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How we mourned: A day of 19th century bereavement at Bellefontaine Cemetery

Sculpture by George Julian Zolnay was commissioned by Gov. David Francis in memory of his wife, Jane, who died in 1924.

Bellefontaine Cemetery is magnificent in all seasons. But this vast and celebrated necropolis on West Florissant Avenue in north St. Louis seems most rewarding in autumn. At this season now upon us, nature surrenders some of its vitality: leaves fall; grass turns brown; days go dark earlier. Time and the weather and changing colors poetically find common cause with the cycle of existence.

In collaboration with the cemetery, we are reminded by autumnal transformations that death is an aspect, however heartbreaking, of life; and that since ancient times, the fundamental business of the cemetery is to be maintained as hallowed ground as a city of the dead.

Bellefontaine, besides being a meticulously maintained graveyard, is also a showy funereal sculpture garden that  provides as good a material history of St. Louis as you can get. Access is easy: the cemetery is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year, both for visits and for burials, and for providing serenity for those of us who find it there. Bellefontaine is a port in the storms of chaos raging all around us, a place as unchanging as eternally transforming.

Special pleasures are available Oct. 3 when the Mourning Society of St. Louis presents “Consolations of Memory: Death and Mourning in the 19th Century at Bellefontaine Cemetery.” The program is designed to introduce the cemetery as it exists today while assisting on a journey back in time. The program has promise of being a fascinating exploration of the art and science of death in America, and in St. Louis a century and a half ago.

Three tours of cemetery sites are scheduled along with lessons about mourning – at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m.

Katherine Patterson, a spokesperson for the Mourning Society, said members of her organization will dress in 19th century garb to provide a visual sense of authenticity. One of the characters is called Mr. Avery, and he is John Avery in real life. He will conduct funeral services in the cemetery’s Hotchkiss Chapel. Following the chapel service, Mr. Avery will lead the congregations to a burial site for a re-enactment of an interment service. Participants will see and learn about mementos of mourning, and learn how these objects served this particular but extremely important rite of passage.

All this is free, but reservations are required. Registration is available online in the events section of the cemetery website. The society’s website has a link to registration information as well.

Rules of mourning

An important aspect of the “Consolations of Memory” is its once-taken-for-granted practices related to death and dying. Some are frankly bizarre, especially those having to do with fashion. This is taken from an April 1886 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

“[A] a widow's mourning should last eighteen months For the first six months the dress should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow's cap of white crape if preferred. In America, however, widows' caps are not as universally worn as in England.
“Dull black kid gloves are worn in first mourning; after that Gants de Suede (suede gloves) or silk gloves are proper, particularly in summer. After six months' mourning the crape can be removed, and grenadine, copeau fringe, and dead trimmings used, if the smell of crape is offensive, as it is to some people. After twelve months the widow's cap is left off, and the heavy veil is exchanged for a lighter one, and the dress can be of silk grenadine, plain black gros grain, or crape-trimmed cashmere with jet trimmings, and crepe lisse about the neck and sleeves.”

Buttressed by all those rigors mortis, it is reasonable to say that the notion, even the mention, of formal mourning sounds hopelessly and morbidly old fashioned or quaint to us, not to mention time consuming and peculiar.  

Once, however, mourning was standard operating procedure all over the world. It was practices in varying degrees after the death of a relative or a close friend, and state mourning might be decreed for the general public faced with the death of an esteemed dignitary or royal personage.

The time spent in mourning and the money dedicated to dressing  it up was dictated largely by class and economic status; the bourgeoisie and upper classes were the most orthodox and judgmental adherents. But expenditures of time and money were considered to be part of the social contract for everyone. The formal process of mourning might occupy your attention for years, or in the case of some particularly stricken widows, forever.

Mourning was both a personal discipline (inward and spiritual) and a public manifestation (outward and visible). Although mourning is part of the same family of sorrow that anguish or grief belong to, it had a less voluble gravity. Etiquette books and advice columns in newspaper, such as the Harpers Bazaar’s piece on widows’ weeds,  were filled with rules. And every bossy uncle or aunt had to enter his or her 2-cents worth.

One of the most egregious examples of attention paid to the rules of mourning was that spent by the Queen-Empress Victoria, who was Great Britain’s longest reigning monarch until recently passed by her indomitable great-great granddaughter, Elizabeth II.

After the premature death in 1861 of Queen Victoria’s adored husband and consort, Prince Albert, the mourning bar rose regally and imperially, perhaps even pathologically, into the stratosphere of customs and stringent rules related to mourning. Clothing was paramount,  black, (or for deepest mourning, all white) as was jewelry (jet or colorless stones, namely diamonds), as was for some curtained off and quite rigid seclusion.

Rural cemetery movement

Although the principal reason for Bellefontaine's being was to provide a safe and somewhat remote place to bury the dead, other reasons helped generate and inform its plan as well.

As pre-Civil War America was flexing its muscles, it looked to Europe for civilizing. In Paris, the famous cemetery Père Lachaise – named for the French Jesuit Père François de la Chaise – was established as a garden cemetery and provided a model and inspiration for the  design and cultivation of cemeteries such as Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, Mount Auburn in Boston and Green-Wood Cemetery  in Brooklyn. In America, these were called rural cemeteries, with graves arranged in harmony with or in contrast to the landscape, rather than arranged in rows and grids.

The Wainwright tomb was constructed for Charlotte Dickson Wainwright in 1892, by her husband, Ellis Wainwright. It was designed by Louis Sullivan.
Credit Wikipedia
The Wainwright tomb was constructed for Charlotte Dickson Wainwright in 1892, by her husband, Ellis Wainwright. It was designed by Louis Sullivan.

Such bucolic parks provided not only burial ground but a shot at civic legitimacy and prestige. They were  conceived and established in landscapes that were themselves beautiful,  and any artifice imposed on the natural setting was effected with the intention of exalting existing characteristics.

These parklike sites were to be apart from but easily reached by city populations. Spiritual or emotional refreshment and recreation were offered to mourners and non-mourners alike who could walk or drive their carriages among the dead without feeling the experience was creepy or irreverent but familial or congenial.

And then there was the matter of prestige.  Civic boosters recognized that a city boasting  a rural cemetery – especially one designed by an celebrated expert  such as the landscape architect Almerin Hotchkiss, brought here as  architect then superintendent -- would boost St. Louis into membership in a select society. Having such a cemetery  would be rather like having a NFL team, or not having one, as the case may be.

There were sanitary reasons as well, based on a fear that diseases such as cholera spread from infected and interred corpses. In 1849, nearly 4,500 St. Louisans – 7 percent of the population – died of cholera. From tragedy-generated anxiety came the impetus to bury the dead, sick or not, at a remove from congested city neighborhoods. These fears and ambitions worked together for Bellefontaine and, a little bit later, Calvary Cemetery, its neighbor across Calvary Avenue to the west. Calvary is operated by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis.

Bellefontaine was also created to fill the need for an environment for mourning, both in the elaborate 19th century sense and in contemporary practice. Beginning in the late 20th century, and gathering strength into this, the 21st century, there's been a rush to escape grief – to find  “closure” for it --  and to self-medicate ourselves with the sort of loss-assuaging amnesia that encourages family and friends to “get on with their lives.” Credence is given this business by assuming and proclaiming that the deceased would, well, just die if he or she knew we were going overboard with grieving in the practices of mourning.

This business of closure and getting on with things is  illusory. If the relationship with the deceased were  anything of consequence at all (and even, perhaps more nettlesome, if the relationship were fraught) a period of mourning is not such a bad idea, simply because it provides intellectual and emotional opportunities for remembrance and contemplation of the meaning of relationships,  and beyond that, reflections on matters of life and death themselves.

Meanwhile, as mourning customs are relegated to cultural closets or to corners of the brain that accommodate our  museums of memory, and as mourning is considered not exactly time and money well spent, both Bellefontaine and mourning live on in real time. There couldn't be a better place to start learning about the architecture and science of death and burial than the events sponsored by the Mourning Society at Bellefontaine Cemetery.

"Consolations of Memory" is free, but reservations are required. The cemetery is at 4947 West Florissant Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63115. 

Bellefontaine Cemetery
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap

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