their grief, and engaged in hard physical labor.

© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Precious in the Sight of the Lord is the Death of His Saints

This sweet Victorian card was found in an old candy box, along with memorial cards, obituaries, and other paper keepsakes, from an Austin, Texas estate.
© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills

A Double Funeral in Texas About 1930

These old snapshots turned up at my local antique mall for 35 cents each. I’ve identified these as Texas photos, because they were developed at the Fox Studio in San Antonio and are so stamped on the back. Fox used the familiar, trademark border that can be seen in the photos, and they were very reliable and inexpensive. Folks all over Texas, including my ancestors, mailed their films to Fox for developing and printing.

This young married couple died at the same time, and I assume it was a car crash or some other accident. These pictures document both caskets, opened and closed, at the cemetery; the mourners; and the side-by-side burial. The crowd in the background can be seen on close inspection, and many of the people are crying and holding handkerchiefs to their faces. What a tremendous sorrow this must have been.

© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cary and Emily Watson Monuments

Here's a couple of photos taken at the Pioneer Cemetery, Ranger, Eastland County, Texas of the monuments of my great-great-great grandparents, Cary and Emily Watson. I love the iconography on these old monuments - note that Emily's features the veil at the top, symbolizing the finality of death and her departure to a new life behind the closed curtain. The inscription on her stone reads "Emily E., wife of Cary Watson Born Nov. 9, 1825 Died Dec. 26, 1908 Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord". Cary's monument reads "Cary Watson Born Oct. 13, 1820 Died Dec. 13, 1904". It's a Woodmen of the World stone in the shape of a rough-hewn log, with a scroll, floral decoration, and the Masonic emblem. Emily Elizabeth (Watson) Watson came to what is now Bowie County, Texas in the fall of 1833 at the age of 8. The area at that time was under Mexican rule. She was the daughter of Coleman Watson and his wife Lucy (Coleman) Watson, who were first cousins. Emily was a descendant of several early and prominent Virginia families, including the Colemans, Leakes, and Coffeys. Cary Watson's family arrived in Texas somewhat later, in 1837, and settled in Bowie County at a time that it was part of Red River County, Republic of Texas. He was the son of James and Rhoda Watson. His ancestry has proven to be one of my biggest research challenges over the years.

© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills

Sunday, October 18, 2009

O! If I Could Only Have Kept Her

This unusual real photo postcard, purchased at an antique mall in Lubbock, Texas in 1993, poignantly conveys a mother’s pain at the loss of her child. Only rarely do I run across a postmortem photograph with contemporary historical information on the reverse that documents the depth of feeling and details of the photographic sitting that we find here. The reverse is stamped “Curtis C. Benedict, Mitchell, Iowa” and the following is written there: “Selma Marie Donaghy Born [and] Died Aug 16, 1911. O! if I could only have kept her./Ma and Pa./It just makes me sick to look at this dear little thing. Don’t you think she has an awful distressed look on her face. It must be because they worked so hard to get it.” This card was apparently sent to the grandparents, so they could see the little baby that had been lost. The mother commented on how difficult it was for the photographer to get the deceased baby posed. Even though she knew her baby was gone, she attributes the look on Selma’s face to the discomfort she endured during the photographic process. God bless little Selma with the distressed look on her face - and God bless her mother, who could not keep her.
© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills

Drink Double Cola, Vicks VapoRub for Colds, Buffalo Rock Sold Here, and an Open Casket

When I became interested in genealogy at the age of 11, one of the first things I noticed was how often genealogists, of necessity, come into contact with death and burial mementos and artifacts. To answer my many questions about our family history, both of my grandmothers referred to their keepsake boxes, which were filled with newspaper clippings of death notices, funeral cards, and a few funeral photographs. Among these keepsakes of death, I found a wealth of history.

As I continued on my genealogy journey, I also discovered a significant interest in antiques and I found myself unable to pass up an antique store or flea market. In these establishments, I frequently buy funeral-related items that have found their way onto the market. Having amassed a large collection of this memorabilia over the years, I thought I’d share some of my gems for others who may have a common interest.

I bought this snapshot at the Salvation Army Store in my hometown of Pampa, Texas in 1988. It cost twenty-five cents and the clerk made a face that clearly indicated how strange she thought I was for buying it. Oh well, she’s not the first person in my hometown that I’ve rubbed the wrong way!

This is Mrs. Gruben of Spur, Texas about 1940 standing next to her husband’s casket, which was placed in front of the general store they owned - an interesting intersection of amateur photography, commercialism, and death in small town Texas.
© 2009, copyright Stephen Mills