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Professor details unusual Victorian customs regarding death

by By Kari Ashworth - News Editor
Tue, Nov 5th 2019 09:00 pm
A Genessee Community College professor and 25 of his students visited the
Morgan-Manning House on Wednesday, Oct. 30, to demonstrate Victorian death rules. The
presentation featured exhibits including caskets (right), embalming techniques and mourning clothes.
A Genessee Community College professor and 25 of his students visited the Morgan-Manning House on Wednesday, Oct. 30, to demonstrate Victorian death rules. The presentation featured exhibits including caskets (right), embalming techniques and mourning clothes.

Genesee Community College Professor Derek Maxfield and 25 of his students presented “Dying on Script: Changing Victorian Deathways in the 19th Century” at the Morgan-Manning House on Wednesday, Oct. 30. 

Maxfield is a history professor at the college, and as part of his U.S. history class, his students researched the way Victorians dealt with death. 

“I’m in Professor Maxfield’s class,” Clarice Misiak said. “I’m in the post-Civil War history class — a U.S. history class — and right now we’re doing Victorian Deathways, which actually is a little bit after, we’re focusing on after the Victorian era. So this was our applied learning program, so a couple of students came to do this and this is how we do our exam.” 

Misiak was in charge of presenting the embalming process of the deceased. A cooling table that originated from Brockport, New York, was on display. 

Other exhibits included hair jewelry and some artwork on loan from retired Orleans County Historian Bill Lattin, caskets for viewing as well as burial on loan from the Waterloo Library and Historical Society, mourning clothes and post-mortem photographs. Other exhibit partners included the Emily L. Knapp Museum and Library of Local History and the Town of Bergen History Department. 

The idea of an exhibit on death did not originally sit well with some, but Morgan-Manning House Historian Rozenn Bailleul-LeSuer, Ph.D. thought it was a great idea. 

“It’s perfect for the time,” Bailleul-LeSuer said. “And when Derek proposed to do an exhibit, I said ‘oh, let’s go for it.’ It’s very nicely done; the students did a beautiful job displaying it all, so it was fun. Some people were not too keen on the idea of an exhibit on death, but it is a part of life. They had a very interesting way of displaying their respect, showing their respect, mourning. So I think it was a good idea, plus [the Morgan-Manning House is from the] Victorian period; this is what we do, and Mrs. Morgan was a widow for quite a few years of her life, so you always see her wearing black, eventually half-mourning with a little bit less. His daughter was a widow at 29. So that’s just what it was like at the time.” 

The exhibit was open to the public for viewing from Monday, Oct. 28, to Wednesday, Oct. 30, and ended with a lecture. 

Maxfield’s interest in this subject began when he was in graduate school and visited a cemetery. 

“You had a road that ran through the center, and on the right were 20th century tombstones, and I couldn’t help but notice that they all looked alike,” Maxfield said. “They were just all rectangular and they were pushed to the ground, I didn’t see many decorations on them. And when you look to the left of the road, the old cemetery — 19th century Victorian — these soaring monuments and decorations of all types and just really complex and stunningly beautiful and I had to stand there for a minute and go, Okay, now what gives? What happened here between the 19th and 20th century to cause this kind of disparity. So that’s where this all began for me.” 

When discussing Victorians, Maxfield made clear the people he spoke of were generally middle class and were generally wealthy enough to own a house. There were many rules Victorians had to follow, and it was often on women to keep up with these rules. If rules were broken, one could be cast out of society. This was no different when discussing death. 

In the early 19th century, Victorians were facing an issue with cemeteries, specifically the space within them. In city cemeteries — such as Philadelphia and Chicago — graves could be three bodies deep, which were rotated every seven years. Victorians and medical science at the time also created unusual situations because they believed the decomposition of bodies would spread illnesses. This also led to premature burial because they wanted bodies in the ground quickly, away from the open air. Victorians were also highly sentimental and felt the cemeteries at the time were not beautiful enough. 

This began the rural cemetery movement, the first of which was developed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831. The cemetery is set up as a park, with flowers, trees, paths through the woods and a tower that allows people to see the Boston skyline. Other local examples of rural cemeteries are Mt. Hope in Rochester, New York and Mt. Albion in Albion, New York. 

As for the act of dying, there were scripts developed to make sure people died “the right way.” There was certain fashion that needed to be worn prior to the death and during a period of mourning. For example, if a woman loses her husband, she was required to be in full mourning attire for four years, and over time, a widow could cut back on this attire. 

Victorians would also often take snippets of hair, fingernails and teeth and fashion them into rings or lockets. 

The way of death for Victorians began to change, however, during the Mexican War, when bodies could not be brought home to the family. The Fisk Burial Case was a way to change this. 

“So the idea is you would put the body inside this, and then it would be sealed with cement,” Maxfield said. “After all the air was pumped out, the oxygen, they said, could be removed from the interior of this metal case. So if somebody were to die in Mexico, the body could be put in this, it could be sealed in with cement, the oxygen could be removed and the idea is now that body is not going to deteriorate, even though it’s in a metal oven.” 

Once the body arrived home, the family could take the faceplate off and “look upon the face of the dearly departed.” However, condensation often fogged up the window, but that was probably for the best, according to Maxfield. 

The Civil War also changed the way death was approached for Victorians, as about 750,000 people died in four years. Embalming techniques became popular following Abraham Lincoln’s death, as he was transported back to Illinois for burial. Coffins, too, changed during this time, with people gravitating toward caskets more so than toe pincher coffins, and big viewing windows and drop front caskets being developed for wakes. 

Victorians had an interesting way of dealing with death, and some of their rules have informally been passed on through the years. 

The Morgan-Manning House’s next event will be “Happy 100th Birthday, Dayton Morgan” presented by Bailleul-LeSuer on Tuesday, Nov. 19. 

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