Groundskeeping: On America’s eclectic ways of mourning the dead

Stefany Anne Golberg in The Smart Set:

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Etiquette in America has always been slippery. And so it’s been with regard to mourning. The Pilgrims kept mourning on the DL. A fussy public burial was seen an affront to God’s will, as was mourning dress or other conspicuous displays of grief. Even praying for the dead was seen as a rebellion against predestination. There was no fanfare, no beating of the breast. A quiet, restrained Pilgrim death was most befitting a quiet, restrained Pilgrim life.

All that changed with the queen of artifice herself, Victoria. Of all the protocol of Victorian-era America, mourning etiquette was perhaps the most complicated, especially for women. Handbooks and catalogues rigorously detailed mourning manners, from how one should dress according to degrees of mourning (deep mourning, first mourning, second mourning, half mourning…), to how one’s house ought to be prepared (uncovered mirrors were a big no-no), to the infinite accoutrements like post-mortem photos and the ever-popular hairpiece jewelry made of the deceased’s, yes, hair. You always immediately knew when someone had a death in the family and how much the loss meant to them, not by any display of emotion, but rather by how well that emotion translated into etiquette. All this had the effect of bringing death out into the open, making it a matter of the utmost social importance. By the time the Civil War rolled around, rules of mourning served as a comfort and social cohesion that allowed people to somehow deal with the seemingly unending deluge of dead.

The most dramatic change in the ritual of American mourning was how the dead themselves were buried.

More here.