Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Undertaker records tell death and life in Victorian Westchester Township

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By LILY REX

In the classic movie “My Girl” Dan Aykroyd, playing an undertaker and widowed father, has to be reminded not to ignore the living in favor of the dead.

It turns out John Lundberg might have had a better work-life balance as an undertaker in Victorian-era Westchester Township than Harry Sultenfuss did in the 1991 film.

Serena Ard, curator of the Westchester Township History Museum, and Museum volunteers have lately been in the business of re-recording the Township’s long-dead by way of transcribing historic undertaker’s records into Excel spreadsheets.

“These records are extremely important to have preserved for any kind of genealogy research and understanding specific time periods,” Ard said. “It’s a little morbid, I admit, but death is part of life,” she added.

According to Ard, undertakers often doubled as furniture makers and sellers in the past because someone who can build a casket can build a table or a chair just the same. Ard also noted, “There weren’t enough people to die in this Town to keep them running.”

Lundberg was no exception. Ard says she isn’t aware that she has anything he built at the Museum, but she, or anyone else in Duneland for that matter, could have brand name pieces he sold, since the advent of catalog sales eventually made it possible for undertakers to stock furniture from department stores.

Lundberg had three hearses, but he also had a sleigh that he used to deliver Christmas presents to children around Town. Lundberg’s granddaughter told Ard’s predecessor how she remembered riding with him around the holidays. Lundberg also helped found the Chesterton Cemetery, and was a supporter of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party.

Digitizing the records of John Lundberg and the later Flynn-Lundberg Company makes them more accessible for research, but it’s also got Ard thinking in existential terms.

The Lundberg records provide an insight into life in the Victorian Midwest, and in what ways humanity has progressed and stayed the same since. Major tragic events like train accidents are marked by influxes in Lundberg’s business. Patterns emerge when one looks at age and cause of death. One could theorize that a well turned toxic in Porter in August 1888 when five children died of Cholera, for example.

We all want to be remembered, but who will remember us, and what will be left of us a hundred years from now? What will those artifacts mean to people of the future?

Ard wondered aloud while turning the pages of a blue book titled “Undertaker’s Supplies: 1900-1908” that contains scores of one-liners describing people and how they died. Some aren’t even ascribed names or ages. People who weren’t known in Town or who died while passing through Westchester Township were named “vagrants” or “tramps.” “So, you have this human being whose life has just ended, and the only record left is this undertaker’s record with a date and a cause of death,” Ard said.

Ard reports such entries weren’t uncommon, since Chesterton and Porter were rail-stop towns. “Every year there were railroad deaths. They didn’t have railroad gates, and there weren’t signs. You had to try to listen for an oncoming train.”

Digitizing the Lundberg records has been a study of the Township’s notable people and connections to life today as well as death. One of the oldest people in Lundberg’s records is Charity Garret, who died of “old age” at 86. Ard said Garret is related to Hannah Hageman, of the Hageman family who founded the former Hageman School in Porter where the Hageman Branch of Westchester Public Library is now.

The records are bringing Ard some interesting perspectives on women in the Township’s history as she prepares for the Museum’s next exhibit, “A Woman’s Work is Never Done: Local Women 1860-1920,” which opens this coming Sunday, June 23, at 2 p.m.

The exhibit follows a social media project spearheaded by Ard where the Library’s Facebook page featured a short bio of a well-known Westchester Township woman every day in March to celebrate Women’s History Month. The posts were well-received by the online Duneland community, and Library Director Lisa Stamm called the series a “marvelous endeavor” at the Library board’s April meeting.

Ard said perhaps the most annoying aspect of death records--and many other historic records-- is that women are referred to using only their husbands’ names. “Once they got married, until the 60s, you didn’t find married women being called their own names,” Ard said. “Finding their history is actually quite difficult.”

An example is John Lundberg’s granddaughter. Lundberg’s daughter married Joseph Flynn. Their daughter, Ione Flynn-Harrington, became a prominent member of the local Republican party throughout the 1950s and 60s, even meeting Pat Nixon once. Despite her stature in the community, she is often referred to as “Mrs. Edwin Harrington” in records.

Even in death, women were talked about delicately, in relation to their families, or in euphemism. Some deaths are attributed to “cancer of the female organs.” Complications from childbirth was a common cause of death, often called “puerperal fever,” “puerperal exhaustion,” or “child bed fever.”

“There are so, so many children,” Ard said, staring into the blue book. She said there were more premature births than she expected. One entry she read off was a child only seven days old.

“With all these illnesses that we consider old being back in the news, I’m looking at this, and some of it is relevant to what’s going on today,” Ard said.

“When I taught, I used to tell my students History is very circular. It comes back to haunt you, so you’re supposed to learn from it,” she said. “But we don’t always learn from history like we should, I guess.”

Ard said she’s trying to track how many parents lost how many children as part of the new exhibit. It was commonplace for Victorian-era couples to hold off on naming their children for a few months after they were born, in what Ard says may have been an effort to stay detached in a time when losing young children to illness was so common.

One couple who settled Westchester Township early on had 13 children. Only two survived to adulthood.

“As a woman, I think that’s one heck of a strong woman to continue having children despite having lost so many,” Ard said.

 

 

Posted 6/18/2019

 
 
 
 

 

 

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