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