Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Musing on Mourning and Memento Mori

By Ann Parker
Writers of mystery novels are often faced with exploring the lingering effects of unexpected death on those left behind. Given that, and the fact that my newest in the series, What Gold Buys, ended up as a bit of an exploration of “life after death” (circa 1880s), I was on the hunt throughout the story’s creation for items and images that would tell me more about the customs, traditions, and beliefs of the era. 

I read about memento mori—artistic or symbolic reminders of mortality—and went zipping about, virtually speaking, looking for examples. In the nineteenth century, “mourning portraits” were a common and accepted way to memorialize dead loved ones, and photography brought such portraits into the more affordable reach of everyday folks. Another common way to help those living honor and recall their dearly departed were mourning brooches and rings, in which the hair of the deceased was encased within a brooch or braided and woven into a band.
  • My very intriguing memento mori "find" from Western Hardware Antiques, Leadville, Colorado
 On one of my research trips to Leadville, Colorado (the focal point for the Silver Rush series), I was lucky enough to find such a brooch in Western Hardware Antiques, which is one of my favorite haunts (so to speak). The brooch itself is a beautiful piece of work, as you can see from the photo. What I find intriguing is that there appear to be two different strands of hair encased—one of gray encircling another of blonde. I wish I knew the story behind this brooch… but the owner and whatever tale this piece of mourning jewelry might tell are unknown.
  • I took a peek inside the back of a hearse at the House with the Eye Museum in Leadville, Colorado. The ceiling fascinated me!
 In talking to the owner of the store, she mentioned that it is difficult to find memento mori photographs. “These days, people collect them and they fetch a high price,” she said. Which led me to reflect on attitudes on death and mourning, past and present. “Back when,” there were rules and customs that provided a structure for death and mourning. For instance, in the book Our Deportment or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society by John H. Young, A. M. (1880), the “Dress” chapter has a long section on mourning. This section provides insights that go far beyond the appropriate materials for dress for different mourning periods (heaviest black of serge, bombazine, lustreless alpaca, delaine, merino for deep mourning; lustreless alpaca and black silk in second mourning; light gray, white and black, and light shades of lilac for “slight mourning”). This observation, for instance:

“…The people of the United States have settled upon no prescribed periods for the wearing of mourning garments. Some wear them long after their hearts have ceased to mourn. Where there is profound grief, no rules are needed…”
  • Temporary "wicker caskets" were used to transport the remains of the deceased from the place of death to home or the undertaker's. From the House with the Eye Museum, Leadville, Colorado.
Yet rules are provided (of course), not only on what must be worn when and for whom, but for periods of mourning as well. Deepest mourning is reserved for a widow for her husband. This period lasts two years, sometimes longer. Mourning for a father, mother or child is one year. The mourning period for a grandparent, a friend who leaves you an inheritance (!), or a brother or sister is six months. Uncle, aunt, nephew, or niece get three months. What is permissible to wear differs from case to case, and Our Deportment goes into great detail on what kinds of cuffs, gloves, hats, jewelry, and embellishments are allowed and when.

It strikes me that having such strictures could be comforting in times of grief. What’s more, the rules and customs are signals to others, indicating that one is in mourning and in what stage. How different from our quick-paced world of today, in which it seems that the public face of mourning is expected to be short, and that then one should “get on with it,” obliging those who sorrow to do so silently and behind closed doors.
  • Death and dying were not laughing matters in the West... usually. (Tombstone advert circa 1881.)
Ann Parker's ancestors include a great-grandfather who was a blacksmith in Leadville, a grandmother who worked at the bindery of Leadville's Herald Democrat newspaper, a grandfather who was a Colorado School of Mines professor, and another grandfather who worked as a gandy dancer on the Colorado railroads. Her Silver Rush historical mystery series, published by Poisoned Pen Press, is set in the silver boomtown of Leadville, Colorado, in the early 1880s. 


Andrea Downing said...

Ann, loved this post. Somewhere in the deep recesses of time, I had a book--in England--with beautiful color photos of various mementoes moris. I'll have to riffle around and see if I still have it somewhere though i fear it is lost in transatlantic moving. Thanks for sharing all this--the info on what to wear and how long for mourning was particularly interesting.

Alice Trego said...

What a great post, Ann! I had known about the hair in the brooch memento mori, as well as small hair wreaths, but I learned something new about the mourning periods for different loved ones. A fascinating subject, to be sure. Thank you for sharing your expertise on this, and I look forward to reading another of Inez's stories.

Ann Parker said...

Hi Andrea!
That book sounds like a real treasure! If you find it, please share the title and author... Sounds like a book I should add to my research library, if copies are out there somewhere! :-)

Ann Parker said...

Hiya Alice!
You're welcome... there's always more to learn, isn't there? For instance, I'd love to get my hands on the book Andrea mentions in her comment. Who knows what fascinating information it holds?
Hope you enjoy the latest in the Silver Rush "saga," heading your way! :-)