The American Family and the Processing of Death Prior to the 20th Century

Paul David Nygard & Catherine H Reilly. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The death of a loved one has never been considered a casual experience at any point in the history of the American family. Also a constant, at least prior to the 20th century, was a prevalence of death in ordinary life that forced individuals to continuously confront the philosophical and practical implications of this reality of human existence. What altered over time, however, were the strategies and processes by which survivors within the family dealt with their loss and bereavement. During the period of colonial development, for example, the response to death often fell within a belief system that viewed the life of this world as a mere precursor for the moment of final judgment that awaited the human soul in the next. Therefore, the reaction to death for the family, in addition to the practical concerns associated with the care of the dead body, was resignation to God’s will, accompanied by a simple, deritualized consignment of the deceased to the grave. This particular image contrasts noticeably with the practices of 19th-century antebellum America where the emotional response to death within the American family, although still acknowledging the relevancy of divine judgment, often expressed itself in an elaborate series of specialized processes. Ritualized care and ceremonies for the dead as well as elaborate mourning clothes, hair art, and postmortem portraiture and photography all suggest a determination to maintain the familial connection between loved ones, even in the face of death. Without question, what was considered proper in the management of the dead emotionally and practically changed and evolved for the American family during the early decades of nationhood—a predilection that set the stage for even more dramatic changes in the 20th century.

Colonial America and the Early Republic

The Puritans of 17th-century New England believed themselves a people set apart, chosen by God to establish a model theocracy in the New World. Here is found a source for the belief in American exceptionalism that continues to inform the nation’s assessment of itself as well as encouraging an ongoing habit in some quarters of equating things Puritan with things American (Bercovitch 1975:72-108). In actuality, the characteristics of Puritan culture were not found in most of the settlements then developing in British North America. The worldview of a Virginia tobacco planter or a South Carolinian living on a backwater farm no doubt differed significantly from that held by an individual living in Boston or New Haven. Still, similarities existed in colonial American society that frequently cut across lines of religion, class, culture, and race, especially in matters of the family and the practical concerns that accompanied the death of a loved one.

To be clear, the Puritan attitude toward death remained somewhat unique to colonial American society. The dead body—even that of a loved one—was unimportant in a theological sense to the Puritans and therefore was to be consigned to the earth as quickly and as quietly as possible with the hosting graveyard placed physically and emotionally at the edge of the community. Indeed, to the Puritan mind, the corpse constituted a direct affront to the living, for it served as a reminder of both the transient nature of human life and the uncertain fate of the human soul in the hands of an unknowable God. (Although most colonial Americans to a certain extent rejected this complete disregard for the dead body, the cemetery as a place of pilgrimage for the living would wait for subsequent generations of Americans.) What was a true constant in this society, however, was the simple fact that the people who inhabited the subsistence farms and rural small towns that exemplified much of American life knew death with a familiarity unknown in the 20th century. Expectancy of life for a colonial American averaged around 37 years, and the mortality rate for children under 10 years of age was appalling by modern standards. Rare was the parent who did not lose at least one child to the process of growing up, and rare was the individual who reached adulthood without the loss of at least one close family member or friend.

Evidence of the proximity of death to the living in this society can also be found in the surviving correspondence between family members, friends, and even casual acquaintances. Such letters were frequently filled with often graphic descriptions of the toll that death was taking in their family, among friends, or in the community at large. Also ever present were the signs of death: tolling church bells, bereaved loved ones dressed in subdued tones, pamphlets and broadsides lamenting the loss of a distinguished member of the town or, perhaps, the nation. The most overt reminder of death, however, was the somber funeral procession that seemed to appear on a regular basis to convey the latest deceased member of the community to a place of final rest.

The familiarity with death that distinguished colonial America had at its roots much more than the prevalence of mourning cloaks, somber faces, and austere graveyards surrounding the town meeting house. As had been the case in other cultures throughout history, the care of the dead and the dying was the responsibility of the family, to be carried out in the home. So powerful was this expectation that extraordinary efforts were undertaken to return victims of mortal injuries or life-threatening illnesses far from home to familiar ground and people. There, in their own beds, surrounded by family, the dying breathed their last, although also frequently in attendance were representatives of the local community: friends, neighbors, clergy, perhaps the doctor. As the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990:36-71) noted in her portrait of a late-18th-century Maine village, this was a society in which the suffering individual was never alone, for all understood the mutual dependency that existed among the inhabitants of these small, tight-knit rural communities. Solidarity among those grieving at the deathbed as well as those similarly concerned within the wider population was believed essential to the survival of the community.

The communal aspects of mourning also offered the individuals of this society the opportunity to comfort one another as they faced this reminder of their own inevitable journey to the hereafter. Therefore, after death had occurred, a clearly delineated process was initiated by the community to formally escort the deceased from the land of the living, although surviving family members remained at the forefront throughout, both emotionally and practically. The washing, shaving, and laying out of the dead, for example, were carried out by grieving loved ones—often by female family members because this was usually seen as a domestic chore. A local cabinetmaker might be asked to construct a wooden coffin (traditionally a nine-sided design that better fit the profile of the body than do modern caskets), although family and friends frequently took on the chore themselves. The deceased, placed in the open coffin, was then laid out in a room of the family home with surviving loved ones, friends, and neighbors standing vigil day and night. Originally born out of concern over live burial, this period of watching or “the wake” afforded members of the community the opportunity to gather with the bereaved to comfort each other and share food and drink, including alcoholic beverages.

The coffin-side vigil averaged two to three days, until the moment came for burial. If the interment site was in the immediate area (e.g., a family graveyard), a funeral service conducted by the local minister in the family home preceded the formal removal of the body. Transportation of the corpse was yet another responsibility that fell to surviving loved ones, with male family members and friends on foot bearing the deceased to the grave. Although distance, bad weather, and bad roads frequently posed difficulties for those charged with conveying the coffin to its final resting place, inhabitants of rural America especially resisted the use of the horse-drawn wagon or hearse for transporting the dead until well into the 19th century.

At-home prayers or the distance to be traveled aside, however, funeral processions in colonial America often found themselves drawn by societal pressures into the local meeting house or church so that the wider community could offer a last, public tribute to the deceased. Funeral sermons of this age, whether offered at the place of death or before the entire local congregation, sought to heal the spiritual disruption produced by death for both the family and the community by connecting the recent loss for both to religious concerns such as the brevity of human life on earth and the potential for eternal life in the next. The meeting house or church also offered a familiar setting in which the local population could come together in this moment of loss to reassess the strength of shared bonds that reinforced their community. Away from the tragedy of the deathbed and the finality of the grave, the grieving were encouraged to believe that the rhythm of life continued. In addition, the funeral service offered the opportunity for what was considered an essential aspect of the funerary process of colonial America: the final viewing of the deceased. Once the service was completed, the bearers lifted the coffin to their shoulders and, with the tolling of bells often providing a backdrop for the cortege, led the funeral procession from the church to the burial site.

Final disposal of the corpse in colonial and 18th-century America was routinely in the earth—the only alternative being entombment above ground, a practice reserved primarily for the well-to-do. Embalming was all but unknown, and cremation was considered an abomination by a society that placed great store in conveying the body of a deceased loved one to its final resting place unaltered. Escorted by an intimate assemblage of family, friends, neighbors, and clergy, the deceased at last arrived at the open grave, previously dug by family or friends, if a private plot, or by a sexton, if in a churchyard. The subsequent lowering of the coffin into the grave conveyed a message for survivors both poignant and unmistakable in meaning: The deceased no longer dwelt in the community of the living. In the final analysis, this carefully proscribed but ultimately straight-forward processing of death brought both the deceased’s family and the larger society to a clear understanding of the finality of this moment. But as American society moved into the 19th century, much of the intimacy and simplicity that marked the journey of the bereaved family to that realization was lost in the face of changing familial and societal concerns regarding the dead.

Nineteenth-Century America

Without question, the processing of death within the American family underwent numerous alterations as the 19th century unfolded. The metamorphosis of the simple, homely funeral that prevailed at the beginning of the century into the ostentatious display at the local funeral parlor typical at the end was the result of several seemingly unrelated developments. Rapid industrialization and urbanization as well as innovations in transportation technology were no doubt colossal influences, although an expanding population and the rise of consumer culture within the American economy played a significant role as well. Not coincidentally, the tumult and dislocation produced by these forces inspired an impulse among Americans to examine and perhaps reform the more negative aspects of this emerging modern society. Also acting as an intellectual stimulator were romanticism and the cult of melancholy—although, clearly, the greatest influences in terms of changing attitudes toward death were the expansion of the cult of domesticity during the years before the Civil War and the increased importance of the nuclear family, especially in the mind of the nation’s growing middle class. Hard to ignore also in explaining the development of American funerary practices in the antebellum period is the predilection that society demonstrated for the ornate, ostentatious, and sentimental aspects of Victorian culture. Finally, the Civil War wrought, among other things, an increased acceptance in the American mind of the use of embalming and cosmetic restoration in the care of the corpse. In a practical sense, this one particular innovation had perhaps the greatest impact on the role of the family in the care of a deceased loved one, for it necessitated the use of a particular technology possessed, not by family members, but by the professionals of a rapidly expanding funeral trade.

One reality of life in 19th-century America remained unaltered from previous centuries: Death remained such an overwhelming fact of everyday life that inhabitants found it difficult if not impossible to put the subject from their minds, even for short periods. By 1850, life expectancy for an American adult had reached 39 years, increasing to 49 by 1900. In this era of premodern medicine when the causes of many illnesses were poorly understood at best, disease was the great killer, as published obituaries of the time make abundantly clear. “Mrs. James Baty of Merrillan … died suddenly,” a Wisconsin newspaper reported in 1890. “She leaves a husband, her family of 6 children having died of diphtheria last summer” (Lesy 1973:37). In fact, in antebellum America, as was the case in the 18th century, between one-fifth and one-third of all children born into this society died before reaching the age of 10. As late as 1900, 53% of all deaths in the United States involved persons 15 years or younger, compared with 5% by the end of the 20th century. Because access to medical care made little difference in terms of recovery from illness, disease proved as unsparing to the rich and powerful as to the poor and powerless. Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Samuel Clemens, and Theodore Roosevelt were just a few of the well-known figures of 19th-century America who buried members of their immediate family, including young children.

The processing of death within the 19th-century family differed significantly from attitudes and practices in the 18th century, especially in terms of the finality of the grave. After the corpse had been formally escorted from the place of death to the final resting place, surviving loved ones of colonial America turned their back on the grave and walked away, rarely if ever to return. Because the dead were no longer considered part of the community of the living, dramatic and extended examples of bereavement were considered odd at best and an affront to God’s will at worse. This attitude was expressed well by the Reverend William Bentley of colonial Salem: “I have the most settled enmity to all ceremonies of the dead. Let their memories live but let their ashes be forgotten” (Stannard 1974:69). The mourning practices of the 19th-century American family, however, not only emphasized the tremendous significance of the loss but also seemed to claim that the ties connecting individuals within the family remained unbroken, even when challenged by death.

Tangible Remembrances

For the 19th-century family, denying the finality of death took many forms, although a common thread remained a clear determination to physically cling to the memory of the deceased loved one. This impulse manifested itself in hair art, postmortem photography, and other such “tangible remembrances” as well as in a carefully prescribed and visually dramatic mourning dress and etiquette.

Mourning Dress, Jewelry, and Hair Art

Although mourning dress and its accompanying paraphernalia had been around in some form throughout the history of Western civilization, the inhabitants of colonial America did not practice an overly elaborate, formalized mourning etiquette. The antebellum period of the 19th century, however, saw an increasingly stylized display of grief, with strict rules for mourning etiquette, mourning clothes, and mourning periods, especially among those benefiting from a prosperous American economy. The popular image survives from this era of the grieving widow draped in yards of deepest black crepe with a long black veil falling over her black silk bonnet. Gloves and shoes of dullest black kid, black stockings, black shawl, black parasol, and black jewelry completed the ensemble, with underclothing trimmed in black ribbon and handkerchiefs edged in black silk.

Middle- and upper-class women purchased mourning fashions (among the first ready-to-wear garments) or had their dressmaker create a complete wardrobe each time the need arose because it was considered bad luck to keep mourning clothes in the house when not in use, a superstition encouraged by the mourning retail trade. The strict conventions of 19th-century mourning, in fact, created a need for retail establishments that specialized in mourning wear, although, simultaneously, these retail establishments also helped create the need by offering increasingly stylish mourning fashions and providing an inexhaustible assortment of paraphernalia. Mourning departments became a staple of the large department stores that flourished as the century progressed, while specialty shops appeared with inventory devoted entirely to mourning regalia.

Fashionable American women found a sense of satisfaction in owning garments with a label from “Jay’s of London,” the premier mourning warehouse of the time. Such businesses stocked everything the fashionably bereaved needed—mourning handkerchiefs, parasols, bonnets, gloves, aprons, jewelry, pincushions, bookmarks, stationary, pens, ink, and sealing wax. Women’s magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Harper’s Bazaar seemingly worked in tandem with the retail trade and fashion industry by showcasing the very latest mourning fashions and accessories. Such publications also offered extensive and complicated advice on all aspects of mourning etiquette, dictating minutia such as the appropriate black fringe for a parasol or prescribing the overall behavior for an entire family in mourning. Popular convention demanded, for example, that widows undergo several stages of mourning over a period of two and a half years, with a dress code ranging from the dullest black of deep mourning to clothes with colors such as violet, pansy, lavender, and mauve for “half-mourning.”

During deepest mourning, a widow might wear a gown with as much as 600 to 700 yards of black silk crepe or bombazine and a long black veil measuring 45 inches or more. The pernicious dye used for the veil proved a frequent eye irritant and interfered with breathing. The only concession convention offered such suffering women, however, was the use of a subveil of black tulle when the veil was worn in public. Despite the expense, discomfort, and frequent inconvenience, some women followed mourning etiquette tenaciously. When one young woman’s father died suddenly, for example, a mourning dress borrowed from her cousin allowed her to attend the funeral. Prompt return of the garment, however, coupled with the fact that her mourning wardrobe was still at the dressmaker left the grieving girl unable to attend church the following Sunday. As for those women whose financial circumstances prevented such a close adherence to the demands of high fashion, the pervasive mourning conventions of the age remained an influence. Unable to afford costly retail fashions, poor women borrowed black garments from friends, purchased used mourning garb from pawnshops, or dyed their everyday clothing a deep black.

Poverty no doubt prevented additional elaborations to the dress for such mourners, but for the bereaved Victorian of means, mourning jewelry was available in an almost endless catalog of types and styles. Mourning jewelry in some form had existed in Western civilization for hundreds of years, but the sheer variety of bracelets, pendants, lockets, watches, rings, necklaces, brooches, pins, combs, hat pins, and watch chains was a phenomenon of the 19th century. Essentially a memento mori, each piece served the wearer as a personal reminder of absent loved ones and, as such, frequently incorporated hair taken from the object of veneration. During the antebellum period, women’s magazines stirred an interest in “hair art” among the middle class that eventually became a popular drawing room pastime. As an ancient symbol of life, hair was considered an appropriate element of mourning jewelry and, as the one part of the deceased that did not decompose, could be woven, braided, and twisted into all manner of intricate and lasting patterns. The hair of a deceased loved one was also incorporated into commemorative artwork often displayed in the family home. Framed wreaths of human hair were popular, as were wall hangings in which hair served as a component in images such as sorrowful maidens in classical garb, urns, and weeping willows. Godey’s Lady’s Book published an article in 1855 on this particular craft:

[Hair] is so light, so gentle, so escaping the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend, we may almost look up to heaven and compare notes with the angelic nature, may almost say: “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.” (Taylor 1983:243)

During the years of the Civil War, the fad became so widespread that young men leaving for the military bequeathed a lock of hair to their loved ones. In the event of death, surviving mothers, sisters, wives, or sweethearts worked the delicate strands into an elaborate brooch or an intricate pattern placed inside a locket to be worn close to the heart. Such a locket might be of gold with seed pearls representing tears and spelling out the initials IMO (in memory of), while inside on one side would be the hair design and on the other a portrait of the deceased. Human hair was also woven into rings, bracelets, necklaces, and watch fobs. One woman writing on the death of her sister in 1852 described her pleasure in having a mourning ring fashioned from her sister’s hair: “Always wearing it—helps me always to think of her—and because a ring seems to be a bond of love…a circle reminds one how one’s love and communion with her may and will last for ever” (Jalland 1997:299).

The ingrained nature of this “communion” with the dead that existed in this society also permitted the dying an active role in the process of memento mori. Individuals faced with their own imminent demise might order a set of mourning rings for loved ones, commission a plaster hand cast, or leave behind a journal describing the spiritual and emotional journey of the final weeks. Jewelry, books, and other personal items also served as bequests to surviving family members. In some instances, the dying arranged to take something from the world of the living to carry to the grave. One dying mother, for example, took a lock of hair from each of her children, placed the locks in a velvet bag, and requested the bag be placed in her coffin. In each case, a physical artifact helped established an emotional link between the living and the dead that worked to eliminate the veil separating the two.

For Christian America, the separation within the family brought about by death was viewed as only temporary with all meeting again at some point. The dead had simply departed early for their heavenly home and awaited the joyful reunion of family and friends left behind. Gravesite inscriptions and funeral hymns reinforced this idea with phrases such as “Departed Loved Ones,” “Waiting on the Other Shore,” “Meet Me in Heaven,” and “Gone Home.” Without question, the belief system that informed such practices disappeared for subsequent generations, but for the antebellum American family, a very real purpose lay behind the aforementioned customs. Mourning dress, for example, identified the bereaved, garnered support and sympathy from the community, showed respect for the deceased, and matched the mood of the wearer. Basil Montagu notes that

in the mourning dress, the outward sign of sorrow, we call for the solace of compassion, for the kind words and looks of friends and for the chastened mirth of strangers, who, unacquainted with the deceased, respect our grief and recognize in silence the suffering that has been or will be theirs, the common lot of all the children of mortality. (from The Funerals of the Quakers, 1840, quoted in Jalland 1997:302)

To the bereaved, an elaborate mourning etiquette showed a psychological solidarity with the deceased loved one. As long as the grieving maintained a state of mourning, a connection and identification with the dead continued, openly and unashamedly. This total immersion in bereavement, this close identity with the dead, ultimately was a kind of defiance. The deceased, in a very physical way, remained present through some tangible action or object, allowing the mourner to avoid releasing the loved one to the finality of death, perhaps indefinitely. Occasionally, this effort manifested itself in the desire of the bereaved to return to the tomb again and again to gaze upon the decomposing corpse.

Memorial Art and Photography

More common and practical in helping 19th-century mourners keep lost loved ones alive in memory were paintings and drawings of the dead and postmortem photography. Because it was costly and complicated to commission a portrait or photograph, families often viewed the practice as an extravagance. The sudden loss of a loved one, especially a child, however, frequently compelled survivors to embrace portraiture or photography as a technique by which the image of the deceased family member might be preserved in something other than memory. In the early decades of the 19th century, such a concern sparked a demand for portrait painters of the dead. In some cases, the artist was a close member of the family who began sketching the dying person and completed the task after death, although while the face of the deceased was serene and relaxed before the onset of rigor mortis. Others were professional artists, such as William Sidney Mount who charged “double price” for doing death portraits but felt that the task was hardly worth the extra compensation “for the anxiety of mind I have to undergo to make my efforts satisfactory to the bereaved friends and relatives” (Laderman 1996:77). Common with death portraiture was the incorporation into the finished painting of special symbols designed to leave little doubt in the viewer’s mind that the subject was deceased. Typical iconography included a rose with a broken stem, a weeping willow, or a clock indicating the time of death.

The perfection and wider availability of photography in the 1840s provided an option for the bereaved that proved even more popular than death portraiture. Many photographers specialized in postmortems, distributing leaflets proclaiming, “Secure your shadow ere the substance fade.” Such an appeal often led grieving parents to hire a daguerreotypist to visit the family home and photograph a recently deceased child. The mother would bathe, dress, and then lay out the body on a bed or sofa to suggest the illusion that the child was only sleeping. As many surviving images reveal, the photographer placed a favorite toy in the tableau, whereas in others the mother was photographed hovering nearby, as if she were about to awaken the child from sleep.

Well-established photography studios sometimes offered a panoply of techniques, props, and staged settings for postmortem photography and, later, special effects such as hand-tinted portraits or superimposed images of angels welcoming the new soul to Heaven. Some unscrupulous photographers, exploiting the mid-19th-century interest in spiritualism, superimposed ghostlike images of deceased loved ones on photographs of the living. Although, like the portrait painter, the photographer charged double the normal fee for a postmortem image, the result was very valuable indeed: a tangible and permanent reminder of a lost loved one, perhaps the only likeness of the deceased available. The comfort these portraits and photographs offered the bereaved is difficult to overstate. As one widower explained concerning the deathbed portrait of his wife,

Without this drawing I should be infinitely more wretched than I am now for it brings her back to me with such reality that a short time spent in looking at it and praying by it has always a wholesome effect upon my mind. (Jalland 1997:257)

Some mourners availed themselves of all methods of tangible remembrance: sketching deathbed portraits, hiring photographers to capture the loved one after death, modeling clay figures, or taking plaster casts of the face (death masks), the head and shoulders, or the hands. Whatever the results of these efforts, postmortems were not usually placed out of sight but instead prominently displayed in the family home, serving as a reminder to loved ones and visitors alike that the deceased remained a presence in the world of the living. Many surviving family members took special solace from photographs of the dead because in their minds, the technique captured the essence of the subject, the actual light that reflected off their loved one. To the poet Elizabeth Barrett, memorial photographs caught “the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!” (Ruby 1995:49). With the photograph, the mourner had a real and tangible “piece of thee here.”

The use of this technology in terms of family mourning practices also included photographing the gravesites of deceased loved ones, with or without living relations in the scene. Grave photographs were frequently sent to relatives and friends prevented by distance or circumstances from visiting the site themselves. These cartes de visites remained popular throughout the latter half of the 19th century, often distributed to friends or collected in albums.

Cemeteries and Decoration Day

As mentioned earlier, individuals of the colonial era possessed little of the reverence for the graveyard that subsequent generations displayed. The dead were buried with limited ceremony and the graves marked with simple headstones distinguished by death’s head or a skull, for example, to emphasize the transient nature of human life. Unvisited and untended often described the early American graveyard. As the nation moved into the 19th century, however, the final resting place became increasingly sanctified in the American mind, for within these previously neglected acres rested the corpse of a departed loved one. The act of visiting and tending such a grave became part and parcel of the ongoing effort to maintain a tangible link to the deceased.

This change in attitude toward the final resting place of the corpse also reflected the practical concerns of a rapidly modernizing 19th-century America. As urban areas developed and expanded in population, burial grounds became alarmingly overcrowded and, some felt, a public health hazard. This societal concern eventually demanded the relocation of burial grounds to suburban neighborhoods, fostering the development of the rural cemetery movement. Inspired by English garden and landscape design, the rural cemetery, characterized by grassy slopes, abundant flowers, trees, and lakeside vistas, was a monument to both the romantic movement’s reverence for nature and the cult of melancholy with its poetic meditations on mortality. No longer acceptable to the American family was the consignment of a departed loved one to an overcrowded and neglected churchyard. The ideal instead became a pastoral setting marked by touches such as weeping willows or a shimmering lake, with the interment site itself distinguished by elaborate tombstones, statuary, and in many cases, a family mausoleum. In such a setting, it was argued, “theological truths would be more easily perceived and morality would be strengthened,” thus mitigating “the suffering of the mourner” (Stannard 1974:84). Edified and uplifted by the beauty of the cemetery grounds, the bereaved also gained comfort from the knowledge that the deceased reposed in such a bucolic setting. Mt. Auburn, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831, was the first such recognized cemetery in the United States and, once established, attracted the living as well as the dead to its spectacular vistas (Sears 1999:87-121). As one visitor wrote, “A glance at this beautiful cemetery almost excites a wish to die” (Stannard 1974:70).

The role of the cemetery as place of pilgrimage for the family expanded dramatically in the wake of the American Civil War (1861-65). Decoration Day was inaugurated in 1866 by the women of Columbus, Georgia, who called on the people of the South to pay homage to the lost heroes of the Confederacy. The response was enthusiastic and widespread, with whole communities trooping to the local cemetery at least on an annual basis to tend and decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. Young women dressed in white and carrying baskets of flowers sometimes led a procession that culminated in a ceremony featuring stirring music, poetic recitations, and speech making by local dignitaries. A holiday on a national scale by 1880 when President James Garfield presided over an observance at Arlington National Cemetery, Memorial Day, as it came to be called, proved to be yet another part of the process by which the living of the 19th century communed with dead. By the late 20th century, the lessening of community within American society coupled with changing attitudes toward death had reduced this day of remembrance to a holiday replete with barbeques, stock car races, department store sales, and other festivities to mark the beginning of the summer season. In post-Civil War America, however, Memorial Day constituted a family reunion of the living and the dead that might include a picnic on the cemetery grounds and an opportunity to teach the younger members of the community about their forebears. As cultural observer Dan Meinwald (1990) writes,

In the twentieth century, the prevailing method of dealing with permanent separation is to put it out of mind. In the nineteenth century, the tendency was to keep it in mind, to retain the presence of the deceased person in any way possible. (P. 6)

Ornamental Mourning

Many of the elaborate practices that came to distinguish post-Civil War American funerary customs was inspired by Queen Victoria of England who set the standard for mourning in the Western World throughout the latter half of the 19th century. When her husband, Prince Albert, died in 1862, she extended the customary mourning period until her own death in 1901. Dressed in plain black, the “Widow of Windsor” insisted on leaving Albert’s dressing room untouched and his bath drawn every night, slept with a picture of him propped on the pillow next to hers, ordered her servants to wear black armbands for eight years, spent hours embroidering mourning handkerchiefs with black and white tears, and decreed that all family photographs include a bust of Albert on a pedestal. Although many on both sides of the Atlantic admired Queen Victoria’s devotion to widowhood, others viewed her extended mourning as an overindulgence that bordered on the absurd. Increasingly vocal critics of high Victorian funeral and mourning customs railed against these types of excesses prevalent in wider society and called for an end to the “ghoul-like ghastliness of ‘ornamental’ mourning with its exaggerated…affectations” (Jalland 1997:304). In an article dated April 17, 1886, Harper’s Bazaar also noted the hypocrisy of showy mourning garments that offer “a curtain of respectability to the person who should be a mourner but is not.” Nevertheless, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated three years after Albert’s death, many Americans witnessed at least part of the process by which the body of the slain president was brought home to Springfield, Illinois, from Washington D.C. in high Victorian fashion. The 12-day, 12-city funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln offered more to the American mind than a display of high Victorian mourning customs.

The Emergence of the Funeral Industry

The American Civil War produced nearly 700,000 casualties, and although many of the fallen were buried near the place of death, often, surviving family members insisted on the return of deceased loved ones for home burial. Although embalming was shunned in colonial and early American society, the practical considerations of transporting Civil War dead many miles to the care of loved ones demanded the embracing of this procedure. The increased acceptability of embalming as a proper treatment of the dead was further confirmed in the public mind near the end of the war when Lincoln’s corpse was chemically treated in preparation for its extended public viewing. This resulting change in attitude toward embalming looms large in the history of American death practices, for it began the process of removing the dead body, practically and philosophically, from the care of the family and placing it in the hands of professionals who possessed this particular technology.

The origins of such recognizable practitioners of the “dismal trade” can be traced from the “layers out of the dead” who advertised their services in early American newspapers to the antebellum cabinetmakers who constructed coffins for additional income and the itinerant embalmers who trailed Civil War armies. The profession of undertaking, however, emerged as the realities of post-Civil War America accelerated the changes that embalming brought to traditional funerary practices.

As the United States industrialized and the population became increasingly transient and urban, domestic care of the dead and simple home burials were no longer practical. The frequent unavailability of an extended family and close-knit community in the urban setting precluded many of the homely preparations for the deceased so common with earlier generations. Crowded city dwellings also made the home funeral impractical because of limited space for receiving mourners, and issues of health and hygiene often demanded the immediate removal of the deceased from the premises. Mundane considerations such as transporting the coffin up and down the narrow stairwell of a high-rise tenement or through crowded streets also proved daunting to the average city dweller.

In such a context, with services required and a steady supply of bodies available, the modern funeral industry emerged as the undertaker “undertook” to perform the numerous tasks inherent in the preparation of the funeral and the disposal of the dead body. Removed from the home and the care of the family, the deceased was professionally cleaned, embalmed according to the latest technique, dressed, and laid out. In time, the undertaker, the predecessor of the modern funeral director, perfected the art of cosmetic restoration—painting and powdering the corpse to erase the visible signs of illness or violent death or to merely create the illusion for surviving loved ones of peaceful slumber. Often, the viewing of the deceased took place in a spacious and attractive room designated by the undertaking establishment as a funeral chapel or parlor (an allusion to the parlor of the family home).

The prevalence of mass-produced goods in the American economy affected the funeral trade as well with a wide variety of caskets and other funerary trappings offered that spoke directly to a consumer culture ever eager for more elaborate and luxurious displays of conspicuous consumption. A carved mahogany casket lined in white satin and fitted with brass handles took the place of the simple wooden coffin; elaborate and expensive floral “tributes” eclipsed bouquets from the family garden; the homely image of the coffin borne to the graveyard on the shoulders of family and friends was replaced by the grand spectacle of a gilt-trimmed black hearse pulled by ostrich-plumed horses. Not surprisingly, this appropriation of the mourning process by the funeral trade completed a dramatic alteration in American family’s processing of death, for ultimately, the living were allowed to disassociate themselves entirely from the practical and unpleasant aspects of caring for the dead body.


Without question, the one constant concerning American death practices from the colonial era through the Civil War was a societal acceptance of intimacy with death, practically and philosophically. True, 19th-century Americans confronted death and dying in a much different manner than did their colonial forebears. Replacing acceptance with defiance, the antebellum family sought comfort in physical tokens such as postmortem photographs, death masks, hair art, and other “tangible remembrances” that seemed to bridge the gap between the living and the dead. As the 20th century unfolded, these practices disappeared as completely as early American stoicism. The new century—characterized by modern medicine, increased life expectancy, and the nearly complete institutionalizing of dying—increasingly offered the American mind an image of a “death free” society.