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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Ars Moriendi: Mourning Rituals and the Civil War

by James M. Schmidt
The Civil War News – “Medical Department” – April 2008


As reports from the Battle of Gettysburg filtered into homes across the country, an anxious routine obtained as thousands of families scanned newspapers for any information on the fate of loved ones. On July 9, 1863, Isaac and Sarah Fisher saw the line – “1st Lieut. W.J. Fisher – 10th Infantry – killed” - in a long ledger of the fallen in The New York Times.

Isaac decided to go to Gettysburg, more than a hundred miles away from his Delaware home, to search for his son, William. En route, he found a friend of William’s - an officer in a regiment that fought alongside the Tenth – who was able to shed some light on William’s fate. Late that night, Isaac penned a sad letter to his wife, Sarah, as he sat in his hotel room:

“My dear, it is 10 o’clock and I have retired to my room to grieve in private. Our worst fears are realized and I know that William is no more…He was killed on Thursday the 2nd of July as we supposed…and was buried withArs Moriendi: Mourning Rituals and the Civil War the other officer named in the list... he thinks they were put in coffins and that I shall be able to obtain his body and if I do I will have it with me when I get home.”

Reaching the battlefield two days later, Isaac made his way to the farm of Jacob Weikert where he found a temporary grave marker made from a wooden cigar box with the hastily carved inscription: “L.T. Fisher 10th US INFT.” Gravediggers were doing a brisk business removing bodies interred only days before, embalmers were engaged in their relatively new trade (perfected during the war), and undertakers did their best to keep up with the demand for coffins and cases.

Having engaged the services in this grim chain of commerce, Isaac then proceeded to the express office where the agent wrote William’s name and regiment on a crudely cut piece of wood and tied it to the boy’s toe. As the clerk completed the waybill, Isaac handed over the thirty dollars it took to ship William’s body back to Delaware. In the space where the description of the freight was to be written, the agent summarized in two words a looming lifetime of sorrow for the Fishers: “one corpse.”

During the Civil War, the Fisher’s saga was repeated thousands of times over as families – North and South – mourned their fallen sons, fathers, and husbands. In trying to learn more about what these families went through, I had the good fortune to come across Widow’s Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America (Gettysburg, PA: B. L. Atkins, 2004), a very informative booklet written by Bernadette L. Atkins - a writer, lecturer, photographer, and expert in Victorian era mourning practices and artifacts - who was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

Widow’s Weeds is slim at less than forty pages, but is packed with information on period customs for wakes and funerals, cemeteries, undertakers, caskets, post-mortem photography, spiritualism and philosophies of the afterlife, mourning art, clothing, jewelry, and etiquette, and funeral food (including a period recipe for “funeral pie”). The booklet includes a nice bibliography to prompt further reading as well as more than eighty illustrations, including photographs of many period mourning artifacts from Bernadette’s collection.

The book ($7.95 plus P/H) is sold at a number of Civil War battlefield bookstores, historic cemeteries, and funeral custom museums. The easiest way to order Widow’s Weeds is through Bernadette’s distributor, Fred Struthers, at R.L. Shep Publishing Company.

Bernadette is a native New Yorker, but has been a Gettysburg resident for more than ten years, during which time she worked at and managed the Eastern National bookstore at Gettysburg National Military Park during that stretch.

Bernadette has been interested in history and the Civil War since she was a youngster. “My interest started when I was around six years old when my parents took me to an American history amusement park in the Bronx called ‘Freedomland,’” she told me. She especially remembers a train that took riders through different Civil War battle scenes, ending at Appomattox with Lee and Grant waving goodbye to each other. “It was very corny, but effective,” she added, “and it planted the seed for a life-long interest in the era.”

Bernadette remembers her mother and grandmother taking her to cemeteries every Sunday to put flowers or wreaths on the graves of the dearly departed in her family, but it was a Civil War film that spawned her special interest in mourning rituals. “Believe it or not, when I saw Scarlett O'Hara in her multiple “Widow's Weeds” in Gone with the Wind, I researched the topic and found it fascinating,” she told me.

“Widow’s Weeds” is an expression that describes the black clothes that women of the era wore – from head to toe – when in mourning. “Most dresses were made of crepe and it did not wear well,” Bernadette states in her book, adding that the “clothes became shabby and limp and turned a rusty color with age, hence the phrase ‘weeds.’” Fashion – for men, women, and children – was just one among many areas in which a special etiquette prevailed for mourning in the era.

While recent books, including Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, pay particular attention to nineteenth-century mourning practices made “fashionable” by Queen Victoria, Bernadette acknowledges that mankind has ritually mourned the loss of loved ones for millennia. “Black dress dates back to the Roman Empire if not before and ‘tear bottles’ are mentioned in the Bible,” she told me. In the fifteenth century, Latin texts such as Ars Moriendi (“The Art of Dying”) offered advice on the protocols and procedures of a “good death.”

Indeed, “dying well,” remained an important part of the process in the Civil War era, with “proper” pre-mourning rituals and procedures to follow. Deathbed scenes were romanticized in art and literature (Bernadette notes especially the famous deathbed scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and the elements of the “art of dying” were taught in the classroom. Bernadette has recently finished editing a reprint of a 19th-century children's Sunday school book on mourning called The Land Beyond the River, which includes an essay on children in mourning, photos, and epitaphs from children’s graves.

I asked Bernadette if enslaved African-Americans of the era had any particular customs special to their situation and culture. “For many, death was a time to rejoice as the departed loved one no longer had to endure the trials, tribulations and suffering brought on by the earthly world,” she told me. In her research, Bernadette discovered that many slaves had to bury their dead at night, as they had to work during the daylight hours. “Sometimes the departed would be buried with a bowl or another article from their earthly world,” she added.

In William Shakespeare’s Richard II, John of Gaunt declares, “They say, the tongues of dying men/Enforce attention, like deep harmony/Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.” Not surprisingly, attention to “last words” has been an important of the “art of dying” since ancient times, and this was no less true during the Civil War. Bernadette noted some famous last words of the era, including those of Ambrose Bierce and even Pancho Villa, but her favorite is the oft-quoted “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” of “Stonewall” Jackson. That is good art.

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