19th Century Mourning Customs
Does your heart race when the days grow shorter, the weather becomes crisp and the leaves begin to fall? Do you love picking out the perfect pumpkin, cornstalks and experiencing a magnificent harvest moon? Does the warm, rich scent of cinnamon, cloves, apples and pumpkins send you into a trance like state? Then, come, experience Halloween in a whole new light at Chautauqua Antiques.com and Reflections: 19th Century Gravestones by Rebecca Rosen. Enjoy the creepy happenings of the mysterious day and learn all about death and mourning etiquette during the Victorian Era. View the fabulous photographs below of original 19th century mourning garb from the Chautauqua County Area. You will be immersed in the very different traditions surrounding death and mourning as they were practiced 150 years ago. Let Chautauqua Antiques.com and Reflections, put you in the middle of a superstitious Victorian-era society where death was never far behind and directly reflected on the gravestones of the 19th century.
During the 19th century, when a relative passed away, family members would go into a custom known as mourning. Mourning was a way for a person to show external signs of grief. This was demonstrated by their clothing, stationary and music as well as their behavior. It is important to understand, by examining the social conditions that death was more a part of daily existence to the early settlers than it is today. Therefore, mourning was mandated by society, although customs varied from community to community.
During the 19th century, funerals were lavish and long, sometimes lasting up to one week in duration.
The long duration was not just for pomp but more importantly to make sure that the person was actually dead and not in a deep sleep or coma. Being buried alive was a very real fact of life for the early settlers of Chautauqua County. Therefore, the precaution of a long funeral and the practice of a “wake” or keeping watch over the presumably dead was a safe guard that the person was actually deceased. Also as an additional safe guard some individuals would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell and save the person who was buried alive. Thus, the terms graveyard shift and a dead ringer were born.
Mourning was divided into three stages. For a woman, each stage lasted one year, while a man would observe each stage for a month. During the first stage of mourning, a woman wore a black dress made from wool, crepe and taffeta…..
as well as a long black veil, known as a weeping veil, to cover her face.
In addition, mourning buttons, jewelry and accessories were made from jet or a dull, lifeless material. The color and materials were chosen because they best exemplified death. Black was worn due to the superstition that the recently departed was capable of returning to the land of the living at night and kidnapping a loved one. Thus the color black would camouflage one at night.
This two piece mourning ensemble is fabulous. The beautiful circa 1800s, Victorian era, handmade ornate jet glass beaded collar fragment with a sheer silk ground. The beads are irregular in shape, faceted and of various sizes. The carved Jet Brooch is a classic item of mourning
jewelry, circa 1860.
Women at this time were expected to curtail all social obligations and go into a life of seclusion. A man, on the other hand, wore a black wool armband to signify his loss. He was also expected to curtail his social activities, but to a much lesser degree.
Unlike the first stage, which was considered “deep” mourning, the second and third stages were observed in different fashions. During the latter stages of mourning, a woman’s attire would change from entirely black to black and white,
to shades of gray and lavender and finally, all other colors could be worn and mourning garb abandoned. At the end of the third stage, she was encouraged to remarry.
During the three years of mourning, there were a multitude of mourning items that were utilized.
During the Victorian Period, works of art and jewelry were created out of hair and other materials to commemorate the loss of loved ones. These mourning pieces served as an
eternal memorial and reminder of the lost loved one. The act of cutting ones hair was a expression of death. The act of braiding ones hair was an act of mourning.
Mourning Handkerchiefs and Pins Circa 1860. The width of the black band of the hankie indicated the stage of mourning. The wider the band the deeper the stage of mourning the woman was in.
Mourning practices of the 19th century can be seen not only on the remaining vintage items but more importantly on gravestones. Gravestones motifs and epitaphs reflect the social, political and religious philosophy of the time period. Mourning was an intricate part of their world.
The motif found on this stones is that of the Grim Reaper (Father Time) holding a scythe (cutting or ending life) braiding a woman’s hair (a mourning custom) who is hold a bible (devotion to one faith) and urn (mourning, and a feather (denoting a life without sin).
This gravestone is adorned by a pediment of an eight-petaled, multitiered rosette, with banded finials (the wider the band the deeper the stage of mourning) and fans, all encasing a woman (representing mourning) leaning on an urn ( a repository for ashes ) and a willow tree ( suggesting tears of sadness- a weeping willow). This is a typical scene found on mourning art, embroidery and jewelry.
Gravestones and consequently mourning garb of the 19th century carried a message to the passerby through not only the motifs and epitaphs but their mere presence. We the people of the 21th century, find them humorous because we can only see the present and not the past. If people could close their eyes and see the past life ways, they would realize that these memorials carried a very real lesson to the living. It is only then can we see what their world was like…. we can see their true reflections.