Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Death in Lily Springs: Turn of the 20th Century Funeral Practices

In today's America, funeral practices and mourning rituals have become a highly sanitized and commercialized process.  Funeral parlors and morticians provide a service that for most people in America is not only indispensable, but an economic powerhouse that generates over $20 billion annually.

That is not how it used to be, however.

In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, funeral rituals were much more personal and immediate.  Most funerals were held at home, for example.  The front rooms of middle class homes were called "death rooms," and were not used much for day-to day living but reserved for those times in life when one must mourn the dead.  The deceased would be laid out in these rooms, sometimes for days.  Flowers were used to help hide the odor as embalming was not something that most families could afford and was not something that was readily available in rural America until the 20th century when funeral parlors began to replace the in-home tradition of wakes and funerals.

The death of Abraham Lincoln and his subsequent embalming popularized the practice.  Funeral parlor acceptance grew slowly and began appearing mainly in urban areas.  By the turn of the century, most funerals in urban areas were held in funeral parlors.  As a result, Ladies Home Journal in 1910 made the suggestion that the front parlor should no longer be a "death room," but a "living room" instead.  As more and more people moved the process of mourning from the home to a local business, that is exactly what happened in American homes.  The front parlors were now opened up, made bright and airy and became "living" rooms instead.

In my novel, Lilac Wine, a death occurs in the small Iowan town of Lily Springs.  This, of course, necessitated some research into funeral practices of the early 20th century.  One thing that has made the writing of this novel truly enjoyable has been delving into the past and learning just how different things were 100 years ago.  A resident of the 21st century would no doubt be shocked as to what our forebearers did when it came to funerals.

The entire mourning process was guided by strict norms and etiquette.  Not only were wakes and funerals held in the home, photographs of the deceased were commonplace.  In fact, as photography was an expensive endeavor, most people reserved money for a formal photograph of their loved ones when they died.  Post mortem photographers would be called in and a photograph would be taken of the deceased, often with loved ones standing or sitting near the body.

Sometimes, the body was arranged in such a way to be made to "look alive" and, using stands and wires the deceased would be propped up on couches, chairs or even standing in an official looking portrait.

Photographers often went to elaborate lengths to give the appearance of life to the deceased.  Not only would they have the deceased standing in a pose, but eyes were sometimes painted on the closed eyelids to simulate life.

This practice was called Memento Mori (remember the dead) and was common from the invention of photography in the mid-1800s until the early 20th century.  In fact, photographs of the dead were more common than any other photograph from this period of time.

As infant mortality was much higher in the 19th century than today, a majority of photographs from the time period are of deceased children.

In Lilac Wine, there is a death in Lily Springs.  Although the novel takes place in 1917, much of rural America was still very much rooted in the practices of the previous century.  And Lily Springs was no different from most small towns, teetering on the edge of modernity but still clinging to tradition.  Robert was asked to stand next to the casket for a memento mori, which was being provided by the town photographer, John Hickman:
Robert respectfully declined John’s request to stand next to the casket and cast a mournful eye down upon its contents. He didn’t quite understand memento mori. Images of death haunted his dreams at night and he didn’t need such reminders during the day. When Robert was child, Abigail DeWitt, the young girl and occasional playmate who lived next door, died at the tender age of seven, the victim of typhoid fever. Robert watched from an outside window as the family made preparations for her funeral. A post mortem photographer was hired and Abigail’s little body was made to sit on her favorite wooden horse through the use of hidden stands and wires. Watching the man work on young Abigail’s remains reminded Robert of a puppeteer. After she was posed properly on her horse, pupils were painted on her closed eyelids giving her the appearance of life. Her parents then sat next to her in solemnity as the photographer took their picture. 
                                                 ---from Lilac Wine, Chapter 24 

The inspiration for that passage came from a single photograph that broke my heart when I first saw it:

Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic took mourning very seriously and the elaborate rituals surrounding death may seem somewhat macabre today.  However, we must remember that images of loved ones were not often made in life, as the process was so expensive for most families.  So a memory of that person, even taken in death, became a way to cherish the memory of a loved one.  And if that photograph could provide a reminder of how that person was in life, then the grieving process was made easier.  It is all too  easy for us to judge in the present as we are surrounded by imagery and take pictures of nearly everything.  The Victorians weren't so lucky.

By the turn of the century, photography was becoming more affordable and funeral practices soon moved from the home to the funeral parlor.  Memento mori became less of a necessity.  As more and more people bought their own cameras and could afford the development of photographs, the same thing that happened to change front parlors to living rooms happened with photography.  People began collecting photographs of the living and arranging them on walls and in photo albums.*

The memento mori photographs of the 19th century may seem bizarre, but they stand as stark reminders of the fragility of life and the desperate need to cope with loss.  But they also highlight the need that we have as human beings--in any age--to cope with mortality and grief.



Dan Meinwald,  "Memento Mori: Death and Photography in Nineteenth Century America." Terminals:  UCLA, 1999

The Thanatos Archive

"Memento Mori ~Victorian Era Postmortem Photography"

"19th Century Photography"   Paul Frecker London: Post Mortem Collection

Victorian Death and Mourning Photo Set on Flickr

*This is not to say that such practices have completely been left in the Victorian Age.  Grief is a powerful thing in any epoch.  And photography can help people come to terms with losing a life in the digital age as well.

A local photographer and Facebook friend recently became involved in an organization that I, up until this point, had not been familiar.  Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) is an organization of photographers that volunteer time and resources for parents who are struggling with the inevitable loss of a terminally ill child.   NILMDTS was founded in 2005 by Sandy Puc and Cheryl Haggard.  Cheryl's newborn son, Maddux was born with myotubular myopathy.  He couldn't breathe, move or swallow and Cheryl and her husband were faced with the excruciating decision to remove him from life support.   Before doing so, they hired a photographer to document this young life.  And NILMDTS was born.

The services provided by NILMDTS help parents cope with the grief of losing a child that will never leave the hospital and make it home to the nursery that sits quiet and empty.

Recently, NILMDTS received a $50,000 grant to continue its work in this area.

Although we cannot compare the work that NILMDTS does with grieving families to the work of post-mortem photographers of the Victorian Age, the use of imagery to process grief is a common thread.  Some 12,000 professional photographers donate their time and resources to helping parents cope with this loss.


Karen van Vuuren, "A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Memories of Sons and Daughters," Natural Transitions (Vol. 2, Issue 2, page 8-10).