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Back to The History of Private Life

Responses to Death in Nineteenth Century America

In early February, l862, William Wallace Lincoln, the 12 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, contracted a slight chill. At first, the illness appeared to be minor, but within a few days the boy's condition worsened. His body was wracked with fever, probably as a result of malaria, and on February 20, young Willie died.

His mother's grief was inconsolable. For months, she lay prostrate and stunned. In her letters she poured out her emotions: "Our home is very beautiful, the grounds around us are enchanting, the world still smiles and pays homage, yet the charm is dispelled??everything appears a mockery....We are left desolate...."My question to myself is, 'can life be endured?'"

Twentieth century Americans rarely have to directly confront the facts of mortality. Death in our society is largely confined to the elderly and most deaths take place not in homes but in hospitals. Professionals - doctors, nurses, and morticians - handle the dying and dead. Corpses are injected with waxes and fluids intended to make them look younger and healthier, while coffins are selected for their superior padding to "comfort" the deceased. Even our language is filled with circumlocutions that allow us to evade the fact of death. We speak of the deceased as having "passed away."

A century ago it was impossible to evade the fact of death. Premature death remained commonplace. As late as 1900, the chance of a marriage lasting forty years was just one in three. Death typically took place in the home following a protracted deathbed watch. Family members themselves had to lay out, wash, and shroud the corpse. Viewing of the deceased took place at home, not in a funeral parlor. Death was a tangible reality that could not be escaped.

Letters, even those written by ordinary men and women, recorded the details of death in excruciating detail. Such letter writers invariably described the deceased's illness, the deathbed drama, and the funeral, and offered reflections on the transitory nature of life. In 1836, a Carrolltown, Alabama, resident responded to the death of a loved one with words that were echoed in countless letters: "The heart whithers and joy sickens and dies and existence becomes a troubled dream." An Indiana youngster wrote a brief poem following the death of his two brothers and sister:

My brothers [and] sister kind & dear
How soon you've passed away
Your friendly faces now I hear
Are mowldren in the clay

Death had not yet been sanitized and prettified.

For many nineteenth Americans, the death of a spouse or children was a crippling blow that seemed too heavy to bear. After his wife died in 1861 of burns suffered when her dress caught fire, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow announced that his life was over. Outwardly, he might appear calm, but inwardly he was "bleeding to death," "utterly wretched and overwhelmed." After his wife committed suicide, Henry Adams, the noted historian, insisted that her name never again be spoken in her presence. Following the death of his 24-year old daughter in 1895, Mark Twain was paralyzed with grief. "It is an odious world, a horrible world," he declared. "It is Hell; the true one." The family abandoned their house in Hartford, never to return. Ten years after he had received the telegram announcing that his daughter Susy died of meningitis, Twain commented acidly, "It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared can receive a thunder-stroke like this and live."

The nineteenth century witnessed a host of efforts to soften the pain of death. To spare mourning relatives the painful details of funerals, the first professional undertakers appeared. These men laid out and attended the corpse, made the coffin, dug the grave, and directed the funeral procession. During the Civil War professional embalming became increasingly common, and in the 1880s, cosmetic restoration of bodies became widely available. Because it was impractical to embalm and restore bodies in the deceased's home, funeral parlors began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century.

Another effort to soften the pain of death was the appearance of a new kind of cemetery during the early nineteenth century. Colonial burial grounds were distinctly unpleasant places??overcrowded, filled with weeds, and marked by the odor of decay. So bad were conditions in New York that residents blamed a yellow fever epidemic in 1822, which killed 22,000 residents, on the unsanitary conditions in the city's cemeteries. Beginning in 1831, when the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased a 72-acre tract of fields, ponds, trees, and gardens in Cambridge and built Mount Auburn cemetery, a new kind of landscaped garden cemetery began to replace urban grave yards. The new garden cemetery was a place of tranquility, where grieving relatives could find solace in the beauty of nature. The attempt to draw a link between death and beauty was also evident in the effort to rename the coffin a "casket," a word that meant a jewel box.

At the same time that architects began to design bucolic garden cemeteries "with everything that can fill the heart with tender and respectful emotions, poets and novelists tried to romanticize death in verse and fiction. Popular novelists like Harriet Beecher Stowe devoted enormous attention to the subject of death. Indeed, so excessive was her concern with death that Oscar Wilde later quipped, “you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.” Timothy Arthur Shay, author of the best?selling temperance novel Ten Night in a Bar-Room, devoted sixty pages to a description of the death of one character. A torrent of death poetry consolatory essays, and mourning manuals became available to middle class readers after 1830, with titles like Agnes and the Key of Her Little Coffin, The Empty Crib, and Stepping Heavenward. In Heaven, such books declared, the deceased were released from worldly cares and loved one were reunited perpetually.

Many mid?nineteenth century Americans who suffered grief following the death of loved ones found consolation in Spiritualism??the belief that the spirits of the dead survive and can communicate with the living through spirit writing, table, tippings, ouija boards, rapping, and materialization of spirits in the flesh. After the death of her son Willie, Mary Todd Lincoln began to seek out medium and attend seances in an effort to communicate across the "very slight veil [that] separates us, from the 'loved and lost.'" Spiritualism in the United States began in 1848 when Katherine and Margaret Fox, two sisters from Hydesville, New York, claimed to communicate with the spirit of a man who they said had been murdered in their house. (In 1888, Margaret publicly confessed that the rappings were caused by an abnormality of her big toe). At a time when faith in religious orthodoxy was declining and many Americans were demanding tangible proof of an afterlife, Spiritualism seemed to offer evidence of human survival after death.

Popular culture in twentieth century America has been filled with images of violence and killing, but, unlike nineteenth century culture, has, until quite recently, had few discussions of death and dying - a fact that led one analyst to charge that death had replaced sex as the taboo topic in our culture. In American society today, most deaths take place in sterile hospitals or nursing homes. Funerals have been shortened and simplified, and cremation has become much more common.

Since the mid-1960s, when an investigative journalist named Jessica Mitford published a book harshly critical of The American Way of Death, there has been a growing reaction against the "medicalization" of death. In recent years, terminally ill patients have asserted in court the right to decide how and when and where to die. A growing number of terminally ill men and women have chosen to die at home or in homelike settings known as hospices.

 

This site was updated on 23-Apr-14.

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