Friday, August 6, 2010

Dressed in black: Mourning tour explains life and death during Victorian era

Scarlett O’Hara wanted little to do with that mourning business.

Her husband, Charles, had died of pneumonia during the Civil War.

Scarlett, who felt she is too young to be a widow, wore a mourning dress to a charity ball in Atlanta.

In that famous scene from “Gone With the Wind,” the dashing Rhett Butler won the right to dance with her in front a horrified crowd.

You may remember the looks of disgust, particularly among the ladies present, as they dance, Scarlett decked in black.

"For a widow to appear in public at a social gathering - everytime I think of it, I feel faint," bemoaned Aunt Pittypat.

Scarlett had violated the traditions of mourning in the Victorian era. Women of means would mourn for two and a half years and dancing with a bachelor was out of the question.

This story is among many described through the end of August at Stately Oaks Plantation, a Greek Revival home in Jonesboro, Ga., scene of a bloody 1864 battle.

The house, built in 1839, was moved nearly 40 years ago from a field a few miles away where Union soldiers camped prior to the battle.

Clayton County, south of Atlanta, has many ties to Margaret Mitchell, author of “GWTW.” Her great-grandfather, Philip Fitzgerald, had a home nearby. Stately Oaks claims Mitchell may have gotten some of her inspiration for her characters by driving by historic Jonesboro.

I stopped by Stately Oaks this week for the “mourning tour.” I was thoroughly impressed by a collection of artifacts and the wonderful telling of history and traditions by docents Kay Dreyer and Jan Turner.

“You did everything you could to honor the dead,” Dreyer said.

Of course, soldiers killed in battle usually were buried where they fell, but families and friends made every effort to recover their body later.

Mourning displays fill the two-story house, which has an original cookhouse, a tenant cabin and one-room school. The loss of a child is represented in the parlor.

Stately Oaks this year has a display on African-American mourning traditions in the Victorian age.

I was fascinated by the origin of some traditions:

-- A wake was a period in which people would sit next to the coffin and ensure the person wasn’t really “asleep.”
-- Bodies were usually displayed in the parlor or a bedroom. Once “funeral parlors,” or businesses came into being, a home’s parlor became known as a “living room.”
-- Feet of a deceased loved one were pointed to the door so its journey to heaven would not be impeded.
-- Mirrors in the house were covered. “You should not be vain during mourning,” Dreyer said. Spirits also wouldn’t want to see themselves and be denied access to heaven.
-- In the South, slaves would sing a mournful song en route to a grave, while sharing a joyful one coming back to celebrate “Going Home.” Sometimes, a plantation owner wouldn’t allow a funeral until late at night so as to get a full day of work from them.
-- A small bottle (below) would catch tears. They would either be saved or poured over a grave.

The discussion may appear morbid, but I found the docents’ explanation of mourning rituals fascinating.

“These people knew death could happen in a moment,” said Dreyer, who has volunteered at Stately Oaks for three decades and is in her third year of leading the mourning tours.

Families took care of the dead themselves. Grieving lasted three days, and an invitation to a viewing or funeral was hand-delivered. Because this was before the time of widespread embalming, people brought flowers to help mask the smell.

People in Victorian era also were sentimental and superstitious.

One third of children died before they were 5 and a photo of their remains might be the only image a family would possess.

Unscrupulous photographers sometimes took advantage of this. Through “spirit photography” they would obtain an image of the deceased while he or she was alive and then superimpose it over a survivor, as if it was a guardian spirit.

The top killers of married women were childbirth and a house fire.

And mourning for the sexes was unequal. A husband mourned three months and often would wed a sister or cousin of his wife.

A wife, however, had an extended period of mourning, with different stages of colors. During the Civil War, especially, a woman with modest means, might have to dye a dress black.

Stately Oaks has dozens of artifacts showing mourning as a business, with parasols, fans, buttons, portraits and much more. I won’t share all of what they have here. But a visit this month will give you a fuller appreciation of life and death during the era.

The mourning tour takes about two hours to go through the house and the other buildings. Tours are conducted on the hour from 10 am til 4 pm (last tour at 3 pm) Monday - Saturday. Admission: Adults, $12; seniors, $9 (55 yrs); and children, $6. Stately Oaks also offers AAA and military discounts.

Click here for more information on Stately Oaks.

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