Every year around Halloween someone always asks if we’ve ever worked in a cemetery. The answer is yes and doing so has led us to consider how death was viewed and handled in the past, how people were mourned, and how we deal with it in the archaeological record.
In 2008 basement and back yard renovations of a private home in Manhattan exposed 19th century burial vaults. Vaults that had supposedly been emptied, the remains said to have been re-interred elsewhere long ago. At least according to Church and Deed records.
However, this was not the case as one of the vaults still contained eight burials: five adults and three children. The burials dated back between 1840 and1860, when the site was part of the yard belonging to the Church next door.
Through documentary research we were able to identify the last name of the family buried within the vault. We carefully disinterred the remains fully documenting the burials and the burial vault. Afterward the property owner had the remains re-interred.
Death and Mourning in the 19th century
The late 18th and 19th centuries saw a movement now referred to as the beautification of death. Through the production of material objects that commemorated the dead, the beautification of death extended the mourning process far beyond burial and there were parameters as to how long one should mourn depending on their relationship to the deceased.
The Mourning Process
Mourning pertaining to women occurred in three stages: deep mourning, second 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 years old: 6 months to a year
For children under 10 years: 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
(Passion for the Past 2011)
In the late nineteenth century there was a trend for the grieving to commission post-mortem photographs. These posed photos, taken of the subject after death, were often the only image a family would have of their loved one.
Mourning jewelry was also common. Mourning jewelry could consist of bracelets, necklaces, rings, or pins; and often had the initials, a photograph, or even a locket of the hair of the deceased woven into the design.
Mourners, especially women, wore all black and adhered to a variety of death and mourning rituals. These rituals included covering all reflective surfaces of the home with black cloth; stopping all clocks in the residence of the deceased at the time of death, restarting them only after burial; sending invitations for the funeral service to friends and family; and decorating the outside of the home with wreathes adorned in black and purple ribbon. Most of these rituals are no longer in practice today.
A lesser spoken about aspect of the 19th century funerary process is the coffin itself. Once a simple pine box, this period begins to see coffins adorned in a more ornate fashion, and not just those belonging to people of monetary means. Coffin hardware in the mid 19th century appears to be largely mass produced and is common in nearly all burial contexts. This is an indication that decorative coffin hardware had become the norm and was not specific to a cultural group or socioeconomic class. The distinction is that hand made coffin hardware is common of those who were more affluent.
Coffin hardware found in the burial vault Chrysalis documented consisted of nails, copper tacks, decorative fixtures, handles, and a coffin plate.
Nails are considered functional hardware, as they were used in the construction of the coffin. The presence of copper tacks, a functional decorative hardware, likely indicates that at least one of the coffins in the vault contained a fabric lining. The tacks would have been a decorative way to secure the lining in the coffin.
The coffin handles recovered featured a cherub design. These would also be considered a functional decorative hardware part of the coffin. The coffin plate, found within one of the burials served a decorative purpose while also identifying or commemorating the deceased.
It should be noted these remains were found before the City of New York – Department of Health enacted new guidelines for the removal and re-interment of human remains.
Basse, Karissa Anne
2013 Coffin Hardware Analysis and Chronology of the Head Cemetery, Robertson County. The University of Texas at Austin. Austin, Texas.
1990 The Historical Archaeology of Mortuary Behavior: Coffin Hardware From Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Historical Archaeology, 24(3):54-78.
Karen Rae Mehaffey.
1993 The After-Life: Mourning Rituals and the Mid- Victorians. Laser Writers Publishing.
Passion for the Past.
2011 Thoughts and Social History for the Living Historian.
2012 Not your average bling! Meet the women who collect morbid mourning jewelry made from HUMAN HAIR. DailyMail.com.
2014 History Undusted. The dusty bits of history undusted and presented to the unsuspecting public.