A Morbid Taste for Mourning
Local Historical Society Keeps Alive Age-old Ways of Commemorating Death
By Mark Foynes
During the Victorian Age, grieving was an act of highly-regulated outward displays and inward reflections of sorrow. The inward grief was sincere; the outward displays were, at least partially, the product of a society that placed a considerable emphasis on the rigors and rituals of polite society.
The way by which our ancestors demonstrated their grief, particularly among middle class women, was dictated by a strict set of protocols that demonstrated to neighbors that a loss had been suffered in the immediate family.
In some cases, we can observe traditions that endure, partially, to this day. Other customs might strike modern sensibilities as odd or even grotesque.
One last photo
The practice of capturing photos with the deceased was one of the stranger mourning rituals during the Victorian Age. The slow shutter speeds of cameras in the 1800s meant that the dead were often more sharply rendered than the living.
As would be expected, rituals surrounding the death of an immediate family member were reflected in profoundly personal ways on and around those in deep mourning; minute details of personal attire, home decor, and manners of social engagement all fell under this rubric. And - as would be expected during the Victorian Age - gender-related expectations were quite specific.
Linda Salatiello and other members of the Sanbornton Historical Society present a traveling program on Victorian mourning rituals, presented mostly to other historical groups. Dressed in the solid black of deep mourning, and citing many period documents, the presenters discuss in detail the many formalities connected with the loss of a loved one. The presentation also includes a number of artifacts from the 1800s.
Salatiello said that many local customs were modeled after how Queen Victoria marked the passing of her husband, Prince Albert. Although America had achieved its political independence from England, it still took social and cultural cues from the old country.
“She definitely set the mood,” said Salatiello, currently the Society’s vice-president.
She noted that mourning rituals were quite elaborate and complicated. As a result, etiquette publications prescribed a mourner’s proper dress, the appropriate duration of how long one was to mourn, and how grievers should comport oneself after a loved one’s passing.
Salatiello said that the length of mourning depended on the aggrieved’s gender and their relationship to the deceased. Widows wore mourning attire for two to four years after the death of their husbands. Full mourning lasted for at least a year, and prematurely changing out of full mourning dress was considered disrespectful. Among younger widows, it also exposed them to charges of promiscuity.
“It might not have been fair, but that was just part of the reality,” she said.
Additionally, a widow was not permitted to enter society for 12 months, remaining essentially homebound. The belief was that this was an adequate amount of time to cope with such a profound loss.
For women mourning other close family members, the duration varied. The loss of a child called for a period of one year. For the loss of a grandparent or sibling, outward grieving was expected to last six months. For aunts and uncles, two months. For the loss of a great uncle or aunt, six weeks was the prescribed length.
For the deepest period of mourning, Salatiello said women’s clothes were to be black. A widow shrouded her face for months beneath a long black veil attached to a black bonnet. She wore a crepe-trimmed dress that was made of some type of non-reflective silk. Additionally, wreaths fashioned from crepe hung from the doors of mourners to let the outside world know that there had been a death in the family.
Crepe was especially associated with mourning, partly because it does not match well with most other clothing. Widows were expected to dress appropriately, if not especially fashionably.
After a specified period the crepe could be removed – this was called "slighting the mourning."
“This was in an age before telephones, so this was an important way of communicating,” Salietello said of the wreaths that adorned mourners’ homes.
Jewelry was limited to objects made from jet, a hard, black coal-like semi-precious material. Oftentimes, jewelry was combined with the woven hair of the deceased, according to Evelyn Auger, who co-presents the program with Salatiello. She said that pieces were simple in design, oftentimes just a cross or a jet-black locket containing a picture of the deceased.
“Ornaments were to be simple and reflect the loss of a loved one,” Auger said. Mourning was a personal time of grief and anything too ostentatious would be considered inappropriate.”
Salietello said that after a year, widows entered a phase of half-mourning, which lasted for an additional year. During this latter stage, dresses remained black, but could be supplemented with other modest colored fabric. Additionally, more jewelry and ornamentation were permitted.
Salatiello said the social norms for men weren’t subject to quite the same rigors as for women. Gentlemen were expected to wear a mourning suit, which often consisted of a black frock coat, dark trousers, and a matching waistcoat. Men’s attire included black gloves, hat bands, and cravats.
Widowers mourned their wives for six months to a year. While wearing a black armband, they were allowed to continue working and attend social functions. Courting was not off-limits, especially for men with children in the home. The widower could remarry whenever he wished, even within the six month period, at which point his mourning period would be over.
To modern sensibilities, this might seem excessive. But death played a much more visible role in the lives of those living in the late 1800s.
This was a time of higher mortality rates and lower life expectancies. It was an age when the germ theory of disease was just being discovered and nostrum-hawkers peddled patent medicines promising sure cures for ailments like cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis. The products carried names such as Hoffsteaders Stomach Bitters and Dr. Kilmer’s Kidney, Liver and Bladder Cure. (One historian referred to the Victorian Era as “The Golden Age of Quackery”).
Self-diagnoses was often based on guesswork or folk tradition. And self-prescription was often guided by the spurious claims made by advertisers who could boast miraculous results in a pre-Food and Drugs Act era.
Additionally - especially in remote areas like parts of NH - many people lived some distance from a hospital. There was no hospice care. So attempted treatments - and deaths - occurred in the home.
It therefore, too, stood to reason that the home would be a locus for mourning.
The funeral industry didn’t gain acceptance until the late 1800s, Salietello said. By which time embalming became increasingly widespread and more folks were living in urban areas. More and more matters were being taken care of outside the home, both in life and in death.
But before then, tending to the dead took place in the home. This was the norm in pre-1900 NH. In the 1800s, the dead were often displayed in the deceased family’s parlor - a dwelling’s most formal room, usually located just off the front entrance. This is the origin of the term “funeral parlor” that’s still in use today.
Visitors coming to call on the bereaved would enter the home through the formal front entrance, which led directly to the parlor. This obviated the need for visitors having to tread through the kitchen and other domestic spaces. The front door itself was adorned with a ring of black crape, bound by a thin ribbon - white ribbon for a child, and black if the recently-passed had been elderly.
Etiquette dictated that only the closest of friends were to pay a call prior to interment - and that these visits should be focused on ways by which they could offer support in the short term and help make arrangements. General sentiments of condolence were to be withheld until after the funeral, once all the practical logistics of the burial had been executed.
Throughout the house, curtains were drawn. Mirrors would also be turned to the wall. Some believed that this prevented the departed’s soul from being captured as it made its transition from the temporal world; others maintain that the practice would liberate survivors from any sense of vanity as they wept and grieved.
Another curious custom was the stopping of clocks. Salatiello said that mourners would disable a clock’s works and set the time to the moment when the deceased passed from this world to the next.
“It was just one more way of commemorating the dead,” Salatiello explained. The increasing formality of death in the late 1800s was reflected in other ways.
The Victorian Age was also an era when the vessels that contained the deceased were transformed. During the Colonial Era, corpses were placed into unlined coffins; conversely, in the Victorian Age, mortal remains were to be interred in silk upholstered caskets.
The word coffin itself derives from the French word cofin - or basket. Conversely, the word casket derives from the Middle French caset - or a box of jewels. (There are likely etymological connections between caset and words like cassette, cache and chest, as in treasure chest).
Therefore, Victorians opted to place the final remains of loved ones in a jewelry box, as opposed to a wooden death basket.
The 1800s was also a time when folks began referring to final resting places as cemeteries, as opposed to graveyards or burying grounds. The latter term is almost situational or transactional in nature: someone dies, a hole is dug, the remains are respectfully buried, and life goes on.
Conversely, the term “cemetery,” derived from the Greek koimētḗrion (partially cognate with dormitory), connotes a place of rest. The Victorian Era was a time of formality and the landscape began to reflect this phenomenon.
The Gilded Age was also a time that was concurrent with the rise of cities and larger towns - locales where there was not enough land for each family to have its own burial plot.
In the Victorian Era, centralized cemeteries were often landscaped in a way that gave them a park-like appearance. (Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston is a classic example.) But closer to home, Calvary Hill in Concord and even Alton’s and Wolfeboro’s cemeteries offer examples of the concept.
In some cases, older burying grounds were adapted. For example, Concord’s cemetery has a few slate markers bearing death dates from the early 1800s. In other cases, new cemeteries were forged from virgin soil, with markers wrought from marble and granite.
Cemeteries became family gathering places in the Victorian Age. Family activities often centered around the cemetery, with picnicking and other recreational events occurring in these spaces. Cemeteries even became locations for reunions that drew dozens of far-flung relatives from places like Ohio, Illinois, and beyond.
Writer Jonathan Kendall noted, “Within the iron-wrought walls of American cemeteries - beneath the shade of oak trees and tombs’ stoic penumbras - you could say many people ‘rest in peace.’ However, not so long ago, people of the still-breathing sort gathered in graveyards to rest, and dine, in peace.”
Keith Eggener, an associate professor of American art and architecture at the University of Missouri, noted, “[Y]ou leave behind the mercantile world outside the gates and enter into the space where you can meditate, where you can come into contact with spirituality and concentrate.”
Eggener continued, “They were quite important spaces for recreation as well. Keep in mind, cemeteries were built at a time when there weren’t public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art.”
Sanbornton’s Salatiello said there were a number of other curious rituals surrounding the commemoration of the deceased. One involved fabricating ornaments incorporating the hair of the deceased. She brings examples from the Sanbornton Historical Society when she and Auger make their presentation. She said common end products included jewelry, wreaths, and shadowboxes.
This practice was not, however, limited to trinkets of momento mori. Close friends in life often exchanged locks of hair as a symbol of affection. Hair was a tangible remembrance of someone.
“Hair is a very personal, very tangible connection,” she noted. She added that it is also decay-resistant and could survive long after other mortal remains had decayed.
“Sure it’s personal, but it’s also long-lasting as a reminder,” Salatiello added.
Auger said, “Having something so personal, whether it be in a locket or woven into a wreath, made mourners feel like part of a loved one was still with them.”
And given the protracted nature of the Victorian mourning process, having such concrete reminders would have helped over the months and even years of grieving that society expected.
Both Salatiello and Auger said modern audiences find the use of human hair in funerary art to be striking. Auger added, “Just having that direct link was important to the spirits of the living.”
Another practice that might strike some modern folks as morose was the tradition of surviving family members posing for photos with the deceased. Known by some on both sides of the Atlantic as “death photography,” the dead were sometimes photographed in their caskets while surrounded by relatives. In other cases, the dead were propped into various poses on parlor furniture while the living gathered around.
The practice of death photography spanned the generations, with the old and young alike depicted with the deceased. However, it most commonly featured infant and child subjects, whose photos might not have been captured during their lives cut short.
Death photography offered one last chance to garner an image that could help mourners recall the departed’s likeness. With infant mortality so high during this time, a post-mortem photo might be the only likeness captured of a child.
“When we do the program, most people find this to be one of the creepiest things we discuss,” Salatiello said.
Since Halloween was just passed - a holiday with pagan roots and observed by Christians as All Souls Day and Hallowmas - just keep in the back of your mind the phrase momento mori, which translates to “remember the dead.”
And as a corollary, we’ll add the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”
If you are involved in a historical, civic, or educational group and would like to invite the Sanbornton Historical Society to present its program, Morbid Taste for Mourning, call Linda Salatiello at 603-286-7227 or 603-286-4596.