John Rasmussen, my dad, died from complications of esophageal cancer on June 6, 2013. The family had several days’ forewarning that his death was impending and in those days, we spent a lot of time sharing stories and discussing Dad’s funeral.
We sorted through photos for the slideshow and picture boards. I was thankful that Grandma Bea had labeled and dated most of the photos from Dad’s childhood, this documentation being a museum worker’s dream.
We also discussed what personal effects we wanted to display. While I remember seeing picture boards of the dearly departed during funerals as a kid, I don’t remember exhibits of personal effects. It struck me that funeral traditions change as society changes (for example, Dad’s funeral was called a Celebration of Life) and these impromptu funeral exhibits would make ideal museum exhibits. Even though there were no labels on the exhibits, those closest to Dad knew the stories behind every artifact on display. Some of those stories were shared during the memorial service.
The item that drew the most attention was a can of Veg-All. To this day, we kids shudder at the sight of Veg-All, which is a mix of vegetables, including the much-dreaded lima bean. Dad frequently made a stew of ground beef, kidney beans (yech!), Veg-All, and an insipid white sauce. Dad liked it; we kids hated it; and, thus, a family story was born.
There was also a scoop shovel on exhibit. Dad was fond of saying to us kids in his grumpiest tone, “If you don’t clean this stuff up, I’m going to get my scoop shovel and take it out back and burn it.” The fact that we all laugh at this now shows how unserious he was about this threat.
With a mere twenty-four items (not including photos), the two exhibit tables at Dad’s service did a great job of encapsulating the important things in his life. When it comes to museum exhibits, it’s rare that we have enough personal items to tell a complete story of someone’s life. If you’re directly involved in planning a funeral, I urge you to take photos of any displays set up and write a brief description of how each item relates to the person being memorialized. If you’re too grief-stricken to take this on, assign the task to someone else, who will likely be delighted to be able to contribute. Keep printed copies of the photos and descriptions with your family information both as a reminder of your loved one and as a record of his/her history for those who follow.
Incidentally, though Dad was born and grew up in Siren, Wisconsin, he lived the majority of his adult life in Little Falls, so most of his history is here. He donated his polio brace, at my urging, to the Morrison County Historical Society in 2004. He had found it hidden under the stairs in his childhood home, right where he left it.
By Mary Warner
Copyright 2013, Morrison County Historical Society
This article first appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 26, Number 2, 2013.