Monday, December 29, 2008


(I updated a new mourning blog with more information on the mourning practices of the 19th century. Click here to go to it)

As many social historians may know, mourning the loss of a loved one was quite different in the 19th century as compared to mourning today. In fact, I sometimes wonder if people truly even mourn in this modern time in which I'm stuck.
In case you might not be familiar with the stages of mourning during the mid-to-late 19th century, here is a run-down:

Mourning pertaining to women was in three stages - heavy/deep mourning, full mourning, and half mourning.

Mourning a spouse generally would last one to 2 ½ years:

For a parent: 6 months to a year

For children over 10 yrs old: 6 months to a year

For children under 10 yrs: 3 to 6 months

Infants: 6 weeks and up

For siblings: 6 to 8 months

For aunts and uncles: 3 to 6 months

For cousins: 6 weeks to 3 months

For aunts or uncles related by marriage: 6 weeks to 3 months

Grandparents: 6 months

For more distant relatives and friends: 3 weeks and up

Heavy/Deep mourning lasted the minimum of a year and a day and could last as long as 2 ½ years to life. Black clothing, jewelry, veils, bonnets, outer wear, and crape characterized it. The use of crape to cover outer wear and bonnets usually lasted a year and a day, and then could be removed. By the 2nd year the woman could add lace. Hats were not to be worn for mourning; bonnets covered in crape would replace them. The veil was of black crape, and very long, but by the 2nd year it could be shortened. Mourning clothes were expected to be plain with little or no adornment.

Full mourning collars and cuffs were replaced by white, veils were taken off, crape was discarded, and jewelry of a wider variety was worn.

Half mourning included the addition of lilac, lavender, violet, mauve, and gray. The woman was no longer limited to just black. She would use black and white ornaments for evening wear, bonnets were white, lavender silk or straw.

For specific periods of time a widow would not leave her home and did not receive any visitors. After a respectable time, she would then send out black edged cards advising friends and family that her time of heavy mourning had passed and she could now receive visitors. Parties, weddings, and other social affairs were hands off to those in mourning.

I write of this because we recently had a death in our family - my wife's mother, only a couple months ago, passed away quite suddenly at the young age of 61.
Death has been a visitor to my wife's family frequently since this new century began - besides her mother she also lost her father, a sister, and a brother - all rather young and all unexpected.

With death seemingly ever-present, my wife has not truly been able to mourn - to grieve - as she would like. She has been told that "life goes on," to "get over it," and "why do you mourn if you're a Christian."
Yes, these comments have been said to her over the last few years, believe it or not.

A couple weeks after my mother-in-law's death, we had a memorial service that included our very close friend who just happens to be a pastor and presided over the ceremony. During the service, my eldest son played the guitar and sang a very heart-wrenching version of "Wayfaring Stranger." Nearly all were brought to tears. In this gathering we had many friends and family, some who traveled quite a distance, giving their happy remembrances of my mother-in-law. A beautiful eulogy read by my wife also brought nearly every visitor to tears. And to complete the service there was a nice setting of food.
But, even though this memorial was supposed to bring closure, I could see that it didn't, at least not for my wife. You see, mother and daughter were very close and spoke to each other daily on the phone (we live in the Detroit area and my mother-in-law lived 2 1/2 hours away in Battle Creek, so visits were not as frequent as all would have liked). And the time of day the phone calls had been made (late afternoon) is particularly hard on my wife.
She still cries herself to sleep many nights and she still has bouts with depression, but she still can't mourn outside of our home it seems. Society does not allow open mourning without sending the mourner to a psychiatrist, who will invariably put them on some anti-depressant.
I do my best to comfort her, but I can only give the moral support she needs.

On the day her mother died - November 1st - we were in the midst of having a period dress gathering at our home with our Civil War friends, so we rushed to the hospital without changing (which garnered some looks from everyone around!). I say this because the day after Christmas we had a few friends over to help celebrate the holiday. And, just as we have done the previous two years with these friends, it was a period dress Christmas get-together once again. As our friends have repeatedly told us, "This is our Christmas!"
But, this year I noticed that, instead of wearing her nice flower-print brown day dress, she instead wore her lavender day dress with a mourning brooch I bought for her earlier this year while we portrayed mourning practices during re-enactments.
Although she was not 19th century accurate, she was showing our visitors that she was in mourning - that she still had grief. And, afterwards she told me how good it felt to wear the badge of mourning for all to see and to give her the respect that folks should give one in such a state.
And that lead me to finally fully understand the mourning practices of the 19th century: it gave one - including men, albeit a much shorter length and less rules - the opportunity to mourn, and to let others know. It gave the mourner the right to cry whenever and have others understand. It gave the mourner the right to be angry whenever and have others understand. It gave her the right to be moody and have others understand.
It gave her the right to grieve whenever she needed to.
And, that's what my wife cannot do in this modern day and age. She needs to mourn and to know it's OK to mourn without anyone saying "It's been a couple months, she should get over it by now!" and having some doctor wanting to shove pills down her throat. Not necessarily mourning to the extent of our 19th century ancestors, but, in her heart she needs to mourn - - not for three days; not for a week or a month. But for however long she needs to.
Our ancestors were much smarter than today's society gives them credit for.
They knew...

(The image shown here in this blog, by the way, was taken with an 1860's tintype camera and shows Michigan Soldiers Aid Society members (including yours truly) during another mourning scenario that we did in Hastings, Michigan at historic Charlton Park. Many styles of mourning clothing are shown.)


Historical Ken said...

The following comments are from friends who have read this post and responded with an email directly to me:

You and especially Patty have had first hand experience with the challenges of how we are not "allowed" to mourn today.
A historian of mortuary science once commented that every era has its forbidden topic. In the 19th century that topic was sex and in our era it is death. My thought about that is that while not everyone had sex in the past (or at any time), but everyone dies eventually. It was easier to hide sex as it was (and still should be!) a private matter between two people, but it hard to ignore death. As a result we have to work very hard to block any obvious acknowledgement of the existence of death, including mourning for those who have died.
I was particularly stunned that anyone would question a Christian feeling sad at the death of a loved one. Mourning the loss of a loved on in your life has nothing to do with religion. No matter what your beliefs, we still won't see that person again in this lifetime. We aren't sad for the person who died, but sad for ourselves because of their absence from our lives.
We should be allowed to mourn in ways that we need to come to terms with our losses, but current society doesn't know what to do with such emotions.
I could go on even more of course, but I would be preaching, not just to the choir, but more like to the "preacher."
My deepest condolences to Patty and your whole family on all your recent losses. Patty can feel free to cry on my shoulder any time. I might just join her in a few tears for the kind of losses we all carry buried in our hearts even after the passage of many years.

Glenna Jo

I agree completely with Glenna Jo.

You've said no more than I've been saying for a long time. As you know, I work as a Samaritan and so many people who phone us are grieving or hurting largely because they've not been allowed to work through these painful feelings at their own pace in their own way. They need to express their pain and we're often the only people to give them both permission and unlimited time.

Patty, my love, your dear ones live on in your heart and in the hearts of your family. The first year without them, as you must surely know, is the worst one - first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary. Gradually, though, the pain is easier to live with and you will be able to remember, crying or laughing and always with love.

Grief is also difficult for the one supporting the bereaved, and your blog suggests that you too need a time to grieve, Ken. How are you coping?

Thank you so much for sharing this -

Our society wants to forbid us the indulgence of mourning - to hurry up and get "on" with life and simply suck up the grief. Your piece has reminded us that our loved ones do not pass lightly from our world and from our hearts - and although the pain eases with time - we need to be able to take the time - however long needed.
Love, (cousin) Ro

Catmom said...

It must be no coincidence that I read your deeply moving account of your wife's grief over the passing of her mother (my sincerest and most heartfelt condolences to her and to you) on this New Year's day. This year of 2009 will mark the 10-year anniversary of the loss of my own mother.

My mother was not just my mother, but also my best friend, the person to whom I was closest on this earth. Losing her was a devastating blow that took me a number of years to come to terms with.

I had one erstwhile friend who, at the two-year mark of losing my mom, wrote to me and said, "Shouldn't you be further along in the grieving process than you are? Parents die. Get over yourself!" The implication being that since I wasn't "further along" in the "grieving process," (a term I hate, by the way, as "grieving process" makes it sound like a nice, neat little package that has a beginning, middle, and end) I must be "doing it wrong" because if I were "doing it right," I'd be "further along" at the two-year mark than I was. And as for "Parents die" and "get over yourself," - well, I know insensitive comments like that contributed to the end of that particular friendship.

Someone said there is no "shelf life" on grief, no "expiration date" on mourning. They are so right.

Again, my deepest sympathies and condolences to you both.

Geri Ann

P.S. If you see my email address appearing as "," it has changed to "" I haven't been able to figure out how to get it changed on my Google account!

Historical Ken said...

Thank you so much Geri Ann for such kind comments and sentiments. It truly does mean so much to us.