This is the story of when my friend and I stumbled upon a museum exhibition, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” at the Gasconade County Historical Society Museum in Owensville, about 15 years ago. Some of the finds during this visit still interest me, so that’s why I’m bringing this one, er, back to life. See if you agree, because it’s not every day you see body baskets that hold humans, along with hair wreaths and a cooling board.
Found: A Cooling Board and a Body Basket
Upon entering the museum, I noticed the exquisite hair wreaths, from the Victorian period, hanging on the wall.
Often wound to resemble dried flowers, greens and leaves, the wreaths came in horseshoe shapes — with open ends at the top to represent good luck. Although the wreaths could be made out of a living soul’s hair, the wreaths in the museum exhibit came from the dead. Note: If you’re interested in a museum featuring hair wreaths and other things made from hair, check out my story about Leila’s Hair Museum.
More about this place
The exhibit in the Center Hall of the museum also featured other items — such as a cooling board, an embalmer’s tools of the trade, coffins and photographs.
The cooling board, constructed in woven cane, lay at a slant. It allowed for the deceased to be placed for viewing in the parlor, along with ice blocks underneath the board (hidden by draping) and flowers and herbs around the body.
A white wicker basket, used for transporting dead bodies to their coffins, stood prominently on display. Supposedly the term “basket case” refers to the usage of this type of wicker ware.
The most disturbing of all exhibits, the book titled “Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America,” by M.D. Burns Stanley, featured page after page of dead Victorian dead people. They might be propped up in chairs, or laid out on beds. In the photographs, mothers held dead children in their arms, or both parents would be photographed with the dead child, looking forlornly at the little one.
Gasconade County Historical Society
The Gasconade County Historical Society website offers directions and hours, and features information about special events, such as the Bowen Cemetery Gravestone Cleaning & Preservation Training workshop, sponsored by the National Park Service.