Funeral customs and practices of the 1800s were much different than they are today. Without the vaccinations that are commonly given today, the 1800s were plagued with deaths from diseases. Contaminated water brought about many deaths across the world. Many women died in childbirth in the United States, and cancer had not even been named. According to the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, 200 out of every 1,000 infants in the U.S. died. The Civil War, bringing a total of more than 600,000 deaths from 1861 to 1865, marked changes in the way Americans treated death, as it was often impossible to follow conventional burial practices during wartime.
Funerals Took Place in Homes
Funerals in the 1800s were a very public affair, according to Mississippi's Manship House Museum. Not only did most people die in their homes, but most funerals were held in the homes of the deceased. Drapes and shutters were drawn and heavy black fabric called crepe was fastened to the doorknob or knocker. Mantels, picture frames and mirrors were also covered with crepe. The body was laid on display in a coffin in the parlour of the home. As news spread throughout the town, people would stop to view the body and bring food for the family. After the funeral, residents quickly returned the house to normal, removed the crepe, and reopened the shutters and drapes.
In the 1800s, people took great care with mirrors. According to the article "A Lively Look at the History of Death" by Hoag Levins on the website of Historic Camden County, New Jersey, people during the mid-19th century believed the next person to see the reflection of the deceased would die. If residents did not stop clocks in the house, they believed, it would bring bad luck. When bodies were taken from the house to the undertaker for embalming, it was traditional to carry them out feet first so they could not "look" into the house and beckon others to join them in death. Coffins were screwed tightly, and people had a fear of being buried alive. Mary Lincoln wrote, "'I desire that my body shall remain for two days with the lid not screwed down," according to Levins.
The Civil War
Funeral customs during the Civil War depended on a number of circumstances, including which side won the battle and which unit handled burial proceedings. In the midst of war, the military could not follow proper funeral procedures, but they still tried to give fallen comrades some semblance of a burial. They covered bodies with dirt or gave them a common grave. The losing side often had to leave the fate of their dead in the hands of the victors, who treated the opponent's deceased with disrespect and indifference. Soldiers tried to pin their names on their uniforms to avoid being buried anonymously; however, according to the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, graves were marked only if time allowed.
African American Slaves
When slaves were brought over from Africa, many traditions followed them, including their funeral and burial customs. According to the African American Registry, slaves in the 1800s often placed items that belonged to the deceased upon their grave. These items may have included cooking utensils, vases, toothbrushes or marbles. African American slaves also drove pipes into the ground to serve as speaking tubes, which allowed the living to communicate with the deceased. Burial customs of slaves varied depending upon where they lived in the United States and where they were from in Africa.
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History: Manship House Museum: Manships in Mourning; Rituals of Death in the 1800s
- Historic Camden County, New Jersey: A Lively Look at the History of Death: Exploring the Architecture and Rituals of Civil War-Era Mourning; Hoag Levins
- Encyclopedia of Death and Dying: Civil War, U.S.
- African American Registry: Slaves Brought Burial Customs from Africa to the United States