In Memory Of: Expressions of Mourning in Victorian America opened February 9, 2007 in the Yakima Valley Museum's Gilbert Family Gallery. During the Victorian Era, the term “mourning” came to mean more than just grieving for the loss of a loved one; it comprised all the ways that the Victorians expressed that grief. They created an extensive mourning culture employing elaborate dress, jewelry, funeral trappings, photographs, and myriad commemorative items. This exhibit explores the ways in which mourning was expressed through the funeral, ritualized etiquette, and the objects that perpetuated the memory of a loved one. This exhibit includes artifacts from the collections of the Yakima Valley Museum, Museum of History & Industry in Seattle, Northwest Museum of Art & Culture in Spokane, Washington State History Society, Tacoma; Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois; Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham; and Shaw & Son's Funeral Directors, Yakima. In Memory Of: Expressions of Mourning in Victorian America will continue through December 23, 2007. To download a copy of the audio tour for your ipod, visit our Podcast area.
The Victorian Era began in England in 1837, named for its new Queen. But the ideas, morals, and trappings associated with it soon spread throughout the world. In this country, Victorianism was adopted by members of the middle and upper classes; we have come to refer to them as “Victorian Americans,” although they never called themselves by that name. It became the dominant culture here, and its more materialistic aspects affected almost everyone, redefining what was fashionable and domestically acceptable. In time, the Victorian Era even made its way to the Yakima Valley.
Many aspects of the customs and etiquette of the “Victorian Era” were actually well-established before the reign of Queen Victoria began. This is equally true of the practices surrounding death and mourning. For example, the melancholic Gothic themes prevalent in Victorian mourning customs can be found in works written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; etiquette books and other publications dating to as early as 1830 were already describing the rigid, complex rituals which mourners were required to follow.
These rituals became more elaborate in the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially following the death of Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert in 1861. This included special black drapings and other changes in the family’s home where the funeral was held, the purchase of elaborate grave markers and commemorative items such as hair jewelry that perpetuated the memory of a loved one, the wearing of special—usually black—clothing and accessories, and the exhibiting of subdued, sorrowful behavior.
Today it is expected that the bereaved will only express their grief in private, and the subject of death in general is avoided. During Victorian times, however, the expression of mourning was a public one, and death, dying, and the final deathbed scene were romanticized. In the ideal Victorian "beautiful death," the dying person was cared for at home, had sufficient time to prepare spiritually, and was able to make final farewells to friends and family members. Although often criticized as overly melodramatic, these elaborate Victorian rituals provided an open, formal acknowledgement of life’s final transition into death.