|Title||Historical Background on Mourning Rituals in Early 19th-Century New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: Historical Notes|
An overview of mourning customs and etiquette in early nineteenth-century New England.
Today the physical and ceremonial realities of death are dealt with by specialists in hospitals, nursing homes and funeral parlors. But at a time when almost all deaths took place at home, families themselves—with the assistance of kin and neighbors—dealt with the corpse and the rituals of mourning. Without embalming, the body needed to be dealt with quickly once a death occurred. The corpse was “laid out” and washed by relatives or neighbors, men for males and women for females. In some communities certain individuals were known as particularly adept and sympathetic in the care of the dead and were often called on to assist at such times. Customarily (in early America as in Britain and Western Europe) the body was wrapped in a loose garment called a shroud. Shrouds were usually made of white cotton (linen in the eighteenth century) and fashioned with long sleeves and an open back. A simpler but equally traditional burial garment was a “winding sheet,” a long piece of sheeting fabric wrapped around the body and frequently used by poorer families. A few families were beginning to break with tradition by burying their loved ones in their own clothes—the practice that Americans follow today. Meanwhile, a local woodworker or neighbor was at work on the quick construction of a coffin.
The coffin usually lay open in the parlor as family, friends and community came to pay their respects. Often, it was supported by wooden sawhorses or a pair of ladderback chairs. The paintings and looking glasses throughout the house were themselves shrouded with white fabric out of respect. Herbs such as rosemary and tansy would be set out in the room to counteract the smell of the corpse. It was customary for the minister of the family’s church to come to the house to console the mourners and officiate at the funeral. He would pray and sometimes offer a sermon. After the coffin was closed and the lid nailed down, it was covered with a black cloth pall and carried to the graveyard. Over short distances it would be carried on the shoulders of the pallbearers; for longer ones it was conveyed on a hearse. The mourners, with the family at their head, would usually walk in procession behind the coffin. They would then approach the freshly dug grave, listen to a final prayer, and watch while the coffin was lowered and covered with earth. After the burial, the mourners would return to the deceased’s home for food and drink.
Early nineteenth century mourning rituals allowed New Englanders to demonstrate proper respect for the dead and served several purposes for those still living. The most clearly defined mourning ritual was the wearing of “mourning clothes”—special black garments that communicated grief. By wearing mourning, bereaved family members could communicate their loss to the community without having to repeatedly explain the details, and at the same time protect themselves and others from the embarrassment of thoughtless or unknowing remarks. The return to regular clothing then signaled the end of the deepest period of grief and the mourner’s return to a normal routine. The mourning period generally lasted six months to a year, depending on the relationship of the deceased to the mourner.
Men were not expected to follow mourning etiquette as closely as women were. They lived more active public lives and were allowed to resume their normal routine shortly after the funeral. Men, whose everyday clothing was often black, frequently added a black armband to signify mourning, rather than purchasing entire outfits. Women, on the other hand, were under heavier obligations. Defined as the moral and emotional centers of their families, they were required to express their grief more elaborately and for a longer time.
Like coffins and shrouds, mourning clothes had to be made very quickly following a death, and they expressed sorrow, not social gaiety. However, these specialized garments for women were not at all traditional designs but clearly reflected prevailing fashions. In fact, some critics argued that the solemnity of mourning was being pushed aside by the dictates of fashion. In the April 21, 1830 issue, Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy reported that the citizens of Northborough resolved at town meeting “that the custom of wearing mourning apparel ought to be discontinued.” And, on May 18, 1836 Northampton’s Hampshire Gazette newspaper described a meeting of the Associated Mechanics and Manufacturers of New Hampshire that unanimously resolved “that they would not provide any mourning dress for themselves different from their usual apparel” believing that “garments of black, are used indiscriminately on all occasions, and do not tend to alleviate sorrow; [and] that the expense of them is useless and burdensome.”
In 1839, in her book titled Means and Ends: or, Self-Training, Catharine Maria Sedgwick noted that fashion had gone beyond clothing the living to and now influenced the dressing of the dead, as more families felt that the traditional winding sheet was no longer acceptable. She expressed her view, stating that “It would be idle to say to you, that dress is a matter of little importance. It is a matter that consumes time, thought, and money from the cradle to the grave. Yes, literally, to the grave; for how much inconvenient expense and degrading begging is encountered by the poor, to get the new cap and shroud.” However, despite much criticism, the wearing of mourning clothes remained a widespread custom in New England through most of the nineteenth century.
In the years after 1830, the rituals of death and mourning became more private activities and less community events. Many families began turning inward for comfort rather than reaching out to the community for support. Affected by the rise of romantic feeling and imagery, a variety of mourning practices and artifacts emerged that allowed people to both express their grief more dramatically and to memorialize their loved ones. Like mourning clothing, their forms were affected by larger trends in style, taste, and commercial distribution. Although New Englanders had just begun to visit graveyards, they kept and made remembrances of deceased loved ones. Grieving parents might memorialize a child with a posthumous portrait. Pieces of mourning jewelry that incorporated a lock of hair from the deceased were widely popular in New England throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Providing tangible remembrances, even relics, of loved ones, they were cherished by friends and family members. Mourning pictures—oils, watercolors, paintings on glass, and needlework images that memorialized deceased family members with stylized images of grief—were widespread if not universal in New England homes. In varying proportions, they were expression of genteel taste, as well as of heartfelt grief.