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Arts & Culture

Hallowed Ground: How We Remember Our Dead

A new exhibit at the Gaston County Museum of Art and History is guaranteed to send a chill up your spine. Hallowed Ground: How We Remember Our Dead explores how society mourns and memorializes the deceased—and how those rituals have evolved over time. One Gaston County native has a personal connection to the exhibit.

Credit Saraha Delia / WFAE
William "Billy" McLean III standing in front of his great-grandfather's embalming equipment.

Standing in a gallery room of the Gaston County Museum of Art and History, Billy McLean is surrounded by family heirlooms—which are also tools of his trade. 

"This room is from our funeral home. My great-grandfather and our business goes back to as early as 1892," said McLean.

Billy is a fourth generation funeral service operator—his two daughters are preparing to enter the family business. All of the instruments and tools featured in the room were used at one point or another by someone in his family including embalming instruments: embalming tables, glass jars, needles, a portable embalming pump...to name a few.

His favorite piece is a wooden table that his great-grandfather used as a cooling board and embalming table. Ice was usually put beneath a cooling board to slow the decomposition process as the body was worked on. It was collapsible, so it could be transported. 

"The story goes that back in the day my great-grandfather rode around in an Indian motorcycle with a side car and went to people's homes on dirt roads with these wares," said McLean.

He was like a full service funeral home but on wheels.

That’s because funeral homes weren’t common until the 1920’s. Funerals were held at families’ homes and that’s where the bodies were prepared, too. 

People in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were certainly used to having the dead closer. You can see that throughout the exhibit. One room is full of images from the Victorian Era…featuring photographs of the deceased, often propped up sitting next to family members. It can be hard to tell the living from the dead. The deceased our usually more clear in the image because they were still. The living were slightly blurry.

Another piece in the exhibit is a wood coffin from 1906. There’s one detail that stands out: a glass window positioned where the face of the deceased would be.

"The glass was thought to allow you to see the deceased….which was quite an infatuation of folks at the time. They could see the deceased and maybe prevent decease especially if the body wasn’t embalmed,

In other words, the family could see their loved one, but hopefully escape any airborne disease from the body.

The career of an undertaker was also quite different for those previous generations.  For one, McLean’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were not only undertakers, they were county coroners and the family was also in the ambulance business although he points out he's not sure how much people liked the undertaker transporting them to the hospital. 

One wall of the exhibit features family photographs of the McLean's. He points to a picture of a large house with a wraparound porch.

"I was born in this funeral home right here. On Broad Street in Gastonia. My dad would be out running the ambulance service and going on coroner calls but we had to answer the phones," said McLean. 

This was before the days of phone answering services. McLean says at times it can be a hard life. 

Many of the objects featured in the exhibit had been in storage for about 60 years. Opening (and letting them air out) was kind of like finding treasure he said.

The exhibit is open now and runs through March 5. McLean hopes people will come out to view his family’s history, before it's boxed back up and laid to rest.