By Joel Hall
To "mourn well" was a vitally important part of living in the Victorian era, particularly for women who had lost their husbands.
Throughout the month of August, Stately Oaks Plantation in Jonesboro will be transformed to showcase the traditions of mourning in the 19th century, and how they relate to the way people deal with loss in today's society.
Stately Oaks' Victorian Mourning Tours, held Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m., to 4 p.m., will give visitors a taste of the sentiment, strict etiquette, and superstition that dominated mourning between 1837 and 1901, the Victorian era.
Kay Dreyer, a Stately Oaks docent heading this year's Victorian Mourning, said the era was definitively shaped by Queen Victoria, whose influence went well beyond the borders of England.
"It [the era] was emulating Queen Victoria," Dreyer said. "When her husband, Prince Albert, died she went into 40 years of perpetual mourning. She was so respected in England and abroad that whatever she did, from fashion to actions, was emulated."
Throughout the month, normally festive areas of the Stately Oaks Plantation are draped in black crape, a dull cloth material used to signify mourning. The living room of the plantation house is transformed into a funeral parlor, featuring a child's "toe-pincher" coffin - named so for being thinner at the foot than at the head, and traditionally carried to the cemetery feet first, so the living would not be tempted to follow the dead to the grave.
Dispersed throughout the home are other 19th-century mourning artifacts, including tear catchers used to capture the tears of those in mourning; mourning pins, regular hairpins dyed black; mourning stationary, letterhead and envelopes with a black outline; and hair jewelry - broaches, necklaces, and rings made of human hair, worn in remembrance of a lover.
"They were very sentimental and very superstitious," Dreyer said. "Mourning was an outward show to other people. A woman mourning her husband was in mourning for two and a half years. The man was the bread winner and would have to go back out into society, while the woman would be expected to withdraw from society."
Dreyer said this year's Victorian Mourning Tour features several new items, including an expanded collection of hair jewelry, an area dedicated to Jonesboro's first undertaker, William Blalock Stewart, and a memorial to President William McKinley, who was assassinated in 1901.
Barbara Emert, president of Historical Jonesboro, which operates Stately Oaks, said Victorian Mourning has been a Stately Oaks tradition for more than 10 years. She said the traditions surrounding death offer insight into the way in which people lived in the Victorian era.
"A typical [Victorian] family would experience death more times in a year than the average family now," Emert said. "So many things we do for funerals come from that time. We might not know why we wear black or send flowers. It sounds kind of morbid, but it is really interesting."
Stately Oaks, located at 100 Carriage Lane in Jonesboro, is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m., to 4 p.m. The price of admission is $12 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and $6 for children. Discounts are available for AAA and military members. For more information, call (770) 473-0197.