Victorian Mourning exhibit at Stately Oaks

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Joel Hall


High amounts of sentimentality, coupled with a healthy dose of superstition, contributed to many of the customs associated with funerals, and mourning rituals, that are still practiced today.

The "Victorian Mourning" exhibit, on display this month at Stately Oaks Plantation in Jonesboro, explores the unique traditions surrounding mourning during the Victorian era, and how they relate to modern traditions.

Throughout the month of August, Stately Oaks will be decorated to reflect the strict customs a Victorian-era family would need to follow in order to "mourn well." Clothing pieces, stationery, coffins, hair accessories, and keepsakes will be on display, with docents providing detailed information about the significance, and historical context, of the items.

Kay Dreyer, curator of the exhibit, said many of America's modern mourning traditions were established during the reign of Queen Victoria, who went into 40 years of self-imposed isolation and mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Throughout the 19th Century, the British and Americans took their cues from Victoria, making mourning one of America's first big businesses, she said.

"Mourning clothes for ladies were really the first ready-made, off-the-rack clothes that you could buy," Dreyer said. "She [Queen Victoria] was the leader of the most powerful country in the world and especially, if you were wealthy, you wanted to emulate her.

"Victorians could accept death, but they couldn't accept not being mourned well. You had to decorate your house a certain way. There was mourning stationary ... the thickness of the border signified the deepness of mourning."

The exhibit includes mourning stationary, veils, public attire, postcards, hairpins, purses, gloves, and jewelry items -- all of which would be worn by men, and especially ladies, during their time of mourning. She said a woman who lost her husband was expected to shy away from society and mourn for a period of two and a half years, according to Victorian customs.

The exhibit also examines the significance that flowers and food played in Victorian-era funerals, as well as many of the actions following death that were customary, such as sending out all of ones' correspondence on black-bordered stationary. New to the exhibit this year is an entire section dedicated to the burial traditions of slaves and African Americans during the Victorian era, such as placing seashells on top of graves, in hopes of preserving the spirit of the person for all eternity.

Also covered in the exhibit, are the strange and superstitious customs of the period, such as: Covering mirrors with black draping to prevent the rare glimpse of spirits; carrying bodies out the door feet first to prevent the dead from dragging the living into the land of the dead; preserving ones' tears in bottles; making jewelry out of the hair of departed lovers and wearing them as keepsakes; and burying the dead with a bell attached to their wrist to alert surface dwellers that a grave mistake was made.

"The bell was on the surface and attached to the wrist of the dead," said Stately Oaks Docent Jan Turner. "If the person rang the bell, it would mean you are not dead. 'Dead ringer' and 'saved by the bell,' that is where we get those sayings. I think it [the exhibit] helps explain, in a way, why we do things."

Dreyer said the Victorian Mourning exhibit, a tradition of Stately Oaks for more than 10 years, is one of its most popular programs, attracting 500 visitors from 13 countries and 38 states last year.

Tours of the exhibit will be given until Aug. 31, Mondays through Saturdays, from 10 a.m., to 3 p.m. The cost is $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $3 for children, ages 5 to 11, and free for children under 5. For more information, call (770) 473-0197.