Congregation at Duke Chapel

Death and Mourning in Nineteenth-Century America

For the ears, you can listen to an audio recording of this presentation. [high fidelity audio playable under all personal computer operating systems via VLC media player, Microsoft Windows Media Player with the Xiph.org codecs for FLAC et al, OS X QuickTime with the XiphQT plugin, etc., on many Android-based mobile devices, and on iOS-based mobile devices via apps such as FLAC Player or Golden Ear]

Death and Mourning in Nineteenth-Century America

presentation at Adult Forum by
Jamie Brummitt
Ph.D. Student in American Religion, Duke University
March 16, 2014

Death and Mourning in Nineteenth-Century America (1800 to 1870s)

Jamie L. Brummitt
PhD Student, American Religion
Duke University


Death and Mourning in America

  • Christians dictated mourning practices in the 19th century.
  • Clergy were influential, but laity popularized these practices through:
    1. Voluntary Associations;
    2. Advice literature;
    3. Religious books, periodicals, tracts, and images.
photo of gilt-decorated cover of a book

John Flavel and Richard Cecil, A Gift for Mourners, or A Friendly Visit to the House of Mourning,
New York: American Tract Society, 1833.

 

Death and Mourning in America

  • Mourning was a Christian practice that focused on:
    1. Christ’s life and death;
    2. Recognizing the need for one’s own salvation;
    3. Sin and forgiveness;
    4. Heaven and Hell.
  • But, it was not separated from emerging notions of:
    1. Nation & Citizen
    2. Fashion
    3. Technology
    4. Consumer Culture
    5. The Middle Class
image of lithograph

"Christ Walking on the Sea", Hand colored Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, 1835-1856. From the Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/90715967/.

 

The Place of Death

  • Christians died at home in bed.
  • Family, friends, the local physician, and sometimes a clergy member surrounded the deathbed.
  • The Good Death
    • Examination of a person’s faith through physical and psychological symptoms.
    • Witnesses recorded and shared the signs and experiences.
    • Memento Mori ("Remember that you will die").
image of Eva on deathbed

"DEATH OF EVA", Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin, (Boston: Jewett and Company, 1853), 27. From http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/childrn/cbcbanoat.html.

 

The Place of Death

  • The Bad Death
    • Dying man remained a hypocrite and did not confess his love of Christ.
    • No loved ones.
    • Christian angel of hope departs.
  • The Art of Dying
    • Stories and images in children and adult’s reading material.
image of deathbed scene on cover of tract

"HOPE DEPARTING", Disappointed Hope, No. 238, (New York: American Tract Society, 1832). From Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

 

Preparing the Body for Burial

  • Family members prepared the body after death by:
    1. "Laying out" – washed, shaved, and dressed the corpse for viewing.
    2. Bodies placed in coffins in the Parlors.
    3. Wake, "Watching", "Sitting up".
  • Socialized at wakes, read scripture, ate and drank alcohol.
image of parlor filled wtih flowers, needlework, etc.

The Funeral of Clara Jane Treat in a Parlor, Sunday April 16, 1876, Stereocard, Image from The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. From Katherine Grier, Culture and Comfort.

 

Funeral Procession

  • Mourners gathered in the house before the procession.
  • Prayers or words said.
  • Depending on families’ economic status:
    1. The body was carried by the family, or the family hired a hearse;
    2. Processions stopped at churches or meeting houses for sermons and last viewings.
image of long team of horses pulling a funeral wagon

"The Funeral of President Lincoln, New York, April 25th. 1865. Passing Union Square." New York: Currier & Ives, 1865. Lithograph, 8 x 13 inches. Uncolored. C:2206.

 

Burial

  • Christians were commonly buried:
    1. On family land.
    2. At church graveyards.
    3. In rural cemeteries (1830s to 1860s).
  • The very poor, destitute, and some enslaved and free Africans were buried in potter’s fields, or common graves.
  • Prayers and sermons said at burial sites before interments.
  • American Tract Society warned "spectators" of funerals not to gawk for entertainment purposes.
image of tract cover

"To the Spectator of a Funeral", No. 13. New York: American Tract Society, 1827.

 

Gravesites as Enrichment

  • Laity and clergy argued that funerals were a time:
    1. of introspection;
    2. to seek Christ;
    3. to convert.
  • Rural cemetery movement created serene, sanitary gardens for this contemplation.
image of pond, trees, monuments, grave sites

Cemetery of Mount Auburn, engraving by W.H. Bartlett, 1839.

 

Gravesites as Christian Enrichment

  • Christian books and periodicals urged children and adults:
    1. To visit gravesites regularly after burials;
    2. To sit at tombstones and walk through graveyards;
    3. To contemplate loved ones’ deaths through the tombstone;
    4. To use this contemplation to seek one’s own salvation through Jesus.
  • Mourning for individuals extended years beyond funerals.
image of children sitting by headstone

"N", wood engraving by R.M. Bogart, The Picture Alphabet (New York: American Tract Society, 1858), 16. Accessed on August 11, 2011 from the International Children’s Digital Library at http://en.childrenslibrary.org/.

 

Mourning in the Early American Republic

  • Elite colonial Americans participated in mourning practices by:
    1. Giving gifts as funeral invitations or tokens;
    2. Commissioning jewelry;
    3. Erecting headstones.
  • Widespread mourning popularized at George Washington’s death (December 14, 1799).
    • President Adams issued a proclamation for the national, public, and annual mourning of Washington to begin February 22, 1800.
image of text of proclamation

"A Proclamation. By the President [John Adams] of the United States of America", Broadside, Boston: Young & Minns, 1800. From the The Library Company.

 

Mourning in the Early American Republic

  • Mourning became a national pastime and a characteristic of a good citizen and good Christian.
  • Americans bought and made memorials for Washington.
  • Painting, engravings, pitchers, handkerchiefs, and embroideries displayed in homes.
  • Neoclassical monuments and symbols represented American liberty, democracy, and Christianity.
image of engraving of monument

"Pater Patriae [Father of the Country]", Engraving by Enoch Gridley after a Painting by John Coles, Jr., 1800.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • Americans personalized mourning practices popularized by Washington’s death.
  • Schoolgirls imitated Washington mourning images in needlework.
  • Needlework personalized for family members’ memorials.
  • Called "Mourning pieces".
  • Popular from 1800 to 1840s.
  • Included Bible verses:
    • "Leave thy fatherless children. I will preserve them alive. For I know that my Redeemer liveth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. For this mortal must put on IMMORTALITY" (Jer. 49:11; Job 19:25-26; 1 Cor. 15:53).
image of couple standing by gravestone under tree

Mourning Piece by Mary Lyman (1786-1826), c. 1804/5. Size: 35" x 29 ¾". Housed at Historic New England, Boston, MA.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • With developments in female education and technology, mourning pieces became unfashionable.
  • But memorial images did not disappear.
  • Lithographers imitated mourning pieces and sold them as "memory pieces".
  • Personalized with epitaphs:
    • Tread lightly o'er the earth where sleeps
      A lovely daughter mild
      For her a widowed mother weeps
      She was her only child
      Then be prepared to tread the way
      Her youthful footsteps trod
      And meet her in the realms of day
      The dwelling place of God.
image of lithograph of elaborate headstone

Memory Piece. Hand-colored Lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, 1846. Approx. 10 x 14 inches. Cotton based, medium-weight paper. Hand-written epitaph on monument. Housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • Christians bought memory pieces and displayed them in parlors.
  • Pastors and their Families were a part of this consumer culture.
  • Reverend Atwood was a Baptist minister, the New Hampshire treasurer, and chaplain of the state prison.
  • The parlor and its objects argued that this Family was a good Baptist family that that participated in American consumer culture and mourning practices.
image of oil painting of family seated in parlor with memory piece on wall

The Reverend John Atwood and His Family, 1845. By Henry F. Darby, American, 1829–1897. Dimensions 72 1/8 x 96 1/4 in. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston Online.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • As technologies developed, Americans found new ways to participate in mourning culture.
    1. Post-mortem photography;
    2. Mourning fashions;
    3. Mourning jewelry;
    4. Flowers at wakes;
    5. Spirit Photograph and Spiritualism Séances.
image of girl on deathbed surrounded by flowers

Postmortem Photograph of Young Girl, c. 1855. From the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Accessed from http://www.luminous-lint.com/app/image /63756541063528624072949062/.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • As technologies developed, Americans found new ways to participate in mourning culture.
    1. Post-mortem photography;
    2. Mourning fashions;
    3. Mourning jewelry;
    4. Flowers at wakes;
    5. Spirit Photograph and Spiritualism Séances.
image of woman dressed in black

Woman Dressed in Mourning for Her Husband with Brooch. Late Nineteenth-Century. Accessed from https://www.msu.edu/user/beltranm/mourning/mourning.htm.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • As technologies developed, Americans found new ways to participate in mourning culture.
    1. Post-mortem photography;
    2. Mourning fashions;
    3. Mourning jewelry;
    4. Flowers at wakes;
    5. Spirit Photograph and Spiritualism Séances.
spirit photograph of Mary with faint overlay of Abraham and Thaddeus

William H. Mumler, "Mary Todd Lincoln with the Spirit of Her Husband President Abraham Lincoln and Son Thaddeus," 1872.

 

Mourning Becomes America

  • As technologies developed, Americans found new ways to participate in mourning culture.
    1. Post-mortem photography;
    2. Mourning fashions;
    3. Mourning jewelry;
    4. Flowers at wakes;
    5. Spirit Photograph and Spiritualism Séances.
image of black jewelty with locket of hair inside

Mourning Brooch with Deceased’s Hair, Mid-Nineteenth-Century. From the Massachusetts Historical Society. Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/21/arts/design/mourning-jewelry-pocket-watches-jacob-a-holzer-sculpture.html?_r=0.

 

During class, the following books were cited for being good sources for additional insights on these topics: