| The visitors to the Western Pennsylvania historic site Meadowcroft Village in September 2003 were having an experience of a lifetime on a special Civil War Weekend. First they were recruited into the Union Army to fight to preserve the Union. Next they marched off to the rustic soldiers camp, complete with white tents and a campfire, all under the watchful eyes of a stern officer of the 9th Pa Reserves Civil War Re-enactment unit. While in the camp area they heard a loud volley of muskets and the sound of first call causing the men, dressed in dark blue uniforms, to grab their arms and form up for battle against a picket line of gray clad Confederate troops. They watched in both excitement and horror as men shouted orders with gunfire blazing around them, causing men in both blue and gray to fall to an early death. Next they were quickly hustled to a small log cabin that had been commandeered for a field hospital to help tend the wounded of which there were many. The surgeon was busy tending to his bloody tasks of removing bullets and amputating maimed limbs as the wounded soldiers cried out in agony. The visitors shivered with both fear and excitement. What awaited them next, they did not know. They shuddered to think. Was it to be more fighting and dying?
The tour guide led the shaken group down the dust filled dirt road, to a crude wooden fence indicating the entrance to another log cabin. They could hear the distant sounds of gunfire behind them. Something was very different about the entrance to this cabin, the fence post was tied with a stiff black crepe bow. As they walked up a short dusty rut filled drive more black crepe bows could be seen tied to the columns of the house. The windows were shuttered closed and had black crepe draped over them giving the cabin a somber and solemn appearance. What was going on in here? When the group guide approached the door she noted a black crepe wreath on the crude heavy oak door. She softly knocked. The door was opened by a petite red haired older woman dressed in deep black from head to toe. With a voice calm and quiet she invited the group in.
One by one the visitors entered the dimly lit room and looked at the gruesome sight before them. Lying on a rough pine board stretched across two wooden sawhorses was a metal coffin about 5 feet long. At the head and foot was a porcelain urn of white and purple flowers mixed in with greenery along side lighted oil lamps. Candles burned dimly in lanterns along the side and back walls of the room. Primly sitting behind the coffin staring at the floor was another lady dressed all in black from head to toe. As the door closed signaling all the visitors had entered, the lady dressed in black slowly and solemnly unfolded herself from the chair revealing that even her head was shrouded in blackness from a heavy veil that fell from her bonnet to below her shoulders. That lady was me, playing my re-enactment role as a mourner for a loved one. A role I knew so well from my years of Civil War re-enacting and research.
There was a long calculated silent pause, allowing the guests to take in the solemnity of the moment. Then I began to speak in a voice rich with sadness. “ Thank you so much for coming to visit the house of the dead. You can see that we are a household oppressed with grief at the death of my dear nephew John Jacob Hamilton (the name was fictitious for the weekend). You, my good neighbors, have responded to the well known signs of a death in the household, the black crepe bows on the fence post and columns, the windows shuttered and draped with crape, the black wreath upon the door. You have responded as good neighbors and friends to offer assistance and sympathy. For this we are grateful. You will understand why the poor boys mother, my own dear sister, is not here to receive you. She has taken to her bed prostrate with grief at the loss of her oldest son on the field of battle. I am doing my good Christian duty, by sitting with John Jacob while working on the details of his burial, and committing his immortal soul to God. We have placed him in the best room in the house, the parlor. We were so fortunate that he pre-paid for delivery home in case he was killed in battle. $13.00 he paid and that included the coffin and the ice to ship him! We are so fortunate that the undertaker was an honest man and we got him home. You see before you his lovely iron coffin, rich with the symbols of life and the hope of immortality. I will explain them to you. Across his chest is the rose with a broken stem symbolizing a young life cut off in its prime. Near his head is the lamb a symbol of his inocense. You will see here at his feet a branch of the acorn representing his life here in the woods of Pennsylvania. He so loved these hills and longed to return here one day. We never dreamed he would come to us dead. His dear face is covered by a glass plate that will be screwed down permanently once we have cut off locks of his hair to be made into hair work jewelry for his mother to wear in constant remembrance of him. The photographer will be here soon to take the last likeness of him in all his fine manhood, that we may keep his memory alive as long as we live. I have hired servants to sit with him during the night, while I sit with him by day , for the next three days, until we can get the grave dug in the family cemetery and make the other funeral arrangements. We must not leave his dear body alone until it is safely placed in the ground. While I sit here, I have been working on the funeral tickets that will admit you to the celebration of his life.” I paused and held up a cream colored business card with a thick black border. “ When you receive one of these, announcing the date and time of the service , to be held here in the parlor, you are required ,except under excuse of extreme illness, to attend.”
I paused again, observing the stunned expressions on the faces of the visitors, many were overwhelmed with all they were seeing and hearing, a few were crying. “ You will see that good friends have already brought flowers from their greenhouses and gardens. The white daisies represent the innocense of the dearly departed. The green ferns represent the hope of immortal life as represented by our Lord and Saviors statement before He called Lazerus from the grave, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life, he who believeth in Me though he were dead, yet shall he live and whosoever livith and believith in Me shall never die.’ The flowers serve a twofold purpose, one to show love and respect, the other to mask the horrible stench of death as we await the final burial as he had not paid for embalming.” I paused once more in my presentation to allow the facts presented to sink in. “Strong men have been hired to dig the grave and prepare it for burial. That is why we have to wait three days for the funeral.”
“ The day of the burial is most solemn indeed. The strong men and pall bearers arrive to carry the body to its eternal resting place. The 6 strong men hired to dig the grave will carry the casket on their shoulders while 6 pall bearers carry the black crepe pall over the casket.” I paused again to show the black pall that would cover the casket. “Family and friends will gather while the Minister offers prayers and words of comfort. The casket and pall is carried from the house down the dusty path outside to the family graveyard. We of the family walk behind leading the way. You as friends will solemnly follow. We will throw the first shovel full of dirt on the coffin as a symbol of the body returning to the dust from which we all came. The ladies will all be dressed like me in black crepe from head to toe. Our black bonnets have black crepe veils that we will draw over our faces, that we may weep and grieve in private. No respectable person would ever speak to a lady in Mourning with her black veil drawn across her face.” There was an audible gasp as I paused to drop the thick black crepe veil over my face and allowed it to fall to chest level. “ From this day forward until the appropriate mourning period ends, we will leave our homes with veils drawn over our faces. We will make our first public appearance about 8 days after the burial when we will appear at church. We can by custom attend no social functions while in full mourning, only church or something appropriate to support the war effort. When we are grieving, it is necessary that we remain private and quiet that we may pause and reflect on the life of our loved one gone to his Heavenly home and eternal rest. While we are in the seclusion appropriate to our grief we will spend our time reading the Bible in a solemn attitude of prayer, reading consolation literature that will help us accept Gods will in taking our loved one, and making memorial objects to memorialize our loved one.” I paused for a moment and held up an example of a netted, cloth memorial artwork circa mid 19th century, made of beautiful black glass beads on black silk netting. “Work such as this will be displayed prominently in the home either on a wall or on a piano. It takes many hours to do this work and in our grief we have many hours to do so. As we work we pause and remember the deceased life and his immortal soul” With great care I pointed out very poignant Victorian symbols of mourning on the netted piano cover. “There is the butterfly, a symbol of hope and eternal life, the weeping willow tree that so beautifully demonstrates the form of a grieving wife or mother with her head bowed low with grief and tears.” The visitors were now totally mesmerized with all they had seen and heard that they were silently hanging on every word. All were amazed at the rituals and practices so common to the 19th century, some foreign to us, some still in practice today.
“It is now time for us to return to the 21st century. What you have experienced here in this cabin today is an example of proper Victorian Mourning customs at the time of the Civil War. One of the first questions I am often asked is ‘why all the black?’ Victorians strongly believed that the spirit of the deceased remained present in the home until the body was properly placed in the grave so the house would be kept very dark, windows shuttered and draped with crepe, even all mirrors covered with crepe to prevent the spirit from being trapped here or even grabbing one of the living persons and taking that persons soul into death. Black is the absence of color and light. Black crepe is the dullest material and does not reflect any light at all. It was believed that grieving family members needed to wear black crepe as well to protect their soul from being carried away and also to socially stand out as one in deepest grief. This brings up a very important point about the Victorian beliefs and customs. Many Victorian women held a firm belief that the spirits remained around the loved ones as unseen protectors. Many of these ladies often turned to the practice of spiritualism usually through seances to bring the dead back to them to communicate with them. It is a well established fact that Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln practiced spiritualism and attended seances to get in contact with her deceased children and after the assassination with her husband Abraham Lincoln. Many of the mediums who conducted seances were proven to be frauds however. The practice of spiritualism may seem very strange to us today, but was common practice at the time of the Civil War. It helped provide comfort to the grieving and also to provide hope that souls were immortal.
To die with honor and grace was the desire of all people of the Victorian era, much as it is for all of us today. There was an even stronger desire to be mourned well and properly. Mourning properly, following the customs and traditions experienced above, showed not only love and respect for the deceased loved one but also helped keep their memory immortal. It was very common for a photograph to be taken of the deceased in the coffin or if an infant held in the arms of a parent. For example future President James Garfield rushed to his home in Ohio from the front lines of the Civil War to be photographed with his dead infant son in his arms. If a photographer was not readily available, someone might make a plaster of paris death mask for the family to keep in remembrance. All of this was done to keep the deceased loved ones memory alive for future generations. While today, in the 21st century, most of these practices seems odd and eccentric, yet many still remain. Widows and grieving family members traditionally still wear black or at least a dark sober color to the funeral home and burial. Friends and neighbors often send flowers and plants expressing condolences. Funeral cards or memorial cards are available at the funeral home announcing the burial date and place. This information is also placed in the newspapers to announce to the community the death in the family. Even today, we all want to be remembered in death and beyond. We may not have photographs of the deceased in the coffin or make death masks, but we do want to remember them and in similar fashion be remembered when it is our turn to die.. As your guide prepares to take you to the next stop on your tour, think then on all you have seen and experienced here in the house of mourning, this was the way many soldiers came home during the civil war, indeed during all wars.”
My presentation concluded for now, I once again sat down and prepared for the next group In some small measure, I was helping to keep alive the memory of those who have gone before. It made me realize that as long as people remember, pause and reflect, all of us are in someway immortal on this earth. In my heart, I knew (and still know today) that we are all immortal once we reach our heavenly home , we just do not know the hour when we will be called. As I sat there in the quiet cabin with Victorian symbols of death and immortality all around me, hearing musket volleys riding on the wind, I prayed that when the hour of passing through the thin veil that seperates life and death comes, we would all be remembered in some lovely and eloquent fashion.