GOESSEL — A group of photographs now on display at Goessel's Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum offers a look at unusual family portraits — those taken at funerals.
Pictures of people gathered around a coffin — or just of the coffin and its occupant alone — were collected and organized by Fern Bartel, the museum's director.
"Some people think it's so gruesome, but the more I look at it, the more it seems poignant to me," Bartel said.
Taking photographs of a dead person was not an unusual practice as cameras became more common in the first half of the 20th century.
"It's the last time you get to see your beloved relative — your mother or child," Bartel said.
The exhibit is made up of dozens of pictures from the museum's files, along with those found in Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church archives and donated by individuals, each depicting people waiting for burial. The black and white images date from the late 1800s through the 1940s.
"The family was together, so you could actually take a picture of all the siblings," Bartel said.
Some of the pictures show Bartel's own relatives — infant cousins, grandparents and great-grandparents. In one picture, a pair of mules is hitched to a wagon on which a casket is placed, ready for transportation to the cemetery.
"There's a long tradition (of funeral photography) and I, myself, have taken pictures of my relatives in the coffin," Bartel said.
People took snapshots, sometimes making postcards out of the images to send to relatives who were unable to make the journey to pay their respects at a funeral
"It's the last time you view them. It's the last memory that you can hold on to of them," Bartel said.
In the museum's funeral photography display, differences in burial clothing, flower arrangements and coffin types can be noted. Some pictures were taken indoors, while other show a coffin set on a pair of kitchen chairs on a lawn.
Most of the pictures originate from Mennonite families in the area, but some were sent to residents in the Goessel area from their relatives from Russia.
"You can tell that they were definitely done in a different country; in a different environment," Bartel said.
The Russian photographs show coffins sitting on an embroidered skirting, wreathed in pine boughs and tilted for better viewing.
A black-edged handkerchief and silver coffin plate inscribed with "Ruhe in Frieden" (German for "rest in peace") can also be seen at the museum. The black bonnets and dresses on display, though, were not worn solely at funerals.
"They wore black a lot anyway," Bartel explained. "They were very practical. If they were going to make a fancy dress, they made it in two pieces so that when they got pregnant, they could still wear it to church."
In the Turkey Red Wheat Palace building at the museum, wooden grave markers are displayed. Most wooden markers in cemeteries have rotted away and many stone markers were moved by farmers who did not recognized them for what they were.
While the cemetery near Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church is well known, Bartel said she has heard estimates of up to 30 cemeteries in the Goessel area.
"Before the church was there, they had family plots," Bartel said. "What they did in this community was the individual was taken care of by the family and they had a family funeral for those who were invited to the house."
Bartel said she enjoys looking through old photographs, identifying the people captured in the images from years past, but there are still plenty of pictures without names attached. That is where the museum's visitors — who recently have come from as far away as Canada and Australia — can lend a hand.
"You never know who is going to walk in the door and tell you about some mystery photo that you weren't sure who it was," Bartel said.
The funeral photography exhibit will be open through the end of July.
The Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at 200 N. Poplar in Goessel. Admission is $4 for those 13 and older and $2 for ages 7 to 12. For more information, visit http://www.goesselmuseum.com or call 620-367-8200.