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In Caitlin Doughty’s essay collection Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory, Doughty explores how the medicalization of death has moved it from home to hospital, and exposes how the gritty work of the mortician now takes place behind closed doors. Her essays, trenchant and instructional, are laced with the history of practices around death in different cultures: “Today, not being forced to see corpses is a privilege of the developed world. On an average day in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges in India, anywhere from 80 to a hundred cremation ghats burn. After a very public cremation (sometimes performed by young children from India’s untouchable caste), the bones and ashes are released into the waters of the holy river.

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In contrast, in the Oakland, California funeral home where Doughty works, very few families choose to be present for the cremation. There is an option to let a family member “push the button” on the crematory, but when one Chinese family insists on having a ceremony by the ovens, complete with what she suspects are professional mourners, Doughty recoils at the display of what she has come to think of as a private occupation. Her grizzled coworker Mike tells Doughty, “You gotta let them push the button, man. They love the button.”

Francine Du Plessix Gray’s essay “At Large and at Small: The Work of Mourning” posits that mourning has become a kind of hot topic in art. “If books are any harbinger of the communal psyche, taboos against the theme of death—an issue more rigorously banned from public discourse, in our time, than the most explicit sexuality—might well be waning.” She cites a few popular works, like Tuesdays with Morrie (1997), quite a few self-help books for coping with the loss of everything from children to pets, and the growing literature of widowhood (her favorite title among these being Im Grieving as Fast as I Can). The apotheosis of widow literature has to be Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that could be titled Im Grieving as Slowly and Methodically as I Can. Part exploration of mourning literature, part rumination about the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, Didion’s book enacts the inadequacy of tools for grieving. Reading, talking, crying, raging at the gods (or whatever god you may believe in)—none of it feels like enough for her.

It’s women, too, who are caught up in the craze (or maybe it is more like a morbid hobby) of making memory albums. Memory albums, as Anne Blue Willis demonstrates in her essay titled “Mourning Becomes Hers: Women, Tradition, and Memory Albums,” have become a business of impressive proportions. Take Creative Memories, a business founded by two women in 1987 that relied on a Tupperware-like scheme of women selling materials and demonstrating the techniques to make the books to other women. By 2004, the memory book business was worth $2.55 billion, and included specialized web sites, tools, and materials. Memory books are part of the current enthusiasm for scrapbooking (the Creative Memories women prefer “album-making”because while scrapbooking is a hobby or craft, “making keepsake albums is about building connections, enriching our lives, and leaving a lasting family legacy”). With their focus on religion and preservation, these albums represent, according to Willis, “a sidelong feminism, in which a woman expresses agency, claims her voice, and declares the complexity of her full humanity, all by using modes that, on the surface, appear compliant with patriarchy.”The whole memory album process seems to be pointing towards death, however, in the same way that Christianity does: those who make the best memories, like those who live according to God’s rules on Earth, will be preserved on Earth and rewarded in heaven.

Memory albums, popular books, even the family who wanted to push the button at the crematorium: all of these moments skirt a very blurry line between public and private mourning. Time was when everyone knew that a family had suffered a loss because they dressed in mourning clothes. These clothes and accessories are on display now through February 2015 in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire.” Walking through the exhibit is not only a tour through the fashions of the Victorian and Edwardian ages, since the dresses were often based on the styles popular at the time, it is also a journey from the age of hand tailoring into the coming of the Industrial Revolution, when mass-produced fabrics led to brand-name mourning clothes, sometimes sold in stores that catered to fashionable women forced to switch out their wardrobes when a death in the family occurred.

Mourning clothes were a signal to the world that a family—really, that a woman, since men’s mourning clothes do not look distinctively different from their regular dark suits and hats—had suffered a loss.

A lady’s clothes would become progressively less dour as her loss receded into the past, and the length of time she wore mourning clothes would depend on how close of a relation she was mourning: a widow wore mourning clothes for two years, while a woman who lost a parent or child would wear them for a year. Women’s magazines, which were growing in popularity at the time, provided fashion plates that a seamstress or milliner could copy (a mourning dress required a matching head covering, of course). There are some plates with copied dresses on display in the exhibit as well. Typical is this advice (all of these quotations following are projected on the walls of the exhibit):

“In the United States no prescribed periods for wearing mourning garments have been fixed upon. …The deepest mourning is that worn by a widow for her husband. It is worn two years, sometimes longer. …The mourning for a father or mother is worn for one year. …Mourning for a brother or sister is worn for six months,”wrote Walter R. Houghton et al in American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness in 1889.

Among the most interesting objects in the exhibit are the pieces of mourning jewelry. Diamonds, since they are colorless, were considered an appropriate material for mourning jewelry, as was jet, since it is black. Pearls often represented tears in brooches. The most elaborate pieces could incorporate a lock of the loved one’s hair in the design, like a necklace with a willow tree, the weeping willow being a common sign of mourning.

The stages of mourning progressed from simple black dresses, usually made of crape, to grays and purples, often with lace or other adornments, in a phase sometimes called half-mourning.

Dresses also progressed from more to less modest as mourning progressed, with high collars replaced by square necklines and long sleeves giving way to show more of the arm. The height of mourning clothes was in the era of Queen Victoria, who herself wore mourning clothes from the death of her consort, Prince Albert, in 1861 until her own death in 1901. As royalty often set fashion trends, the Queen’s choice greatly influenced social norms, though some thought her a bit extreme:

“Her Majesty is a little behind the spirit of the times in regard to regulations for mourning. She advocates absolute retirement for a time in the case of bereaved people, and the most lugubrious signs of outward mourning,”says Sarah A. Southall Tooley in The Personal Life of Queen Victoria, published in 1897.

Interestingly, when the Queen herself died, the whole country (well, the fashionable people) copied her: “In January, 1901, Queen Victoria died. …We were all in deep mourning and the ladies wore crêpe veils like widows. Going down in the special train, Marlborough paid me one of his rare compliments when he said, ‘If I die, I see you will not remain a widow long,’”Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan wrote.

Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law Alexandra chose light shimmery colors for her own mourning gowns. The sense of righteousness and propriety that Victoria imparted would not hold for long as the 20th century dawned.

Confusion also began to arise when black became a fashionable color for non-mourners as well. As Balsan’s remark above insinuates, the widow wearing black could be looked at less as an object of pity than one of desire. “Black has been so generally worn for a long time past that it is not always easy to distinguish between those who are in mourning and those who are not. It is an economical dress and imparts an air of refinement where it would otherwise be lacking,”wrote Ella Rodman Church in “How to Dress Becomingly: In Mourning”in Arthurs Home Magazine. If black now stands for sophisticated dressing, how are mourners supposed to distinguish themselves? This loaded issue inspired many an etiquette question and more than a few nasty comments: “Mourning garments have this use, that they are a shield to the real mourner, and they are often a curtain of respectability to the person who should be a mourner but is not,”wrote Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood in Manners and Social Usages (1887). The “curtain of respectability,”however, would not last much longer.

The nail in the coffin of mourning clothes was the coming of World War I. With so many young men dead, customs changed. Mourning clothes seemed indulgent and behind the times. As an article in American Vogue put it in 1918: “…the whole feeling with regard to the wearing of mourning has undergone a change. In former days the custom of wearing mourning had a double significance; it was considered to be a sign of respect for the dead, and at the same time it announced the seclusion of the mourner. …The war has done still more towards moderating the old customs in regard to mourning… woman’s part in war means, not only giving herself and her time and her work, but her loved ones as well. Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives.”Thus did mourning start creeping back into the shadows to become private again, though the association between dark clothes and mourning does persist in Western culture (though a case could be made for a game called “Widow or Goth?”where some outfits are concerned). What we’ve lost, as Doughty and Didion’s books point out, is a way to identify the grieving, and to give them the social space or human comfort they might need.


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Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Winter 2010) (pp. 93-121)
University of California Press on behalf of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture
The American Scholar, Vol. 69, No. 3 (SUMMER 2000) (pp. 7-13)
The Phi Beta Kappa Society