Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Two Looks at 19th Century Mourning

Since the dawn of time people have mourned after the loss of a loved one. Grief is one of the human emotions that can reach across time and space. Despite the passage of nearly four thousand years I felt the pain and loss Tutankhamen felt just by gazing upon the mummy cases that stored the fetuses of his stillborn daughters. Through grief the past comes alive again. Through the expression of loss we can see the people of the past as flesh and blood characters that exhibited the same emotions that we express today.

Despite being universal, historians have largely overlooked the material culture of death in nineteenth-century America. True, death is not one of the “glamorous” historical topics. But to fully understand the values and outlook of nineteenth-century Americans a serious discussion of death is required. Bernadette Loeffel Atkins’s Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America and Karen Rae Mehaffey’s Rachel Weeping: Mourning in Nineteenth Century America are both good introductions to nineteenth-century American mourning customs. As both Atkins and Mehaffey illustrate the American Victorians were not morbid, as some critics have asserted. Rather nineteenth-century Americans were realist who recognized that they were surrounded by death. In an era with lax sanitation, poor medical care, and a massive Civil War most Americans were intimately acquainted with death. Instead of trying to brush it under the rug, like in today’s culture; American Victorians held frank, public conversations about death as witnessed through the era’s literature and music.

Bernadette Loeffel Atkins’s begins her study with a brief introduction which outlines the profound influence the death of Prince Albert in 1862 and the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 had in establishing mourning customs that would later be associated with the era. The death of Prince Albert and the Civil War’s influence of mourning rituals cannot be underestimated. Queen Victoria made mourning fashionable, the Civil War spread death into every town on an unprecedented level. Atkins then turns toward a study of wakes and funerals. Before the Civil War most people died at home and as a result most funerals were then held in the home. After a death people not only displayed their grief through their clothing, but by also placing their home in mourning. By decorating the inside and outside of the home, American Victorians altered the community that there had been a death in the family. This was essential in an era when communication was slow. Wakes were essential in the mourning process as it assured the family that the deceased were in fact truly dead.

After the funeral the body was removed from the home and transported to the cemetery. Before the nineteenth-century most burials took place within the church yard, but by the 1830s this practice was largely abandoned in the United States in favor of the rural cemetery movement. These large, well manicured cemeteries’s were placed on the outskirts of the town and became for many community’s the first public park. (Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, CA; Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, IL; and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia are all excellent examples of the rural cemetery movement). Atkins then turns to the development of the role of the undertaker and the evolution of coffins which replaced caskets by the end of the nineteenth-century. Of particular importance to understand nineteenth-century America’s outlook on death the myth of the good death and the art of dying must be examined. The good death and the art of dying were perpetuated throughout popular literature and song, the most famous being Eva’s melodramatic death in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. American’s expected that on the deathbed the dying person would be able to offer inspiring message’s about what lay ahead for them on the other side. The myth of the good death and the art of dying saturated American culture to the extent that many were emotionally scarred when their loved ones died contrary to the dictates of the “good death.” Mary Lincoln is a good example; the way her son and husband died denied Mary the comfort of the classic last words adding to her grief.

Another aspect of nineteenth-century mourning that is largely misunderstood in today’s society is post-mortem photography. The idea of taking a photograph of the dead today seems morbid and creepy. But during the nineteenth-century the art of photography was just emerging, for many Americans getting a photograph taken was a luxury. The majority of nineteenth-century post-mortem photographs are of children; a sad testament to the high child mortality rate in nineteenth-century America. Looking at the selection of post-mortem photographs Atkins assembled, the reader realizes that these images might have been the only photograph ever taken of them.

Atkins does an admirable job in placing spiritualism into the narrative of nineteenth-century mourning custom. Like nineteenth-century post-mortem, spiritualism has been largely misunderstood. Spiritualism offered the consolation that it was possible to contact the dead and assured believers that loved ones would be reunited again in heaven. The majority of spiritualists were grieving parents trying to contact their dead children. The Civil War changed nineteenth-century mourning forever as Atkins illustrates. With thousands dying on battlefields far away from loved ones, grieving families were denied the comfort of the good death. The remainder of Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils examines how nineteenth-century Americans exhibited their grief through their clothing and jewelry.

Karen Rae Mehaffey’s Rachel Weeping: Mourning in Nineteenth Century America covers the same ground as Atkins study. But Mehaffey does delve into some subjects that Atkins neglected. The study of cremation and consolation literature is particularly well done. The inclusion by Mehaffey of a glossary of symbols used in mourning and other terms associated with mourning is also very helpful for the reader.

Atkins’s and Mehaffey’s illustrate their studies with images out of their own personal collections; many which have never been seen in print before. The images alone are worth the purchase price of both of these works. While Atkins includes more images in her book, unfortunately many of the images did not print out well which is the only major drawback of the book. Mehaffey’s pictures are much clearer, enabling the reader too fully appreciate the image. Both works are generally well written, though there is one major mistake in Rachel Weeping where Mehaffey accidentally spells genteel as “gentile.” I won’t be too hard on Mehaffey though, I once turned in a paper about John Brown where I spelled trial as “trail”! (My professor said it was alright since John Brown did leave a trail through Harper’s Ferry). While not intended to be a comprehensive study of nineteenth-century American mourning Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils and Rachel Weeping provide an excellent introduction to this fascinating facet of American society.

Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America. By Bernadette Loeffel Atkins. Gettysburg, PA: B. L. Atkins, 2004. Pp. 34.

Rachel Weeping: Mourning in Nineteenth Century America. By Karen Rae Mehaffey. Dearborn, MI: Moss Rose Books, LLC, 2006. Pp. 50.

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