Goessel: small part of county, big part of history
While flipping through family photo albums, one might expect to see smiling faces — a gleaming bride on her wedding day, a baby lathered in chocolate cake while onlooking family members smile in enjoyment, or a young child hugging the neck of a beloved family dog.
Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum director Fern Bartel has focused on another element in piecing together a unique display this summer — faded snapshots taken at funerals.
Many of the 40 to 50 photographs are from Mennonite families that stayed in Russia and sent funeral photographs to relatives who immigrated to America.
Four or five depict her own relatives. Although the practice is mainly associated with Victorian times, Bartel has practiced funeral photography as recently as three weeks ago.
Seven of the photos depict babies or small children. Some have family members surrounding them; others are of just the child. Some portray families of up to 20 people. Some have people carrying a casket. Others are of headstones, or mounds of earth.
The notion of documenting the end of life could evoke an array of emotions, but Bartel regards it as a stoic way to remember loved ones.
“There still is a segment of people who respect the pictures,” she said. “In today’s culture it may feel like a gross thing, or not culturally accepted, but it’s certainly a part of life.”
Funeral photos bring closure, Bartel said.
“There is something about it that closes the book on it, so to speak,” she said. “I want to see them one last time. I mean, this is it.”
When many of the photos were taken, freshly immigrated families were scurrying to tend to basic needs such as establishing a secure homestead, or a sufficient food source.
Burials often were quick, as families had little choice but to continue working toward the greater lives America offered Russian immigrants.
Because of the slow shutter speeds of early photography, it was hard for subjects to hold a smile for picture-taking.
“People respect the pictures,” Bartel said. “These are all my people. I just want to make their stories more presentable and artistic.”
Her “Last Loving Look” exhibit will be available during museum hours through Aug. 5.
Goessel seethes with historic stories much like these. Brian Stucky, who has used dowsing rods to find trails of Mennonite immigrants, also used them to locate unmarked graves of early settlers.
“In the area approximate to the size of the Goessel school district, we have approximately 50 rural grave locations,” he said.
Other communities may have three or four cemeteries for an area of similar size.
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“Right now I’m working on a project that I’ve carried over
from previous people, that tries
to go back and confirm these locations,” he said. “Some the gravestones were there; some were never there. A few places people remember a gravestone being there but a farmer removed them and threw them in the ditch or plowed over it. Today that would be a lower level felony, but this was 50 or more years ago. There are farmers that still have graves at the edge of their fields.”
While Stucky’s techniques have raised eyebrows from scientists, he had much personal success in locating unmarked graves.
He hopes to seek legislation to protect the gravesites.
“All of it is pretty vague right now,” he said. “I want to establish who’s responsible for these and how can we get access to them.”
Stucky, a Moundridge native and longtime Goessel resident, helped locate the grave of an ancestor in Catlin Township.
“Someone told me ‘a name is the most sacred thing about a person,’ and I thought, ‘my God, he is really right,’” Stucky said. “If you have a name, that person still exists somewhere in someone’s memory. Whenever you make something personal, it clicks.”
Last modified June 28, 2018