Gone But Not Forgotten: Victorian Mourning & Funeral Customs

Posted by kathyhartley

The topics of death and mourning in the 19th century are featured during Lincoln's Hearthside House Museum’s annual exhibit, Gone But Not Forgotten, when this majestic stone mansion gets draped in black and the “household” experiences what a family went through when a loved one passed away and the numerous superstitions they believed in, all to make the journey for the deceased a successful one. It was also during the Victorian times that a strong belief in communicating with the other side became popular. This year, Hearthside’s exhibit will go full circle with a look at death, mourning and the afterlife through two exhibits: “Gone But Not Forgotten” during October, and as host of a traveling exhibit, “History of the Paranormal” in November.

During the 200 years that Hearthside was a home, there were five owners who died at their home with those during the 19th century having been embalmed and waked right in the house. The exhibit showcases the farewell to former Hearthside homeowner, Simon E. Thornton, who died in his bedroom on May 2, 1873.

Victorian American mourning and funerary traditions and practices are explored in this extensive exhibit and re-creation of Mr. Thornton’s wake, which includes displays throughout the house and attic. As somber funeral music plays in the background, volunteer docents dressed in mourning attire guide visitors from room to room as they explain the rituals a family would undertake upon a loved one’s passing. The mirrors are covered in black, and the sweet smell of flowers pervade the waking room. The undertaker has come to set up in the master bedroom to prepare the body for its final resting place. A photographer has been hired to capture one last image of the deceased. Special stationery and memorials have been created to notify friends and relatives and to memorialize the deceased. Small funeral biscuits are wrapped and sealed with black wax, ready to give in appreciation to those who come to pay their respects.

During the Victorian era, superstitions were prevalent with just about every aspect of life, as well as death. Visitors will learn about the various superstitions surrounding death, the elaborate mourning practices, and funerals as they journey through the house. Also on display during this unusual exhibit are antique coffins, a collection of various Victorian mourning dresses, bonnets, veils, and other accessories, mourning jewelry made of jet and woven human hair, funeral receipts from local families, and 19th century embalming tools. The undertaker’s journal in which Mr. Thornton’s death was recorded and the actual embalming table that his body was prepared on is on display in the spot in the bedroom where he died in 1873. Post-mortem photographs and even some which appear to show a few spirits are displayed. Some of the other topics covered are the belief in vampires, fear of being buried alive, and the beginnings of spiritualism during the mid-19th century.

“This isn’t a Halloween event, but rather a serious, well-researched exhibit about how families dealt with loss during the late 19th century, with an extensive display of artifacts, and all of it presented by docents in their black mourning attire, so while it really is impactful and educational, it can also be fun to learn the origins of many of today’s funerary practices,” states Kathy Hartley, president of the museum.

Tickets are now on sale for this fully-guided exhibit which takes place on four dates: October 16, 23, 24, and 30, with options for both daytime and evening viewing available. Space is limited for each tour which lasts up to 90 min. Advance purchase is required which may be made through the website, www.hearthsidehouse.org. Saturday tours begin every half hour starting at 4:00 with the last at 6:30. Sunday tours begin every half hour between 1:00-3:30 p.m. Admission is $18 per person. This exhibit is not advisable for younger children.

And after making sure the deceased has had a smooth journey to their final resting place, the Victorians then attempted to bring them back through different means of getting messages from their loved ones. Raising the question about ghosts and the possibility of whether we can communicate with the other side, a favorite movie from 1990, Ghost, will be shown as the final film in Hearthside's Classic Movie Series on November 6th.. Then on Friday, November 12th, TV personality and paranormal researcher Brian J. Cano will open his “History of the Paranormal Exhibit” to its exclusive Rhode Island appearance at Hearthside for a weekend-long event, which concludes on Sunday afternoon, November 14th. The inaugural traveling exhibit presents a look at how the proof of the afterlife first began around 1848 with seances, mediums, and fortune tellers. Through informational panels, artifacts, and interactive displays, the past meets the present with modern day equipment used by paranormal investigators to gather evidence as proof of life beyond death. In addition to hosting tours of the popular exhibit during the day, Brian will be conducting investigations on both Friday and Saturday evenings.

Hearthside is located at 677 Great Road, Lincoln, RI. Built in 1810, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Friends of Hearthside, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, serves as stewards and managers of the museum. Proceeds benefit the continued restoration of this historic landmark. For more information, visit www.hearthsidehouse.org or call the museum at 401-726-0597.


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