Historical Society embarks on a great undertaking

One day a gentleman, whom we shall call Mike, walked into the Carver County Historical Society. It wasn’t long before he was chatting with staff. Soon, he learned of the new exhibit about the upcoming exhibits Please Join Us in Remembering.

The discussion evolved to who was the first undertaker in the county? The mutually agreed upon answer was Charles Bloomquist, of Watertown. “Old Bloomquist was a wonderful man” stated Mike. “I loved talking to him. One time, I asked him about his unusual profession and if he would share any interesting stories.  He went on to tell me the following account of an event which happened many years before.

“Coffins were once made of simple wood. The construction was not always the best. One day, we were moving a coffin from a church, following the funeral. The steps leading out of the church were very steep, about 45 degrees. As we navigated down the steps, the bottom of the coffin dropped out carrying the body of the deceased with it. Down the steps slid the whole lot, right into the middle of the street. Good thing there wasn’t a car coming. Someone might have gotten hurt.”

The story both mortified me, and left me feeling guilty for laughing. One might think that undertakers lack a sense of humor, but this conversation proved that to be anything but true.

There have been a number of titles given to a person who works with the dead: undertaker, embalmer, funeral director and mortician. An embalmer essentially provides the same service as an undertaker and a mortician.

Charles Bloomquist chose the term undertaker, to describe his business. The term undertaker is an old traditional, European word. The undertaker would go to the home of a person who had died and remove the body from the home, prepare it for burial and interact with the family. A basket case is the body sized basket used to remove the deceased from the home. The basket case used by Yetzer’s will be on display during the upcoming exhibit.

Modern day embalming began during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming as a way of returning soldiers to their families for burial. Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission as Captain of the Army Medical Corp. Here he would earn the nickname “father of modern embalming.” Prior to Holmes, poisonous chemicals were used. Holmes discovered that arsenic could be used to preserve bodies. While poisonous to those who were alive, it worked wonderfully to preserve the dead.

The historical society has several embalmer licenses in its collection. Frank Seck’s certificate is dated 1911. Charles Uecker’s are from 1917 and 1918. Both received an embalmers license. While it was not uncommon to own the furniture store and the undertaker’s office, Moers of Watertown, had the unusual combination of having an undertaker’s office, furniture store, and a “confectionary.” He sold the confectionary to L.A. Klock in February of 1899. The undertaking establishment was sold to Frank Seck in 1901, who already owned a furniture store.

By 1937, Minnesota State Board of Health licensed Charles Uecker with the title of Funeral Director. A Funeral Director works with more office and business related issues than an undertaker. Today, it is not uncommon for a funeral home to have a funeral director and a mortician. The director interacts with the family and orchestrates the funeral. The mortician prepares the body for burial.

Hearing of the Carver County Historical Society’s upcoming display, Please Join Us in Remembering, former funeral director Will Yetzer visited the museum to provide us insight into the changes he has seen. He told of a Twin Cities funeral home drive thru, viewing window. This new venture died quickly.

From home reviews and funerals to funeral homes and church services, the customs of death and dying, are both intriguing and appalling. The newest Carver County Historical Society display will run between Oct. 6 and March 2, 2013.

One other current event deserves mention. The historical society will be conducting a tour of the Barn Quilts in Carver County on Oct. 27. For more information, contact the Carver County Historical Society at (953) 442-4234.

Wendy Petersen-Biorn is director of the Carver County Historical Society.