Archive for October, 2009

Death and Modernity: 1870-1950

Late 19th century funeral showing professional floral arrangements

Coming into the modern world, people where no longer finding comfort in ritual or religion. At the same time, science had advanced to an understanding of bacteria. With this came improved sanitation and the transition from infectious diseases, which affected the young, to degenerative, which affected the old. The decline of infant mortality removed much of the tragedy and suddenness of death, while the willingness to trust professionals with the dead and dieing increased. No longer forced to confront the “king of terrors”, Schenectadians lost their ability to articulate their emotions as they once had.

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Podcasts on Schenectady County History now available!

The Schenectady County Historical Society with Schenectady County has produced its first podcast!  Join SCHS trustee member Nancy Curran as she interviews author Bill Buell on his new book “Historic Schenectady County: A Bicentennial History”.  In his first book, Bill explores the history of Schenectady County from its earliest settlers to the modern era.  Copies will soon be available at the historical society or wait until November 5th when Bill will be signing copies of his book between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.  He will speak about the book and his research at 6:30 and light refreshements will be available throughout the evening.  To see Nancy’s interview click on the link below!

http://vimeo.com/7320739

We would like to say a special thank you to Schenectady County and the efforts of Wendy Voelker as well as Bill Buell for his time and Nancy Curran.  Thank you!

Historic Schenectady County

Historic Schenectady County: A Bicentennial History

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Vale Cemetery and the Rural Cemetary Movement of the 19th century

Postcard of Vale Cemetery

Postcards were created of various vistas at Vale Cemetery.

Girl at Vale

Taken at Vale Cemetery, this image shows how, although a cemetery, Vale was a picturesque location and a destination for Schenectadians looking to escape the city for an afternoon.

Starting in the 17th century, most burials were next to a church or chapel in order to be closer to the saints and improve the chance of salvation at the resurrection. Graves were packed in close together and in no particular order. As room became scarce, bodies were often interred one on top of another. Nor were the church yards well kept. Tombstones were often broken and it was not uncommon to find scattered bone fragments or sunken graves from collapsed coffins. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the current conditions generated concerns about additional space, sanitation, and aesthetics. Taking the dead outside of the growing city, the rural cemetery came to America in 1831. Utilizing the landscape’s natural geography, plots were spread out among hills and trees. Visitors could escape the noise and filth of the city while they walked the paths through nature and contemplate history as they gazed upon monuments to the deceased.   

While Albany and Troy established their own rural cemeteries at the height of its popularity, Schenectady created theirs as the movement was dieing out. As early as 1838 a petition was presented to the city government bringing attention to the need for a new burial ground, but it was not until 1854 that the city responded to another petition demanding action. However support for the new cemetery was not universal. Some still wanted to be buried with their ancestors, while others saw the necessity of a new burial ground but did not want taxpayer money to pay for the endeavor. Resistance was enough that the Mayor and City Council was voted out of office in 1855 for anti-cemetery candidates who then sold the land the city had already purchased.

 

“Our beautiful and romantic Vale Cemetery.”

Finally in 1857 the city built Vale Cemetery which was taken over by the Vale Cemetery Association in 1858. In a major departure from the old church yards, visitation was restricted to daytime, at one point being prohibited on Sundays. No eating was allowed and loud children and pets were to be kept under control. Monuments were controlled as well. The association encouraged simplicity in design, yet beauty and originality.

Today Vale resembles more of what it was meant to replace than a rural cemetery. Larger than when it was originally established, Vale now contains over 42,000 burials. Thickly cluttered with various monuments and stones of different times and cemetery movements, many of which are decaying or have been vandalized, it has lost most of its natural beauty and the effect of its original design.

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The Civil War Era

Memorial Day Postcard

Memorial Day Postcard

By the mid-19th century, religion played a lesser role in people’s lives, and the old funerary practices had lost their meaning. Professionalization of death removed the family from close contact with the deceased; a phenomenon that some viewed as making money off the misfortune of others. People no longer knew what practices were appropriate, and they found themselves looking to magazines and newspapers for advice on the subject. While focus had shifted to the emotion of the survivors, some decried a general moral decay in the Union as a whole with its focus on the self, cheaper living, and a concern more for property and money than for human life.

“[I] feel it selfish to wrap myself in my own individual sorrow when so many hearts are desolate.”

                                                                                                            Margaret Peissner

Though change was not instigated by the war, it exhibited it on a large scale. Margaret Peissner’s husband, Elisa, was killed during the battle of Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. In a letter to Margaret, surgeon James Hewitt described Elisa as dying “gallantly and nobly … of honorable wounds, in front.” It is clear from a letter that this was not the case. The surgeon spared the grieving widow the information that Elisa’s death was not only bloody and painful, but also the treatment his body received from the enemy was less than honorable. 

The Civil War came at a time when the need to memorialize the dead had taken root. Established in 1868, Decoration Day brought the living back to the cemetery each year to place wreaths and other items of remembrance at the headstones of those who had died in the war. The new holiday grew in popularity, and by 1871 Schenectady’s common council organized numerous activities including speeches at Vale and a parade. After World War One, the celebrations included all war dead and eventually became Memorial Day.

 “There is a general feeling of sorrow and gloom that words utterly fail to express.”

The shock of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln came days after the jubilation at the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattex, Virginia. After four years of war, collective mourning brought people of all political affiliations and sympathies together. On April 19, 1865, Schenectady held a funeral procession and a series of ceremonies for the President. Businesses closed, homes were draped in black and the newspapers were not even published as the procession made its way from church to church. Schenectadians went to pay their last respects to the man himself when his funeral train stopped in Albany on the 25th on its way to Illinois.

Yet solidarity was not complete. In a sermon, the Rev. Denis Wortman of the First Dutch Reformed church compared Lincoln’s assassination to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and called for retribution against the Confederate traitors. This elicited a response from the Democratic Reflector, which accused Wortman of “heated zeal” and “diabolical” spirit. In turn the Evening Star and Times rebuked the Reflector and published a couple of articles in which it related the fate of those who failed to mourn for the president.

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All Must Die: 18th Century

Image from our past exhibit "Facing the King of Terrors" with reproduction 18th century mourning gown and coffin

Image from our past exhibit "Facing the King of Terrors" with reproduction 18th century mourning gown and coffin

“the one shall be taken and the other left & that this may not be for the worst but for the better.”

 

The death of a loved one was a reminder to the living that death could come at anytime and preparing ones self in the face of God was of utmost importance. If the deceased had died a good death by being properly at peace with the lord, then their death should be viewed as releasing them to a better place. If they had died a bad death, such as suicide, or had lived an unrepentant life, then their passing was a reminder of the need to prepare.

 

“It was the fashion then to have cake at funerals, & spiced wine, and cold wine, and pipes and tabacco … That custom after a while went out of fashion.”

                                                                                                Harriet Mumford Paige

 

Dutch funerals were known in the 18th century for their extravagance. For Deborah Sanders’ funeral in 1786, 600 cakes were baked and thirty-one gallons of rum were purchased to be spiced with cloves and cinnamon. Gifts were given to pallbearers and sometimes to guests. These mementos could include gloves, gold rings, and silver cups and spoons.

 

The Dutch were not alone in their funeral excesses. Viewing luxury as a source of corruption, in 1774 the First Continental Congress discouraged the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals and recommended the wearing of ribbons and armbands instead of mourning dress.

 

George Washington’s death in 1799 was a devastating blow to the new republic. They had lost not only their first president but also the very symbol of the revolution. For the first time, Americans mourned as a nation for their loss. Washington’s death came at the beginning of a change in mourning practices and attitudes, and to an extent helped speed it up. Though it would not be until the mid-19th century that deep mourning would be accepted and even expected, more explicit mourning was coming into practice. Even views toward death were beginning to change. William Pitt Beers gave a local eulogy for Washington in which he reminded everyone that, like Washington, we must all eventually pay our debts in the tomb. Yet Beers was not a minister reminding the living to prepare for God’s judgment, he was a local lawyer who focused on how Washington had live instead of how he had died.

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Death in Transition: Early 19th Century

“I plead you all to prepare to die.”

The early 19th Century saw the introduction of new practices and the retention of old ones. In many respects, focus still remained on how a person died and the moral implications of their death. The passing of a loved one was natural and, if their soul was properly prepared, an occasion to be hopeful. Yet this attitude was starting to give way to focus on the person’s life and the emotional needs of the survivors. Some of the new practices did not last beyond the 1850s, while others would come to define the later part of the century.

The sermon remained the mainstay at funerals in which a reverend admonished the mourners to prepare their own souls for the day that they too would die and to look upon the deceased as the model of dying the good and peaceful death to which they should emulate. Yet the sermon was not without competition. The a religous memorial biography, delivered by a friend or prominent citizen, reminded mourners of what the deceased had done in their life and shied away from how they had died. By the time of the civil war, the memorial biography had all but replaced the funeral sermon.

Mourning clothing continued to be a way for mourners to externally show their grief.

Mourning clothing continued to be a way for mourners to externally show their grief.

“I saw all this. I felt all this – and I live to tell it. I shall live to remember it.”

*Writing to her cousin, Amelia Jones, Harriet described the final moments of Peter Hewlett, with whom she was romantically involved. Letters describing the death and funeral to those unable to be there was common practice in this period.

Harriet Mumford Paige was a young woman who struggled with the beliefs and mourning practices of the time when she lost an aunt and then her love interest. At the time she should have accepted their deaths as natural, rejoiced that their suffering ended and that they had gone to a better place. But, Harriet deeply regretted their deaths and her desire to see them live longer caused internal conflict that led her to see herself as selfish for thinking of her own emotions over her loved ones’ relief of suffering. Her mourning was seen as so excessive that forty-five years later a local diarist recalled that Harriet had worn mourning dress for a man that she was not yet married to.

 Previously the family of the deceased prepared the corpse and the body was displayed in the home. A local carpenter or furniture maker made the coffin and the church sexton dug the grave. This began to change with the new professionalism surrounding death. Along with doctors offering remedies to ward of the Grim Reaper, undertakers stocked coffins, prepared and displayed the dead and dug the grave.

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Mourning of Early Inhabitants

A 1640 sign from the Dutch city of Amsterdam advertising Aanspreecker services. In Schenectady the church sexton did this service.

A 1640 sign from the Dutch city of Amsterdam advertising Aanspreecker services. In Schenectady the church sexton did this service.

“I was at a great Schechems funeral at fort Hunter, he was interred in fine Indian Shoes, Stockings, &.C. the Indians behaved vastly decent, & shewed Sincere Grief. formerly they used to have their Guns, Axes, &.C. put in the Ground with them, immagining they were to hunt in the Other Country to the East (meaning the other World) & be merry.

                                                                                               Warren Johnson 1760-1761 

During the 17th century, the Iroquois buried their dead with tools and other goods they could use in the after life. Men took weapons, tools, pipes and spiritual items like beads and effigies. Women took pots of food, tools, ornamental and personal possessions, while parents lovingly buried their children with trade goods like glass and beads.  Over time European goods became more frequent and iron and brass in among grave goods increased rapidly during the first half of the century.

 

When in mourning, the Iroquois cut their hair, smeared their face with dirt, and entered a ten-day period of deep mourning in which they neglected their social duties.  Over the course of a year, the mourners took on more duties, but remained unkempt and exempt from many social amenities.  As a way of cooping with the lose of a loved one, the Iroquois transferred the name and duties of the deceased to another. Those of high social status replaced someone from the same lineage, clan or village, but those lower on the social scale, replacements came from captives.  War parties assembled for the specific purpose of taking prisoners to replace the dead.  The mourning family chose to accept the replacement or execute them in a religious ceremony.

 

*The Iroquois buried their dead in a circular or oval pit sitting in a flexed position and facing west. The grave would be lined with furs, skins, bark or grass and covered with bark or fieldstone with a layer of dirt. When European-made tools became more frequent palisades were built around the grave and painted white, red and black. By the middle to late 18th century, the Iroquois began using wooden coffins instead of skins and bark.

 

“[The Dutch] have another custom differing from other Nations. They feast freely at the Funeral of any Friend, to which I have been often invited and sometimes a Guest…. The Dutch eat and drink very plentifully at the Feasts, but I do not remember any Musick or Minstrels…. In all these Feasts I observ’d they sit Men and Women intermixt, and not as our English do Women and Men by themselves apart.”

                                                         Charles Wooley, New York City, 1678-80

 

Among the early Dutch, the family of the deceased hired an Aanspreecker or inviter to go to the homes of friends and relatives to invite them to the funeral.  Closed shutters signified a state of mourning and mirrors were covered or turned to the wall.  A coin placed in the hand of the corpse paid for the crossing into the land of the dead.  Family prepared the body in the home and it remained there until burial, at which time ten to twelve people carried the coffin on a bier covered by a black velvet cloth called a pall.  A party at the home of the deceased greeted mourners when they returned from the cemetery.

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