Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Review--Widow's Weeds and Weeping Veils

Loeffel-Atkins, Bernadette. Widow's Weeds and Weeping Veils: Mourning Rituals in 19th Century America. B.L. Atkins Publishing, Gettysburg, PA, 2008. 40 pages, bibliography, end notes, b/w photos.

Bernadette was kind enough to send me a signed copy of her booklet dealing with a subject near and dear to her. For those who don't know Bernadette (OK I don't personally know her but that's not the point) she's quite a remarkable woman. In addition to writing, lecturing, and documenting cemeteries she is in the process of opening what looks to be a great bookstore in Gettysburg. The name of her store will be Battlefields & Beyond Military History Book Shoppe. Sounds like a winner and with her background having worked at the Gettysburg Visitor's Center Bookstore (correct me if I am wrong Bern) this will be a must see location when visiting.

This short booklet is really a brief introduction to different aspects of the way death was looked at and dealt with in the 19th century. Times were much different then with "high infant mortality rates, poor sanitation, death during childbirth, poisons, ignorance, and war..." (p. 6). Death was a much more common occurrence and had to be dealt with in ways difficult for us to understand.

Few of us today would likely possess mourning jewelry or have post-mortem photos taken of a deceased child. However before the turn of the 20th century these were common. Photography was not as common and these photos may have been the only ones families had of the child (p. 12). Wearing jewelry containing a departed loved one's hair was seen as a way of keeping them close (pp 18-19).

Subjects such as wakes and funerals, cemeteries, caskets and coffins, spiritualism, stages of mourning, etiquette, and others are also briefly covered. Each usually receives a page.

Overall this is an interesting quick look at how death was dealt with in a different time. The booklet is brief and can easily be finished in one sitting. From there it's up to you to follow up and learn more. The notes and bibliography (the listing is not alphabetical for some reason) will help point you further.

For those wondering "widow's weeds" is a term that describes a Victorian woman in full mourning. Her clothing is completely black including bonnet, veil, and dress. This was part of paying tribute to and honoring the dead.

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