Friday, June 17, 2011

Mourning during the Civil War era

I would like, if I may, to blog about another of my pet projects: mourning during the Civil War/Victorian era. My interest in the subject began when I was about 13. At the time, my brother-in-law portrayed an undertaker in our Civil War living history group, complete with a pine box. After a battle one day, he collected a "corpse." I was with him and someone asked "Is that your mourner?" And on the way back, I "wept" over the body. Combine that with someone long with "goth" interests, and you've got a passion with this subject.

Anyway, I recently purchased an awesome book by Maureen DeLorme, "Mourning Art and Jewelry." It is richly illustrated and detailed, with mourning art, photography, jewelry, and ephemera dating back to the Medieval period. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject.

Some might ask why people during the Victorian/Civil War era were so elaborate in their mourning, including dressing in varying degrees of black (and lavender and grey) for certain periods of time, post-mortem photography, and hair jewelry/wreaths. Firstly, this was an era (roughly 1837-1901, Victoria's reign) with a high child mortality rate (so much so that babies often weren't named til they survived their first year) and a high mortality rate overall, with poor sanitary conditions that led to diseases that could carry off several family members at a time. Then, of course, there was the Civil War, where 620,000 men (2% of the entire population) died. It was during the war that the funerary industry took off because so many men died so far from home and their families wanted them buried nearby. This necessitated embalming bodies, where before, most people were laid out in the parlors for a few days and were then buried in a churchyard or at home.

Secondly, in 1861, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert died, and she wore mourning the rest of her life. The whole court followed her example for a time, with elaborate clothing and crepe. With men dying in the Civil War at the time, women on the other side of the pond followed her example and dressed in as much black and crepe as they could afford, even dying their best dresses black if need be. In mourning for a deceased husband, a widow was expected to dress in mourning, gradually incorporating other colors and non-mourning jewelry, for 2 1/2 years. For other relations, it was dressing this way anywhere from 6 weeks to 2 years, depending on the closeness to the deceased.

Also, one must remember that because death was so much a part of everyday life that Victorians talked about death as openly as we talk about sex today. With them, it was the opposite. Today, most deaths occur at a hospital or nursing home and not at home so we are that much more removed from it.

There will be more related blogs to come...I can go all day on this!
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