Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mourning the Departed


In order to understand mourning rituals, you must understand the conditions of the 19th century; disease, caused by lack of sterile practices; diets, lack of vitamins and nutrients; medical treatments, some treatments or remedies were only a step above witchcraft, making death more prevalent than in the 20th century.

Doctors were not required to fulfill the education standards and requirements like they are suppose to today. Medical treatment consisted of blistering, bleeding and the use of many herbs and plants (which many were indeed fatal.) Germs were unheard of, sterile conditions were yet to be discovered and no one had a clue what antibiotics were. Many died from something as simple as a small cut on the finger. Childbirth also claimed many lives of women. It wasn't unpopular for a woman to make arrangements regarding the care of the infant should she not survive.

Many factors played into the death of children, such as disease, poor nutrition, accidents and impure water. Couples had large families so that hopefully a few children would live to adulthood. Typhoid, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Small Pox, and Whooping cough could wipe out an entire family. other ailments were the Flu, Pneumonia, TB and infections. Some remedies were rather bizarre; burning gun powder in sick rooms, sprinkling houses with vinegar, placing an ax under the bed to stop bleeding, placing a knife under the pillow to cut pain and intentional blistering to draw out the disease.

Preventative medicine was unheard of and treatments such as inoculation for small pox killed as many patients as it saved.

Americans were forced to deal with death far more often than we know today. Death was so prevalent that mourning rituals and customs were refined from centuries of superstitions and beliefs as a way of showing proper respect for the deceased. The wearing of black is a custom that has been used for centuries. it dates back to a time when death was feared and wearing black was thought to make mourners draw less attention to themselves so that death would not claim them as its next victim. Mourning rituals were directly aimed at women, especially widows.

Men often had very few changes in their outward appearance. They were expected to wear black or a dark colored suit to a funeral, if possible. The use of the black armband was a sign of respect, usually worn for a few months or a yea, their daily routines of running the farm, plantation, or business didn't change, a widower would be able to remarry after the period of which he wore the armband. When attending funerals, men wore black or white silk hat bands, if the deceased was a young girl, then only white silk would be used.

  • Mourning pertaining to women was in three stages- heavy/deep mourning, full mourning, and half mourning. Mourning a spouse generally would last one to 2 ½ years:
  • For a parent: 6 months to a year
  • For children over 10 yrs old: 6 months to a year
  • For children under 10 yrs: 3 to 6 months
  • Infants: 6 weeks and up
  • For siblings: 6 to 8 months
  • For aunts and uncles: 3 to 6 months
  • For cousins: 6 weeks to 3 months
  • For aunts or uncles related by marriage: 6 weeks to 3 months
  • Grandparents: 6 months
  • For more distant relatives and friends: 3 weeks and up

Heavy/Deep mourning lasted the minimum of a year and a day and could last as long as 2 ½ years. Black clothing, jewelry, veils, bonnets, outer wear, and crape characterized it. The use of crape to cover outer wear and bonnets usually lasted a year and a day, and then could be removed. Crape, if caught in the rain, would droop, and the color would run, ruining anything it came in contact with. This limited a widow’s ability to venture far from home. The fabric used was mostly wool, but cotton was widely used in the south. The fabric was to have to luster or shine. Ingredients used to keep the black from fading were such as ox gall, fuller’s earth, and egg yolks. Heavy mourning collar and cuffs were black, and by the 2nd year the woman could add lace. Hats were not to be worn for mourning; bonnets covered in crape would replace them. The veil was of black crape, and very long, but by the 2nd year it could be shortened. Mourning clothes were expected to be plain with little or no adornment.

Hoods were commonly made of black or white silk. Underpinnings were the standard of the day, with the exception that a black band was often added to the hem of the outermost petticoat in case it was seen. Jewelry was not used at all for the first few months, but for the remainder was made of jet. Jet was popularized by Queen Victoria but was eventually replaced by black glass and India rubber in America. Most jewelry items used in mourning consisted of rings, broaches, bracelets, lockets, and earrings. Mourning rings were traditionally given out to mourners as keepsakes, and were paid for by the deceased’s family. Jewelry for full mourning consisted of more gold, silver, jet, pearls and other stones.

Full mourning collars and cuffs were replaced by white, veils were taken off, crape was discarded, and jewelry of a wider variety was worn.

Half mourning included the addition of lilac, lavender, violet, mauve, and gray. The woman was no longer limited to just black. She would use black and white ornaments for evening wear, bonnets were white, lavender silk or straw.

For specific periods of time a widow would not leave her home and did not receive any visitors.  After a respectable time, she would then send out black edged cards advising friends and family that her time of heavy mourning had passed and she could now receive visitors. Parties, weddings, and other social affairs were hands off to those in mourning.

A widow would often put away her mourning clothes when the mourning period had ended instead of throwing it to a better use, although clothing and crape manufacturers created the myth that it was unlucky to do so.

Southern women were more likely to save their clothing should it be needed again and they knew it would be hard to replace it during the war. Often southern women could not obtain proper mourning clothing, and resorted to dying existing clothing if possible. Many journal entries describe the heartbreak of not being able to properly mourn the death of a loved one. Children, even babies, were put into mourning and would morn the loss of a parent for 6 months. Babies would often wear robes of white trimmed in black.

The worst fear of death was not of death itself, but the fear of not being mourned properly. Victorians also feared possibly being buried alive. Periodically, tombs were opened and remains were found near doorways or on the floor indicating that such fears were indeed grounded. Funerals were often prolonged to make sure that the deceased was in fact dead. Widows were often excused from the funeral of their husband, believing grief would be too much for her to bear. Mourning clothing was kept on hand by the wealthier women, but was also known to exchange clothing with friends and neighbors when needed. Mourning pictures were painted or embroidered in silk, cotton, or wool and served as remembrances. Many Victorian parlors often contained several memorials to those deceased.
In many communities, custom dictated that the church bell toil one time for each year of the deceased’s life. Businesses often closed for the respect for the deceased.

Clothing might have been made and kept in anticipation of a wake or funeral, and boards were often kept for years to make a coffin when needed.

Proper burial clothing was highly prized and often kept for years. In early times, a shroud was the garment of choice for burial, with armholes cut in the sides, most were made of flannel. They were generally black for adults, white for children. Later on, people began to be buried in clothing similar to that which they wore in life.

Embalming did not come into practice until after the War Between the States. Fancy metal caskets and vaults are all products of the 20th century.

Sending flowers came about during the 19th century to cover the smell while the family waited for the photographer to arrive and photographed the deceased. It was popular for people from the community to come and sit with the deceased from the time of death until the time of burial as a sign of respect. The custom of the rider less horse for the funeral of a soldier dates at least to the 1600s and was often put to practice during the War Between the States.

Covering mirrors in the house of the deceased, usually with crape, was done so that the next to look at the mirror would not be the next to die. Pregnant women were not allowed to attend funerals, taking the corpse from the house feet first in the belief that if the face of the deceased faced backward they might influence another member of the family to follow them in death, stopping clocks in the house of the deceased so that they might not choose someone to accompany then to the grave.

Photography came of age during the 1860’s and mourning photos were taken to preserve the image of the deceased. Burial was often held off for days or weeks waiting for the photographer to arrive. These images were often painted on clouds to show the picture is of the deceased and portraits of hair were placed in the parlor along with a wreath of hair from the deceased.

Widows would often cover their beds with black sheets, and wasn’t allowed to marry for at least a year; she shouldn’t marry until the complete decay of the deceased husband.

During the War Between the States, death was so wide spread that many women never came out of mourning until the war was over. When developing a proper mourning impression and ensemble one must be aware of the dire circumstances in the south that one was not always able to adhere strictly to mourning customs as people were able to in the north.

Due to blockades and shortages of imports, fabrics and articles were hard to obtain, many women could only mourn in their hearts and not in their appearance.

Image: Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning dress following the death of her son Willie in February, 1862.


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