Thursday, March 27, 2008

Exclusive Graveyeards

Exclusive Graveyards: From the Chicago Evening Post, re-published in the New York Times March 17, 1906.

"Everybody will be pleased to know that our excellent fellow-citizens, the union men, are going to have a nice cemetery of their own, where they can be laid away without any fear of contamination from the "scabs." And now that they have acquired this comfort and degree of elegance we venture to hope that they will permit us to enjoy our own cemeteries and proceed thereto at the appointed time without unnecessary impediments or hindrances. If the union hack drivers and the union gravediggers and union casket makers will proffer us the same consideration we are willing to give to them, everything will be lovely, and our various cemeteries will exist in peace and concord."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jodie Hamilton and Mourning Photography

There were a number of things that struck a chord with me during our visit at the Museum of Mourning Photography, so many that it is difficult to chose what to write about. Like Evan, I was taken in by the many photos of mothers cradling their deceased children, their eyes fixed on the camera, the secrets of what thoughts occurred in their heads during the minutes required to take the photo now buried as deep as the dead children in their arms.

I was overwhelmed by a photo in one of the Sleeping Beauty books of a young woman seated, eyes open, book in her lap as though she has just been reading, and scrawled along the side of the photo is written "Mother not ready to let go of only daughter--photo taken after dead 9 days." According to the notes in the back of the book she had been put on ice so her mourning mother could delay burial.

Then there was this photo:

This is the Parsons family of Houston, Missouri. They were murdered by Jodie (or Joda, or Jody, depending on which source you are researching) Hamilton on October 12, 1906. It is not clear how exactly they died--or rather, there are several different versions of how they died. First Jodie shot Barney (or Carney) Parsons when he confronted him and his family on a road as they were departing Houston, Missouri. Mr. Parsons had sold his share of crops/land to Hamilton as the family planned to leave town, but apparently there was bad blood and the deal did not run smooth. Parsons and Hamilton did not like each other at all, and Parsons haggled the price until he was satisfied; clearly Hamilton was not. So after the family packed up their things and got on the road out of town, Hamilton decided to follow them and confront Parsons again. It did not go well; Jodie shot Barney Parsons, then beat him with the butt of his rifle until the patriarch of the family was dead. This is were it gets a little murky...he then beat Mrs. Parsons to death with the rifle in some accounts, in others with a pole ax. I've also read that Mrs. Parsons was pregnant. In other accounts, she was not. In some accounts he also beat the children to death, in others he slit their throats with their toy knives. He then loaded the bodies into the wagon and drove them over to Piney Creek where he threw them into the water. Not long afterward fisherman found the bodies after they had traveled some downstream. The bodies were pulled from the water, and the photo above was taken of the whole family. Unlike most mourning photos we have seen, this has details that speak to the violent deaths these people endured. Just as the dehydrated, skeletal children tell of the horrors of cholera, the Parsons family tell a tale of murder.

In this way, this photo represents for me a hybrid of sorts. It is part mourning photo, part evidence without being at the scene of the crime. They are part sleeping, part bloodied. They look at peace, but the marks upon their relaxed faces reveal that they did not know peace in death. No doubt this photo was used to provoke anger and sympathy in that small, midwestern community.

Jodie, Joda, Jody Hamilton eventually confessed to the murders, but tried to claim insanity due to a kick in the head he received from a mule as a child. The law didn't buy it. He was hanged on December 21, 1906. He was hanged twice; apparently the first attempt was unsuccessful, so they had to bring him back up on the gallows, retie the noose and try again. One the second try, he died. He was twenty years old.

The murders were featured in the New York Times. You can read the original article, published on October 15, 1906, here.

On a side note, not at all related to mourning photography but still the dead, there is another old NY Times article I found from August 2, 1902 about a gravedigger's strike that happened in Chicago. Funeral processions already in progress were turned away from the cemetery gates as a result of the strike. You can read the article here.

Monday, March 17, 2008

funeral symbols

Anthony at the MoMP was quick to point out the meaning of various symbols discovered in his photos. This made me aware of the large amount of symbols used in funerals and burials. I just never thought of it. I looked into it further and found some gems of memorial symbols. (some of which might come in handy in a covert cemetery trip)

Wheat refers to life and the Scythe refers to death. The symbols of wheat and the scythe invokes a previous discussion that we had concerning the Grim Reaper. We discussed the Scythe and to some degree we discussed wheat as as symbol of life. In this context it would make sense that the Reaper would carry a scythe, a tool to cut down the harvest, to cut down a more celestial harvest.

Symbols that refer to the affect on the family are striking to me. Perhaps because it concerns the living. Some tombstones may have a broken column. this refers to the passing of a head of a family. Presumably a Patriarch or Matriarch. A broken ring refers to the family's circle being undone. The death of an only child. The last of a line. Referring to what has not and will not continue. A weeping willow refers to perpetual mourning.

The symbol of an anchor often refers to hope. One website attributed this to Pope Clement who was tied to an anchor and drowned. Apparently the anchor was a common hidden symbol, a disguised cross. Often the chain is broken. An anchor may also be used to mark the grave of a sea faring person. However, some sites disregard this meaning entirely.

There are many references to the resurrection or eternal life. This is understandable considering that these concepts provide much hope for the mourning. An angle flying, birds, crown, a light, a torch, a star, a rooster, a lion, trumpets, bees, shell and crown all refer to the resurrection or eternal life. I am not aware of all of the subtleties between these symbols. To begin with we can make the distinction between the resurrection and eternal life. The rooster, lion and the trumpets no doubt refer to the resurrection. The trumpets and lion refers to the second coming of Christ. The rooster refers to the awakening of the dead. The angle flying, bird, crown, light, star, and torch presumably refer to eternal life as opposed to the resurrection specifically. The crown could refer to God and that the deceased is closer to God and the service of God. I would place the light, star, and torch in a category together; a continued shine of the spirit. I am at a loss as to what to make of the bees and shell.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Fashion of Mourning

I was inspired to do a little search on the stages of mourning dress, based on the caption of one of the photos at the mourning museum (something to the effect of " in so in the second stages of mourning dress..."). Anyhow - an excerpt from a good, concise website:

"The Fashion to Mourn Publicly:

The complexities of wearing mourning dress took hold as the Victorian era progressed following the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria wore her widow’s weeds for the long remainder of her life until 1901, when the Edwardian era began. Many who saw themselves as high society including those in the lower classes followed her example.

The middle classes in particular, wishing to follow and accept the higher canons of decency of the upper classes, emulated every example she set. They liked to use black edged stationery, envelopes, notepaper and visiting cards. They tied little black or purple ribbons around dressing table bottles and the like and added similar purple or black ribbons even to the clothing of infants.

Prayer books and bibles had to be bound in Black morocco leather and handkerchiefs edged in black. The list was endless, but all touches were intended to convey to the onlooker through a series of signs and symbols visual messages that the deepest feelings of sadness were felt at the loss...

Mourning Clothes and Crape

Mourning was an expensive activity and also wasteful, because it also had to be fashionable. Identical in fashion styling to the modes of the day, it used different colours and materials. When more than one death occurred in a family with little space between them, mourning clothes would inevitably be worn for several years non stop. As normal clothes were put away they would often be out of fashion by the time mourning was over so they were sometimes remodelled and often discarded.

Crape (always spelt with an ‘a’ to indicate mourning crape) was the most used fabric for mourning clothes. It was used in such vast quantities in the 1890s that Courtaulds built a textile empire on the sales of the crape cloth alone. Crape was dull looking silk gauze like a crimped and stiff textured material and mostly dyed the deepest of blacks, although white crape was used for the widow's cap.

Black was the chief mourning colour in the immediate months after a death for deepest mourning. Dull surfaced black fabrics such as crape, plain bombazine, paramatta, merino wool and cashmere were also favoured and used depending on income...

Stages of Mourning

A widow would mourn for two and a half years, with the first year and a day in full mourning. During that time pieces of the crape covered just about all of a garment at deepest mourning, but the crape was partially removed to reach the period of secondary mourning which lasted nine months. After that the crape was defunct and a widow could wear fancier lusher fabrics or fabric trims made from black velvets and silk and have them adorned with jet trimming, lace, fringe and ribbons.

In the final six months a period called half mourning began. Ordinary clothes could be worn in acceptable subdued shades of grey, white or purple, violet, pansy, heliotrope, soft mauves and of course black. Every change was subtle and gradual, beginning firstly with trims of these colours being added to the black dresses. These were the transitional mourning dresses from secondary mourning to the final stage of lesser ordinary half mourning where colours like purple and cream rosettes, bows, belts and streamers along with jet stones or buttons were introduced.

Similar rules applied for the wearing of hats or bonnets. As the mourning progressed, so the hats and bonnets became more trimmed and fancy, whilst veils became shorter until they were eventually removed altogether...

The Demise of Excessive Mourning

The fashion for heavy mourning was drastically reduced during the Edwardian era and even more so after the Great War. So many individuals died that just about everyone was in mourning for someone. By 1918 a whole new attitude had developed and this was hastened even further by the Second World War."

I think it's interesting that mourning clothing was inspired by Queen Victoria - that even one who is in the deepest stages of loss has an eye on the Who's Who of Grieving. The last image that I can remember in which fashion and image are united with grieving are shots of Jackie makes me wonder about "showing" people that you are grieving: is it done because the griever is unsure of the authenticity of their own grief therefore "watch me grieve watch me be sad I swear I loved the deceased and in watching me you wouldn't doubt that at all..." or does conforming to a sort of etiquette help the griever uphold a sense of strength and grace that they feel they've lost? Is custom and tradition in place to help us through the process of grieving?

In Asia the color for grieving is off-white - families will make clothing out of muslin. I remember when I was in seventh grade I wanted to make a kerchief to wear to the Renaissance fair and I fashioned one out of some old muslin I found in the garage. When my mother came home and saw that muslin on my head she 'bout had a heart-attack and started screaming at me. Apparently it was material she had bought for my grandfather's funeral years earlier. It really really spooked her. Yeah. My bad.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"How I Held Her"

Examining the extensive collection at the Museum of Mourning Photography it should come as no surprise that those of children were the most striking. The children, often little more than infants and newborns, were poignant in themselves. They were still and shrunken tiny bodies sometimes captured more in death than in their short lives. Yet it was the living that caught my attention time and time again.

On the faces of the numerous grieving parents we saw, there is a seriousness that goes beyond their losses. It might be a sense of duty that they have to future memories of the deceased or a resignation to death's presence. This is not to discount the emotions that we would now most associate with the death of a child - despondency, incomprehension. Those are in the pictures too, in the blankness of a gaze, the heaviness of posture, or the gesture of a mother not just cradling her baby's body, but holding its hand as if to comfort it. Still, I perceived a sense of social obligation in these photographs. I saw (or believe I saw) people stoically determined to put aside the emotions they must have been feeling to capture the moment and their loved ones for posterity, and that is what makes this whole practice so alien.

The title of this post comes from a picture in the book Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography - American and European Traditions. The photo was of a family posing outside of their home. A daughter, probably an infant, has recently died, but the remoteness of the home prevented a photographer from reaching them before her body had to be interred. There is some indication that they lived in the hills and the daughter perished during the winter. The family is alternately seated and standing. There is a small table with them, tilted forward. There are words etched onto the photo indicating that this is the table where her body was laid out, and this was how one of the sons sat to hold her.

There is irony that the photo that sticks with me the most is one of the few where the corpse is out of sight. There were certainly others that I could choose, from the grotesque (small children who died from dehydration (likely cholera) that left them as shrunken and skeletal as concentration camp victims) to the touching (a man who climbed into the bed where his wife was laid out just to be beside her one more time). Still, it is the rural family posed to reenact how they mourned that I can't leave behind. Or rather, it is their need to recreate their last farewells for posterity even in the absence of the physical person whose memory they presume to preserve.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Spring and Death

"There's a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground, might be the smell of either death or of spring--I hope of spring. But don't let me trick you, there is a death in the smell of spring and in the smell of thee as in the smell of me. And if nothing more, invisibility has taught me my nose to classify the stenches of death."

--Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1947)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Alterna-coffins part one

Hi y'all. Thanks for adding me.

I mentioned that ReadyMade magazine (and, I think, AdBusters) did a feature on designers who did a post-modern-age challenge -- designing products for the 21st century -- and that one of the things was a kind of Fed-ex-envelope-lookin' body bag for burial. I couldn't find that article (I'll chase it down later) but I did find the digital reprint of ANOTHER article in ReadyMade about an artist who's designing alternative urns for burial:

It's made me recall some of the work I did at Lanternhouse in Cumbria - they're way into alternative funerals and other rituals (weddings, baptisms, celebrations of all kinds). In fact, when they were run by Welfare State International, they released some books called the Dead Good Guides, which are handbooks for alternative rituals and ceremonies. I have a copy of the Funeral one if anyone wants to read it.


"So I tattoo instructions on my ass / That say 'don't ever put this body in a casket / burn it and put the ashes in a basket / and throw them in the Puget Sound / I don't ever want to be underground.'" - Kimya Dawson