Material Culture of Mourning

When someone in our family or a close friend passes today, we memorialize them on their social media accounts, on web pages set up by the mortuaries, send cards of condolence and make meals for the family. We attend funerals or memorials, we keep or spread ashes and we share our memories and sometimes even laugh at the stories.

Mourning happens in private and public, some are quieter than others but however we mourn, it is usually with the tradition and rites recognized by the deceased and their family. It is never easy and always, even when expected, harder than one thinks.

In the past, before the age of social media, internet and quick travel for instance, for a family to remember their loved one they would often have a posthumous portrait painted of their loved one or when photography became available the family would stage the deceased to have their photos taken. Even more common were photos of the deceased in the casket. I happen to have several of those myself for my direct ancestors and even a very dear friend.

Another way that family members could share a remembrance of the deceased was to have mourning jewelry made for family and friends. Depending on the wealth of the person the items could be very simple to quite ornate. From the likes of President George Washington to even my Great Grandfather, mourning jewelry was as personal as the deceased. Could even have been designed before the person died. They could have used hair of the deceased, often woven or made into intricate design, set in gold, mother-of-pearl, jet, cameo & pearls. Others would have been the use of design, angels, weeping willows, hearts, etc engraved or painted. There were brooches, rings, pendants and bracelets made and given to family and often rings were made to give to friends.

Here is a ring in my safe keeping for future generations. This mourning ring was for my 2nd Great Grandfather James Blaisdell who passed on 4 June 1897. His widow Helen Amanda Sampson Blaisdell had his hair braided and encased into this gold ring.

Mourning Ring James Blaisdell 1886 005

This ring is for Governor Richard Caswell and his wife Sarah Herritage Caswell. My 5th Great Grandparents. He died in 1789 and we are unsure of her exact death date though it was in the year 1794.

Mourning ring for Richard and Sarah Caswell of Kinston, Lenoir, NC

Mourning ring for Richard and Sarah Caswell of Kinston, Lenoir, NC

Another way was for a young lady to use her skills to create a memorial with her embroidery and needlework, like this one made by a young girl. According to a curator this was done cir 1850-1860 and probably done by a girl of 12-13 yrs given the technique and design. I had it professionally framed about two years ago using archival standards. For decades it was packed away in a drawer in tissue paper in my Great Grandmother’s belongings and no one knew it existed until after her daughter, my Great Aunt, passed away and her daughter passed it to me for safe keeping.

Joseph & Jane Buckley Whitehead Memorial Sampler


How do you honor and remember your family members?

Would you, could you, have mourning jewelry with the deceased’s hair used worked into the design?



About honoredgenerations

Curious by nature, passionate about family and history, I find a special calling to honor our previous generations by finding and telling their stories. Each generation leaves an impression on who we are and these lives, these unique individuals deserve to be remembered "generation unto generation".
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