Facing the King of Terrors

1868 funeral home advertisement

As Halloween approaches, join the Schenectady County Historical Society in exploring death in Schenectady. 

The mourning process provides a look into the social beliefs of a culture. Mourning culture in Schenectady has gone through various stages since the settlement of the city in 1664. Professor Robert Wells of Union College used Schenectady as the basis for his book, “Facing the ‘King of Terrors’ Death and Society in an American Community, 1750- 1990.” Wells’ work examines all aspects of the death process throughout the history of Schenectady. “Facing the ‘King of Terrors” not only deals with causes of death and accompanying burial but with the grief practices of the area. 

The Victorian Era brought with it many changes in the culture of mourning. With the death of Queen Victoria’s husband Albert and her subsequent forty-year grieving period, mourning in America changed dramatically. The length of official mourning grew to two years for widows, one year for close relatives and 6 months for children. Clothing became the most obvious way to show grieving for a loved one.  The SCHS has an extensive collection of mourning dresses, gloves, shawls, and other articles to put on display. Victorians also began expressing their grief through more material means. Jewelry was used to show remembrance for the departed but also as a way of extending official mourning periods. Numerous pieces of jewelry throughout the museum are related to mourning. Hair could be braided into bracelets or cut and pressed into keepsakes. Larger amounts of hair were used in doorways as wreaths. The hair would be cut, pressed, and knotted to build larger memorials.

Samplers within the museum’s collections, created here in Schenectady County illustrate the ways local Schenectadians dealt with their grief. A look at samplers from 1764, 1806, and 1830 show the artists all word their grief differently; an example of the changes in the mourning process.

City directories and newspapers are important resources for tracking the development of the grief process. In Colonial Schenectady funerals were small private affairs occurring shortly after death. The wake or calling hours were held the night after the death and the funeral was usually the next morning. Funeral directors and undertakers were not necessary and usually the local carpenter built the coffin. In the mid 1800’s undertakers began advertising in local directories. By the Civil War families wished to pay respects to departed soldiers and funerals were postponed for travelling of fellow family members and shipment of the deceased’s body. With the lengthening of the funerary process it became necessary to develop techniques in preservation. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the funeral process had become so large that funeral directing was a full time job.

Over the next week we will look indepth at different aspects of mourning in Schenectady.

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