From the "slumber beds" that Victorian households rented for the display of their departed dear ones to the tools of 19th-century embalmers, the "Dead: Unearthing the Shift in Funerary Practices from Home to Mortuary" exhibition at Auburn's White River Valley Museum offers a visual history of the social response to death in America.
“They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.” — Garrison Keillor
At White River Valley Museum, you’ll find these and other wry words, along with a trove of information about our changing ideas and practices related to death. It’s a fascinating exhibit of mourning and funeral articles, and many will surprise you.
From the “slumber beds” that Victorian households rented for the display of their departed dear ones to the tools of 19th-century embalmers, the exhibition offers a visual history of the social response to death in America.
In the 19th century, most people died at home. Family members cared for their loved one while life flickered away. Women of the household washed the body, dressed it, surrounded it with flowers and invited friends and neighbors to mourn. Mirrors were turned to the wall and clocks stopped. Crepe was draped over pictures. Women dressed in black, often for a full year.
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Undertakers were more salesmen and rental agents than service providers. It wasn’t just coffins they offered. You’ll see their mourning cards, stands on which to place the coffin, materials to make death-hair jewelry and somber velvet backdrops. Death photos of elderly parents and middle-aged mates also were common. But it wasn’t unusual to have memorial photographs taken of a deceased infant sitting in the midst of living siblings, or even of a beloved pet surrounded by mourners.
With the Civil War came changes in death practices. Although embalming has been understood since at least the time of ancient Egypt, most Americans thought it was ghoulish. But then came a need to preserve the bodies of soldiers killed far from home — the undertaker morphed into the embalming mortician, and death moved out of the home.
Exhibit curator Louise Hull suggests that this example of social forces motivating behavioral change is perhaps the most important concept of the exhibition. American death practices evolved because of the Industrial Revolution, the growing middle class, the Civil War and even the model of grief provided by Queen Victoria. And, of course, they are still evolving.
Today the mortician is a funeral director and a grief counselor. Hull reminds us that modern life includes cultural patterns that shelter us from thoughts of the inevitable: We don’t die; we kick the bucket.
But death is real, and the way we handle it is really interesting. This show proves it.
Nancy Worssam: email@example.com