Grief was more than just an emotion for Americans during the 1800s—it was a way of life. Victorian social etiquette put great social pressure on mourning, resulting in the practice of public mourning rather than private grieving. In this exhibit, visitors can see authentic mourning clothing for women and children, including jewelry fashioned from the hair of the deceased and testaments to the strict rules for widows of that era. Mourning customs also influenced home décor during Victorian times, as shown in a collection of clocks, portraits and quilts.
Walk through the exhibit’s full-scale model of a typical Victorian living room, or parlor, depicting the traditional wake and funeral practices, which took place inside the home. During the 1800s, determining that a person was actually dead was not as simple as it is today, as they didn’t have the medical technology we do now to determine true death. During the days following a person’s death, the body was closely observed for three days to make sure the person didn’t wake from a deep sleep or illness before the funeral and burial – thus the term “wake” we use today for visiting/viewing the recently deceased. During the early 20th century, funeral service practitioners transitioned from providing in-home services to establishing funeral homes, where bodies were transported and prepared for funeral services. It was during this time that parlors became known as “living rooms,” because they were no longer used to display the dead.
For the 19th Century Mourning exhibit the Museum drew upon the extensive knowledge base of the funeral services industry regarding the way death was handled during this period of U.S. history.