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Mountain Home Magazine

Gone, But Not Forgotten

Jul 10, 2017 12:16PM

The nineteenth century practices surrounding the death of a loved one include some customs that seem macabre, if not downright bizarre. Gone, But Not Forgotten: Death and Mourning in Victorian America, which opened late last month as the summer exhibit at the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society, explores exactly that curious territory. Galen Betzer, a well-respected mortician by trade, curated the exhibit, which continues through Sunday, August 27.

Included in the exhibit are several wreaths and jewelry made from human hair. Locks of hair were often incorporated into earrings, lockets, and brooches, and longer lengths of hair were fashioned into necklaces and watch chains. The watch chain which held entrepreneur Peter Herdic’s gold watch was actually the hair of Mr. Herdic’s first wife, Amanda Taylor Herdic, who died at the age of twenty-seven. Hair wreathes were larger productions, often created from the hair of numerous family members and made into flowers, leaves, and other items depicting natural objects. Alternatively, mourners wore jewelry composed of jet or ebony. Stationery and accompanying envelopes were bordered in black. Even the home appeared to mourn the loss of a family member. Chandeliers and mirrors were draped in black gauze, thus diminishing the sparkling light of the girandoles, the crystal pendants on the chandelier, and the reflective qualities of the mirror.

Photographing the dead was a common practice. Child mortality rates were still comparatively high during the nineteenth century, and the parents’ last opportunity to have a visual remembrance of their child before burial was the photographic record. The child was often photographed within the coffin. On display from the Betzer Collection are a child’s hearse, painted white, and thus declaring the purity of the child. Tombstones for children often depicted the figure of a lamb, innocent like the child, on top of the stone.

Social mores and etiquette dictated very strict behavioral protocols for individuals following the death of a family member. Perhaps these were inspired by the personal mourning of England’s Queen Victoria. The young queen, only eighteen when she ascended the throne in 1837, married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in February 1840. He succumbed to typhoid fever in December 1861 after the royal couple produced nine children and shared twenty-one years of marriage. As was the custom, Victoria immediately donned widow’s weeds—black clothing with no embellishment. However, instead of gradually emerging from mourning after a respectful two years, she wore black for the remainder of her forty years on earth. Prince Albert’s chambers were left exactly as they appeared on the day of his death. Fresh hot water was supplied every morning for his daily shave. Queen Victoria remained in seclusion, rarely seen in public, for ten years. Most women would likely have been grief-stricken, but were not in royal circumstances and would need to move on with the business of their lives. With new responsibilities of household management, the duties of child-rearing, and possibly entering the work force, practicality took over and the women simply had to adjust to their altered lifestyle.

Mourning in the United States achieved national status with the outpouring of grief over the death of George Washington in December 1799. Silk handkerchiefs, needlework memorials, ceramics, and medallions were produced and displayed within households. Abraham Lincoln’s death, of course sparked a similar period of national mourning, with Lincoln’s funeral train making two stops in Pennsylvania—Harrisburg at the state Capitol building and in Philadelphia at Independence Hall.

The exhibit at the Thomas T. Taber Museum will include a number of items associated with the undertaking trade, including an embalming table and an ice coffin. During the winter months, the ground was frozen and it was virtually impossible to dig a grave. Thus, a corpse might be placed “on ice” and stored in an appropriate repository until the grave could be dug. As towns became populated and decaying bodies could not only potentially contaminate water supplies but also create other unpleasant situations, the rural cemetery movement took hold and cemeteries were established outside of town. Begun in 1863, Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport is an excellent example of that trend. The burials were made among trees and other flora; garden benches were placed in order that mourners might reflect on the brevity of life. People often took picnic lunches to dine among their ancestors.

The museum is open for touring Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., on Saturdays from 11:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., and on Sundays from 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Group tours are available by prior arrangement. Ample parking may be found behind the museum or on the street. For further information, contact the museum at (570) 326-3326 or visit www.tabermuseum.org