ISLAND FALLS, Maine — Most people want to avoid dwelling on the darker side of life, but for others there's a certain fascination with death, from how we choose to say goodbye to our loved ones to learning about how things were done back in the day when someone died. It's those and other curious people for whom a new museum recently opened in Aroostook County.
The new Rest In Peace Museum in Island Falls is now open to the public with the goal to educate people about death, its history in Maine, and provide resources on how to prepare for it.
Tony Bowers is the curator of the museum and the director of Bowers Funeral Homes.
The museum contains items that the Bowers' family has collected over the years.
"I've had all this stuff that my grandfather, my father, my great-grandfather had since 1900, and I've moved it from this storage to that storage, tripped over it," Bowers said.
One of those artifacts is a tuberculosis casket.
"You would embalm them, put them in the casket, put the glass over them with cork and wingnuts around the side to hold the glass in place and then put the cover back on top of the person, and the head pan would open so you could view the person," Tony Bowers said while showing the casket features.
For five generations, the Bowers have all been undertakers. Tony Bowers' son will soon help his father and eventually take over the business.
"Death is in our blood," Tony Bowers said.
The goal of the museum is to inform and educate people about death, Bowers explained.
"If you don't keep the history alive, you lose it. We all need it. This museum goes back into the late 1800s, early 1900s with things the way it was and how we've evolved and where we are at today," he said.
There are books with funeral records, all sorts of mementos, and there's even a children's section.
"The babies were picked up, embalmed if they did, put them in here. It rips your heart out, but it's life. We have to go on with it, and it's extremely hard, especially for the mother," Bowers said.
Back in the day, funerals cost about $200 dollars, but funerals today are quite expensive, he said, with some at upwards of $15,000.
"They didn't have what they considered nice clothing at home, they couldn't afford such, so the funeral director provided dresses for the ladies, and they would come in," he said describing some of the funeral history. "Back in the '30s and '40s, they would provide dresses like this, and they had suits for the men. And if you notice the suit here, the back is opened, and they would just drape it over the man. And this is a cardboard collar. Interesting. Very interesting. That's how it was, and people expected it. Nowadays it all changed. I will be buried in a suit and tie, because I wear a suit and tie every day."
Decades ago, when someone died, the undertaker came to the person's house, embalmed them there, and laid them to rest in their bed for viewings and final goodbyes.
Bowers said he and his ancestors have enjoyed this line of work. They help and guide people during one of their most difficult moments.
"It sounds strange being in this profession, but I'm helping people in their hardest time of their life. We all accept it different, hear it different, and learn to have to deal with it, because you never shut off the emotions of a loss," Bowers said.
Tony Bowers explained that the museum doesn't open every day because he is very busy doing his regular funeral duties throughout Aroostook County.
He did say that some of the most important things people should always look ahead and do is to leave a will, arrange funeral details, and let family members know if you want to be cremated or buried traditionally.
Right now, the museum is only hosting groups by appointment. It is closed for regular visitors for the winter, but it will re-open in April for visitors.
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