Friday, October 05, 2007

Victorian Spirits in the Cemetery

The Victorian Era (1837 - 1901) brought major changes to the way society viewed death, and this is demonstrated by their funerary practices and the clues they left behind in the cemeteries of this era.

Mortality remained high in the nineteenth century and largely affected the population's every day lives. The Victorian Era ushered in a period of superstition around death, and a rigid set of rules of etiquette for dealing with death, epitomized by Queen Victoria.

Typically a person fell ill and remained in the home, on death watch, until they passed. In the last days or hours of the head of a household's life, it was typical to send for a lawyer to draw up the will, witnessed by neighbors. When the person passed away, they remained in the home until time of burial.

If there was a clock in the home it was stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered with heavy black velvet drapes lest the spirit of the deceased should become trapped in the reflection.

The deceased was laid out in the parlor and all furniture was removed except for a couch and lamps, and the deceased was watched around the clock until burial by the family. Relatives and neighbors came by to view the deceased and the room filled with flowers. When the deceased was removed for burial it had to be carried out feet first to prevent the corpse from looking back into the house and calling others to follow.

Mourning was elevated to an art form in the Victorian Era, with two stages of mourning, deep- and half-mourning. This was complete with elaborate rituals, customs and rules of conduct for each stage of mourning.

When someone died in a household the entire house went into deep-mourning. The household would wear unadorned black clothing, underwear, handkerchiefs, and armbands, and jewelry was not permitted.At this time period, people made their own clothing, however as the need for proper black mourning apparel gave rise to the very first off-the-rack apparel. Those unable to afford ready-to-wear apparel dyed their entire wardrobe in large kettles in the back yard, which produced a unique and unpleasant odor.

A person stayed in deep-mourning for a prescribed period of time, depending upon their relationship to the deceased. A spouse was required to be in deep-mourning for one year and a child of the deceased for 6 months. It was believed that the spirit of the deceased attached itself to the spouse and if you looked into her eyes that spirit would attach to you, therefore a widow's face was veiled in public. Deep-mourning was followed by a similar period of half-mourning. Black was still the required dress during half-mourning, however black jewelry was allowed.
Victorian funerals were quite an elaborate and expensive affair. A funeral wagon was drawn by horses dyed black and adorned with black plumes for the occasion. Professional mourners, pall bearers, ushers, and a band were hired. The processional itself was parade-like with the family and friends walking behind the funeral wagon as neighbors came out with bowed heads to watch it pass by.

Prior to the Victorian Era, colonial cemeteries were rather bleak, and not always well cared for. Some, in fact, were very dangerous places with loosely filled or open graves in an east-west orientation.And gravestones were, for the most part, plain slabs etched with the decedent's name and phrases such as RIP. These cemeteries were rarely visited and greatly feared.
The Victorian Era ushered in a host of changes to traditional cemeteries. During this time period, the garden-style cemetery came into fashion. In many states it was law that new cemeteries had to be constructed outside of city or town limits for fear of disease. Elaborate garden-style cemeteries were designed with complex layout, circular areas with graves oriented in all directions, and elaborate statuary and landscaping to encourage visitors.

The simple portal-shaped gravestone grew into massive elaborate monuments to the dead.Family plots became popular, often seen with a centrally-located large shaft monument, usually marble or sandstone, topped with a lantern to light the path to the afterlife, surrounded by smaller gravestones to mark the location of the individual family members interred. These family plots often include curbing and a stepped entrance inscribed with the family surname.
During this period we also find tombstone engravings of elaborate funerary symbols embellished with religious statuary, and we begin to find Bible verses, organizational symbols, and personal inscriptions on gravestones that give us many clues to life, culture, and value system of the Victorians.

The mausoleum (private family cemeteries) became popular in the United States during this time period as well and we find many examples of elaborate mausolea with gated courtyard made of imported Carerra marble or granite.It was believed the bigger the monument, the better, and there was no worse or shameful fate than to be interred in an unmarked grave.
Superstition surrounding death was also evident in the cemetery. The Victorians were fearful of being buried alive and stories of coffins with fingernail scratches ran rampant. To address this fear, mortuaries, or Hospitals for the Dead came into fashion. There the deceased was kept in a hot environment for an extended period of time to encourage rapid decay and thus ensure there was no chance of awakening.

Various coffin alarms and safety coffins with escape methods were patented during this time. The standard coffin alarm consisted of a bell mounted to the headstone with a chain or rope attached to the limbs of the interred. Other alert mechanisms were used, such as flags, fireworks, and rockets to alert of movement below ground. Some coffins even came with a tube containing a ladder for escape. The coffin alarms were short-lived, however, as the bells and flags signaled the natural movement of the corpse during decomposition. See for a diagram of a coffin alarm patented in 1868.

Many of the elaborate gravestones and cemeteries of the Victorian period can be found in nearly every area of the United States.

Burial Grounds of Colonial America

We can learn a lot about the life and values of our colonial and revolutionary ancestors by studying their cemeteries and gravestones. From the time of the earliest colonies until the mid-nineteenth century we can see the impact of death on their everyday lives, and the changes in their thoughts and fears surrounding life and death.

The Puritans
Many of our earliest settlers left for America in search of a home where they could practice their religion freely. Religious freedom was not tolerated, and those who did not conform to Catholicism were persecuted as heretics. The earliest Puritans who settled New England were driven to emigrate to the harsh wilderness of the new world with hopes of creating an idyllic society, firmly rooted in their religious beliefs and isolated from the influence of others.

These earliest settlers built small communes with modest dwellings clustered in a tight square enclosing a shared common area in the center. The Commons was planted with crops and cared for by all, to provide for the needs of the community. The community acted as one and each member was integral to its survival.

Early settlers were met with a very harsh environment. Weather, lack of food and supplies, disease, contaminated water, and hostile encounters with Native Americans all contributed to a high mortality rate in these tightly-clustered communities. The harshness of life, overwhelming fear of the unknown, and the grim reality of death drove these settlers to pray for their survival through their faith.

The communities in early New England sought the natural solace of the woods and hills for their burial grounds, where available, and rejected the practice of churchyard burials as a Papist influence. They chose sites hidden deep in the woods and thinned the trees and vegetation to provide a private and protected setting for their departed.

Early graveyards were dangerous and frightening places. The burial ground itself was devoid of grass or other plant life. Graves, hastily dug by hand in the cold and rocky New England soil, were shallow and unlined, and loosely filled at best. Graves were often left open in anticipation of more burials and boxes or coffins were not used.

Graves from this period were marked with both a headstone and a footstone, to resemble a bed, and it was during this time that we first see the now common east-west orientation of graves.

Local artisans used common rocks, slate, and marble as the raw material for the tombstones. Markers were shaped into upright tablets with rounded tops to represent a door or portal into the unknown, and the symbols carved into the stones reflected the community’s fears and hopes.

The most common symbol was the skeleton, skull or winged skull. Commonly known as death heads, the skulls represented the grim reaper and the finality of death. The most common epitaph was R. I. P. (Rest in Peace), reflective of the daily harshness of life. Other symbols evolved over time. An anchor, the emblem of a seaman, represented steadfastness; a bird came to symbolize the soul; a butterfly depicted resurrection; and a scallop shell represented the earthly Puritan pilgrimage.

The Revolutionary Colonists
In the early to mid-1700s, waves of new settlers to America brought with them the influences of their home land. Arrivals came in larger numbers and occurred more frequently. Trade developed to support the needs of the colonists and although the mortality rate remained high, the chances of survival of the communities increased.

Through these later arrivals we witness the influence of the Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that swept across Europe. The Great Awakening offered a more tolerant view of religion and the focus of daily life. God became a symbol of love and mercy, and society began to anticipate death as a reward for a pious life. And these colonists brought with them the traditional burial practices of churchyard burial grounds.

Unlike the Puritan burial grounds, the churchyard was not as dangerous and scary. Surrounding the church, they became part of the community and were seen as a daily reminder of family and friends and the finality of death. Burial grounds became the responsibility of the church sexton and were properly cared for and filled. The interred were often now placed in boxes or coffins, making the graves more stable. At time of loss, church elders gathered to dig and fill the graves of their congregation, and the graveyard became an extension of the church community.

The view that living a pious life would be rewarded after death gave rise to new tombstone icons that represented life that continues to grow. Symbols such as trees and flowers became prevalent, and this practice carried forward into the 19th century.

Gravestones of this time were primarily devoid of personal inscriptions, and they no longer carried the message of Rest In Peace. After the Revolution we begin to see the accomplishments of some of the more famous colonists reflected on their tombstones. The rank and service of some of our most noted Revolutionary soldiers may be found on some of these early gravestones.

Although the grave markers from this time typically give no clues to familial connections, as the small churchyards became over crowded, the practice of burying multiple family members in a single grave became more prevalent. We begin to find the stones of family members clustered together, and occasionally the layering of flat tomb coverings. Throughout the stages of American history, we can witness how the harshness of daily life became more tempered by the influx of colonists, improved chances of survival of the community, the more traditional influences of Europe, and with it the hope for a rewarding life after death.

Special thanks to Greta Thompson for her assistance with this article!