In the 19th century, most sick people were cared for in the home. Hospitals as we know them did not exist until the 20th century. Until then, they were dangerous places that mainly housed plague and epidemic victims, or the indigent poor, people with no family or neighbors to care for them, or people far from home, such as soldiers. When most people became ill or were injured they were cared for, and often died, at home. As a result, immediately after death, the deceased person was laid out in the family home and waked in the best room of the house where friends and family could have their last viewing and show their respect before the funeral and burial.
When a family member died, there were rules that governed what one wore and did after the person’s death. These were meant to show respect for the deceased, protect the person mourning from any social pressures while they were grieving, and prevent others from making social mistakes such as inviting a grieving person to a ball or festive occasion.
Below are listed some of the behaviors that were expected, although not everyone could afford to or were able to follow them.
Social life and all its routines were to be changed by the family for the mourning term.
The degree and duration of the mourning depended on the importance of the deceased. Less time for very small children, much longer for the family breadwinner or important man in town.
For the first week the family remained secluded. After this, the burden of most mourning customs fell on the women in the household. There were different periods of mourning that had to be observed, each with its own set of restrictions. They were called first mourning, second mourning, regular mourning, and half mourning.
Letters telling of the death were written by a family member on black bordered paper- the thickness of the border on the stationery was calibrated to the position and relation to the deceased. Women were not expected to attend the funeral, because they were considered weak and unable to control their emotions and could mar the gravity of the occasion, but in actuality, they often did.
Friends and relations called on the bereaved within two weeks of a funeral but the calls were formal ones, with the person leaving their card, and the family was not expected to receive them.In the twelve months after a husband’s death, his widow did not go out at all, and accepted visits only from relations and very close friends.
Widowers, because of their work outside the house, were expected to go back into society quickly- within a month or so.There was a big concern with proper clothing because it defined minutely what social position one held in society. Correct mourning wear helped indicate that the remaining family had not lost it’s financial or social status after the death.Since mourning clothing had to be ready at a moments notice, it became the first ready to wear garments acceptable for women, in an age when clothing was usually sewn to measure.
Local shops often stocked morning clothes and accessories. In Large towns and cities huge warehouses and stores devoted to outfit funerals and mourners came into being as the mourning rituals became more prevalent and complicated.
Prior to the age of photography, a popular way to memorialize the dead was to have an artist make a portrait of the deceased for the family, William Sidney Mount a local and famous Long Island artist, made some portraits in this fashion, including at least one infant sketched in death. The Historical Society has a sampler where a young girl stitched the names of her dead siblings and a memorial verse into the piece when they died, which was after she started the sewing.
Mourning scenes embroidered on silk as mementoes were taught at academies for young females. They generally depicted mourners beside a classical tomb in church burying ground or in the countryside. They began to disappear in the 1830’s.
When photography was invented, it became wildly popular as a portrait of a loved one was now more affordable. In the 1840’s and later, a person who had not been photographed before often had as a first portrait one made after death. Dead babies were photographed on mothers’ laps, deceased persons were photographed after being propped up with various devices, The photographer often retouched the pictures so the eyes appeared open.
There was no embalming of the body to preserve it, until the Civil War when so many people died on battlefields far from home. Some northern army surgeons offered to embalm dead soldiers whose families wanted them returned home for burial. Embalming had previously only been used for heads of state and to preserve cadavers for dissection at medical schools. it was considered by most to be unnatural and put a wrong emphasis on the physical condition of the deceased instead of on the soul and it’s judgment. It did not become common until the 20th century.
Since the corpse was not embalmed it would start to deteriorate and could smell very bad, and very quickly in the summer. To mask this, flowers and fragrant herbs were placed around the coffin which usually kept open and placed on a stand in the parlor of the home. Flowers also were symbolic of grief and their beauty could be a comfort to the bereaved.
By mid century, burials which had once taken place on family plots were now being held in large garden-like “rural cemeteries” where the landscaping became an important consideration. People now had to take trips far from home to visit their loved one’s burial place. There was a great deal of preoccupation with keeping the deceased safe and the burial undefiled. Stone covers were placed on graves and sometimes steel cages and fences. Steel or lead coffins were now available. There were strange contraptions including one patented item called a grave torpedo, that would cause a rocket to go off if the coffin was disturbed. No one wanted their grave robbed and to become a cadaver at a medical school.
People were also concerned that a person could be buried alive, and there were contraptions that allowed a bell to be rung above ground if a person was accidentally buried alive.
Over time, as the 19th century progressed modern lifestyles clashed with all the ritual and complicated rules surrounding funerals and other social situations. Gradually it was considered more “modern” to simplify these as more and more people sought medical treatment outside the home, as more professionals entered business of the caring and preparation of the dead, as more women worked outside the home. Funeral customs were simplified or were just dropped. For example, where people lived in apartments and more crowded conditions wakes were now being held in funeral parlors instead of home parlors, and funeral directors were preparing bodies for burial and arranging the funeral.