mourning nation

11 Sculptor Giulio Monteverde (Bistagno, Alessandria, 1837 - Roma 1917) 46522210

The effects of the Civil War, the first modern war, had an extraordinary effect on the psyche of Americans. Nearly 2½% of the population of the North and South were touched by death. For a nation of 31 million people, this translated to 750,000 dead in all, more than in all other wars combined. Never before or since had so many Americans died in battle. Transposing this percentage to today’s population, 7 million people would die. Thus, nearly every person in America was affected. In the state of Alabama alone, there were over 80,000 widows—80,000 women dressed in black for mourning.

At the outset of the war, both sides of the conflict were totally unprepared to handle such an overwhelming number of bodies. They rotted in the fields and were subject to desecration by angry residents and wild animals such as dogs and pigs, scattering the bones over an even wider area.

The enormous tide of death completely transformed America. Prior to the war, there were no national cemeteries, no provisions for identifying the dead or notifying their next-of-kin, no federal relief to provide aid to those who grieved, no other agencies or bureaucracies for providing aid, no adequate hospitals, no effective ambulance corps, no federal provision for burial, transfer, and reburial of people. Through fits and starts, the nation gradually began coping with the task at hand (embalming was a wartime innovation), but by the end of the war the nation was still inadequate to the task. The problem wasn’t “solved” until the decades following the Civil War, and then the nation addressed death on a scale not seen before (even though death had always been regarded as a normal part of life).

American views and practices related to death and burial paralleled those of Europe and began to change significantly in the 1800s. Probably the most dramatic manifestation of this change was the graveyard itself. In London and Paris, the concept was revolutionized with the design of elaborate “garden cemeteries” that were lushly landscaped burial grounds as well as public parks. The trend quickly took hold in the US, especially after the Civil War.

The Victorians had a lot of superstitions associated with death. For example, when there was a corpse in the house you had to cover all the mirrors. If a mirror in your house was to fall and break by itself, it was believed that someone in the home would die soon. When someone died in the house and there was a clock in the room, you had to stop the clock at the death hour or the family of the household would have bad luck. When the body was taken from the house, it had to be carried out feet first because if it was carried out head first, it could look back and beckon others to follow it into death.

Socially, decorum demanded that family members adjust their behavior and dress for years after the death of a close relative. Particular clothing was worn to mourn the dead all the way back to the 1600s. But it was in the 1830s and 1840s that mourning become an art form. There were many books written on the subject of how to mourn, what to wear, when to wear it. When Prince Albert died in 1861 (the same year the Civil War began) and the Queen of England went into mourning, society on both sides of the ocean took on mourning with a vengeance.

Mourning became a central fact of wartime life and, with the disinterment and reburial of the dead, for years thereafter. Formal black mourning clothes—even items of underwear and accessories like gloves and handkerchiefs which had to be black—were a society-wide necessity.

Death has been swept under the rug in modern times, and the only places we can see it now as it was is in the cemeteries of the age. I know I have shown pictures of cemeteries before, but I have always liked graveyards and the images of them are not to be depleted. Here are some of my favorites:










city cemetary sb in


Gettysburg 1




Groove of the Day

Listen to Martin Gaskell performing the Victorian hymn “The Strife is O’er”





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