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Death In Mendo, 1949

Sometimes the museum where I docent gets a donation that opens my eyes with amazement. The “Family Worksheets” for six months from late 1949 into 1950 from a local funeral home came into the museum’s possession and while no one would share personal private information on the deceased, as a researcher I was fascinated at the details collected.

Names, residence, sex, color, race and marital status were expected, as was birthplace (city, state, country) and date of birth. Age at death was listed in years, months and days and if a baby lived less than a day it was listed in hours.

The dead person’s trade, profession or industry in which he worked was listed along with the total years in that occupation. The person’s father’s name and birthplace was listed as well as the mother’s maiden name. How long the deceased had lived in the local area was listed and if foreign born how long they had lived in the USA.

Cause of death and attending physician were listed. The informant who had answered all these previous questions was noted with his address, and all survivors were listed along with the deceased person’s lodge or church affiliations and military record.

Then the nuts and bolts of the burial were noted. Was it going to be a burial or a cremation? Was there to be a memorial service (date, time, place) and would clergyman be needed? If a burial who would the pallbearers be? Was there to be music? In a time when not all families had telephones the funeral home would (for free) make telephone calls or send telegrams about the services.

While it is to be expected there would be fees for caskets, services, flowers, transportation and burial plots 65 years ago the funeral home would dress the deceased. A suit or a dress, a shirt, collar and tie, and underclothing could be bought. A union-suit of underwear cost $2.50 in 1950 and socks were 50 cents.

Causes of death were what you’d expect. The problems of old age, alcoholism, dementia, tuberculosis, senility, crippling rheumatoid arthritis, cirrhosis of the liver, melancholia, diabetes, and the like were common. There were babies that died of heart problems, accident victims and suicides. Homeless unknowns were given a paupers burial for $100 if I understood what was written on the forms.

Often the choice of music for services was very precise, including whether one or two voices should sing a hymn. Popular songs were “Someday I’ll Call Your Name & You Won’t Be There”, “In the Garden”, “Crossing the Bar”, “Does Jesus Care”, “Somewhere a Voice Is Singing”, and “Lay My Head Beneath a Rose”. Some worksheets specified no music.

Fraternal organizations played a big part in the social life of local towns back then. The deceased were part of the Eagles, Fisherman’s Union, Kalevala Lodge, VFW, American Legion, Masons, Rebekah’s, Order of the Eastern Star, and Ancient Order of Foresters. Sometimes the dead had no one to speak for them. A 62 year old dead man from Rockport had a name, an age, and the fact he was from Yugoslavia but all other questions were answered “unknown” and there were no relatives.

The funeral home family worksheets provided an interesting look at end of life issues 65 years ago. People doing genealogy research might wonder if every funeral home at that time kept such detailed records of the their deceased and might want to inquire. People might learn new things about their deceased family member’s lifestyle.

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