Friday, May 8, 2020

1955 photo of a funeral in a home

Yes, this post has a real click-bait title, I apologize! But it is a strange photo that I came across, and thought was worth a quick share (and it's been a little while since I made a post, so why not). It isn't Kitchissippi related either, but still worth sharing.

So here is the photo:

October 10, 1955
(City of Ottawa Archives, CA-34667)

The photo is sourced from the City of Ottawa Archives website. The City Archives is a great place to go for random photo searching. They have millions of photographs, the bulk of which are largely uncatalogued. And only a tiny percentage digitized. It's a monumental task for them to go through everything they have, and digitize it. An impossible one really. The reason being is that they are, naturally, the repository for large photo collections from places like the Ottawa Citizen and Ottawa Journal, City of Ottawa files, donated collections, family albums, etc. But of course they don't have the staff to catalog it all and get it digitized. Plus, a lot of it is not well labeled. They might have a box of envelopes of negatives from the Ottawa Journal from April 1973. All of the photos taken by Journal photographers that month. Each envelope has between 1 to as many as 50 negative slips (like the kind we used to get when we had our photos developed at a store in the 80s/90s). But typically the envelope will only say the date, and a few words to describe its contents. It might say "feature" or "Christmas party Chateau Laurier" or "hockey Civic Centre". The Journal used the photos for the next day's edition, then filed the envelope away. Dozens of great old photos sit on those negatives, but the details, the names, etc. are nowhere. This is not a criticism of the Archives. As I mentioned, it is just a monumental task to get these beyond a needle-in-a-haystack kind of search.

So it is from these collections, where a photo like the above comes from. The Citizen photo archives yielded this photo, and a couple of years ago the City Archives did have a project team digitize a year or so's worth of photos from the Citizen photo archives. A sampling of one photo from each envelope basically. The subjects are all over the place, but typically things that the newspaper would be interested in covering - sporting events, car crashes, award ceremonies, ribbon cuttings, new construction, etc. Some valuable stuff for sure that thankfully hasn't been discarded.

So within the pile of photos they digitized was this photo, and to me it only raises the question why the photo was taken in the first place. I've hunted through most of the negative archives, and I can assure you that funeral photos are uncommon. The person who died wasn't a particularly important person, and the funeral occurred in a normal way, without incident. So why the photo, who knows?

However, I am glad it exists, because it gives a small glimpse into how death was handled back in a previous era, one which isn't that long ago. It was only in the middle of the century where funeral homes began operating. It is of course common to have the preparation of the body, the visitation and service at a place like Tubman's or Kelly's. But for many years, some of that would occur in a private home, typically the home of the deceased. The undertaker would remove the body, prepare it for burial, place it in a casket, then return it to a prepared room in the person's home for the visitation and funeral.

In this case, the room has been decorated with an incredible amount of flowers. A wall of flowers. The casket has been placed next to the piano, and two sitting chairs placed right in front. Trying to imagine dozens if not hundreds of visitors making their way through the room seems crazy. 

A random snapshot in time, from 65 years ago, of something so common then, but so foreign now. A rare view into something like this, where photos just weren't commonly taken (of course a generation or two prior, it was very common to take photos of the deceased themselves! If you want an unsettling internet read, Google Victorian era post-mortem photography).

As for the deceased in this photo, it was the former Florence May McCandlish, married name Mrs. George C. Birnie, of 195 Gladstone Avenue, who passed away at age 72. The photo was taken on October 10th, 1955. Her husband George Birnie was noted in a newspaper in 1961 as having made 55 trips across the Atlantic in his life. He was one of Ottawa's biggest early proponents of soccer in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He died in 1962. This was the brief summary of the funeral written in the Citizen the day after (a common thing for the paper to report on):

Ottawa Citizen, October 12, 1955

Meanwhile the home at 195 Gladstone, where the funeral occurred, no longer exists. It was one of several along Gladstone expropriated for the widening of Gladstone from 30 to 60 feet east of Bank Street in the early 1960s. 

A neat random old photo. Every picture tells a story...  

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