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.

1 Comment »

  1. Laura Schermerhorn said

    My grandmother, J.A. Kirtland was born in Schenectady, N.Y. in 1897. She said the practice of putting bows on the front doors of homes where someone had died was a popular practice. Also, different colors of bows were used to describe the deceased (ie: young or old)

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