In the 19th century, most sick people were cared for in
the home. Hospitals as we know them did not exist until the 20th
century. Until then, they were dangerous places that mainly housed
plague and epidemic victims, or the indigent poor, people with no family
or neighbors to care for them, or people far from home, such as
soldiers. When most people became ill or were injured they were cared
for, and often died, at home. As a result, immediately after death, the
deceased person was laid out in the family home and waked in the best
room of the house where friends and family could have their last viewing
and show their respect before the funeral and burial.
When a family member died, there were rules that governed what one wore
and did after the person's death. These were meant to show respect for
the deceased, protect the person mourning from any social pressures
while they were grieving, and prevent others from making social mistakes
such as inviting a grieving person to a ball or festive occasion.
Below are listed some of the behaviors that were expected, although not
everyone could afford to or were able to follow them.
Social life and all its routines were to be changed by the family for
the mourning term.
The degree and duration of the mourning depended on the importance of
the deceased. Less time for very small children, much longer for the
family breadwinner or important man in town.
For the first week the family remained secluded. After this, the burden
of most mourning customs fell on the women in the household. There were
different periods of mourning that had to be observed, each with its own
set of restrictions. They were called first mourning, second mourning,
regular mourning, and half mourning.
Letters telling of the death were written by a family member on black
bordered paper- the thickness of the border on the stationery was
calibrated to the position and relation to the deceased.
Women were not expected to attend the funeral, because they were
considered weak and unable to control their emotions and could mar the
gravity of the occasion, but in actuality, they often did.
Friends and relations called on the bereaved within two weeks of a
funeral but the calls were formal ones, with the person leaving their
card, and the family was not expected to receive them.
In the twelve months after a husbandís death, his widow did not go out
at all, and accepted visits only from relations and very close friends.
Widowers, because of their work outside the house, were expected to go
back into society quickly- within a month or so.
There was a big concern with proper clothing because it defined minutely
what social position one held in society. Correct mourning wear helped
indicate that the remaining family had not lost it's financial or social
status after the death.
Since mourning clothing had to be ready at a moments notice, it became
the first ready to wear garments acceptable for women, in an age when
clothing was usually sewn to measure.
Local shops often stocked morning clothes and accessories. In Large
towns and cities huge warehouses and stores devoted to outfit funerals
and mourners came into being as the mourning rituals became more
prevalent and complicated.
to the age of photography, a popular way to memorialize the dead was to
have an artist make a portrait of the deceased for the family, William
Sidney Mount a local and famous Long Island artist, made some portraits
in this fashion, including at least one infant sketched in death.
The Historical Society has a sampler where a young girl stitched the
names of her dead siblings and a memorial verse into the piece when they
died, which was after she started the sewing.
embroidered on silk as mementoes were taught at academies for young
females. They generally depicted mourners beside a classical tomb in
church burying ground or in the countryside. They began to disappear in
When photography was
invented, it became wildly popular as a portrait of a loved one was now
more affordable. In the 1840's and later, a person who had not been
photographed before often had as a first portrait one made after death.
Dead babies were photographed on mothers' laps, deceased persons were
photographed after being propped up with various devices, The
photographer often retouched the pictures so the eyes appeared open.
There was no embalming of the body to preserve it, until
the Civil War when so many people died on battlefields far from home.
Some northern army surgeons offered to embalm dead soldiers whose
families wanted them returned home for burial. Embalming had previously
only been used for heads of state and to preserve cadavers for
dissection at medical schools. it was considered by most to be unnatural
and put a wrong emphasis on the physical condition of the deceased
instead of on the soul and it's judgment. It did not become common until
the 20th century.
Since the corpse was not embalmed it would start to deteriorate and
could smell very bad, and very quickly in the summer. To mask this,
flowers and fragrant herbs were placed around the coffin which usually
kept open and placed on a stand in the parlor of the home. Flowers also
were symbolic of grief and their beauty could be a comfort to the
By mid century, burials which had once taken place on family plots were
now being held in large garden-like "rural cemeteries" where the
landscaping became an important consideration. People now had to take
trips far from home to visit their loved one's burial place. There was a
great deal of preoccupation with keeping the deceased safe and the
burial undefiled. Stone covers were placed on graves and sometimes steel
cages and fences. Steel or lead coffins were now available. There were
strange contraptions including one patented item called a grave torpedo,
that would cause a rocket to go off if the coffin was disturbed. No one
wanted their grave robbed and to become a cadaver at a medical school.
People were also concerned that a person could be buried alive, and
there were contraptions that allowed a bell to be rung above ground if a
person was accidentally buried alive.
Over time, as the 19th century progressed modern
lifestyles clashed with all the ritual and complicated rules surrounding
funerals and other social situations. Gradually it was considered more
"modern" to simplify these as more and more people sought medical
treatment outside the home, as more professionals entered business of
the caring and preparation of the dead, as more women worked outside the
home. Funeral customs were simplified or were just dropped. For example,
where people lived in apartments and more crowded conditions wakes were
now being held in funeral parlors instead of home parlors, and funeral
directors were preparing bodies for burial and arranging the funeral.