Today the subject of death is largely avoided and it is expected that any signs of grief should be done only in private. We have removed ourselves from the reality of death and it has become a sterile process, gone is the the loving vigil of the family attending to the physical and spiritual needs of the dying person. Most deaths now occur in a hospital with the dying attended by doctors and nurses. A brief visit and perhaps a quick kiss given to the dying
We do not say the departed love one has died, but speak of them as having “passed away.” It is our desire that the loved ones who are left behind will conclude the grieving process in as short a time as possible. We are uncomfortable if they speak of their departed loved one, and silently wish that they would move on and wonder why they can’t get over this: “Goodness, it has been three weeks. Surely they must have some defect that allows them to continue to dwell on their loss.” We have lost the need for remembrance of the loved one who has died and the importance of speaking of them. This alone allows for the affirmation that they lived, were loved and will continue to be remembered.
One poem I found brought great comfort to me after the loss of my son when he was 11 years old. The wording can easily be changed for a mother, father, sister, brother, husband, wife or anyone whom we have loved and now find we are separated from them by the veil of death.
The Mention of His Name
“The mention of my child’s name
May bring tears to my eyes,
But it never fails to bring
Music to my ears.
If you are really my friend,
Let me hear the beautiful music of his name.
It soothes my broken heart
And sings to my soul.”
The Victorians had a much different view of death and dying that many today view as a morbid obsession with death. The expression of grief was done in a public way. Victorians believed that the dying person should be cared for at home, thus allowing them the ability to say their final farewell to family and friends. It was also very important that the dying person was prepared spiritually. The Victorians, through their elaborate rituals, provided a formal acknowledgment of the final transition from life to death. The departed loved one was bathed and laid out for viewing, usually on a bed or table until the time of burial. Family members and friends would remain with the deceased until the time of burial.
A drawing of Georgie Cuyler (top) and of Georgie and his brother, Theo (bottom, left), are from my copy of the 1868 edition of "The Empty Crib.”
The wake was a celebration of the deceased life and was a time for reminiscing, to say prayers and watch over the body. Wakes generally lasted three to four days, which allowed for relatives who lived some distance away to arrive. The sending of flowers started during the 19th century as the deceased body was kept either awaiting arrival of family or for a photographer to arrive and photograph the deceased. The scent of the flowers covered the smell associated with the decaying process.
Other rituals included the necessity to close all curtains and stop all clocks in the home at the time of death, all mirror’s were covered with black, and to close the deceased eyes. I have read that this was done so they could not choose someone to follow them to the grave. I have also read that this was done to prevent them from seeing this imperfect life as they had already seen the glories of heaven.
Remembrances of the departed, such as Post Mortem Carte de Visite (CDV’s), Mourning Cards, Hair Wreaths and other items were proudly displayed in their homes as an acknowledgment that the deceased had lived and were remembered.
Many books were written to provide comfort to those that were left behind to mourn. One of the most touching mourning books that I have read is “The Empty Crib,” which was written by Rev. Theodore L Cuyler. He was the father of twin sons Georgie and Theo, who were born July 9, 1863. Georgie died at age 4 of Scarlet Fever. The book is a memorial to Georgie and was written to console grieving parents. In this book, the Rev. Cuyler tells of visiting those in his congregation to offer consolation and the assurance that their child was safe with Jesus, who was now their teacher. He would also provide in the affirmation of their reunion with the lost love one. It is a testimony to his belief that, while he was separated from his beloved son, Georgie, it was but for a brief time and that their reunion would be eternal.
There were many other books written in the 19th century that offered such reassurance and were widely read by the Victorians. A few examples include: “Angel Whispers or The Echo of the Spirit Voices Designed To Comfort Those Who Mourn,” “Agnes and the Key of Her Little Coffin,” “A Tribute Of Flowers To The Memory Of Mother Or Thoughts on Mother’s Love, Mother’s Death, Mother’s Grave And Mother’s Home Beyond,” “The Weeping Willow,” “Not Changed But Glorified” and “Stepping Heavenward.” The most popular post-Civil War book was “The Gates Ajar,” written by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and was written as a memorial to her brother who was killed during the Civil War.
The main theme of all mourning books that I have read centers on the fact that the deceased has been released from their worldly cares and in our reunification with the lost loved one in Heaven.
Letha Berry is a Worthologist who specializes in dolls and accessories and Victorian collectibles
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