Gone But Not Forgotten: Victorian Mourning & Funeral Customs Exhibit & Tour

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Hearthside House Museum in Lincoln, RI hosts this popular exhibit that fascinates visitors each October as they learn about the elaborate mourning protocols which started following the Civil War.


The exhibit, sponsored by the Friends of Hearthside, recreates the wake of former Hearthside owner Simon E. Thornton, who died in the house on May 2, 1873 and whose funeral was held there. All over the house, black cloth covers the windows, mirrors, and pictures.   Docents dressed in Victorian mourning attire greet visitors at the door and lead them through the house, with each room unveiling a different aspect of the mourning process. In the dining room, visitors are offered special Victorian funeral cookies.  The house tour, which includes all 3 floors of the 1810 home, concludes in the drawing room, or formal parlor, where a period wicker coffin containing “the deceased” is displayed, giving mourners a chance to pay their respects.

Lilies and other fragrant flowers fill the room, and a portrait of Thornton, taken near the time of his death, stands near the coffin.


“The flowers were not just pretty. They helped disguise the smell of the decaying corpse, since the body rested in the parlor for so long,” explains David Olstein, Museum and Collections Manager at Hearthside and curator of the show. “When we found Thornton’s photograph, his face had marks all over it, so we “cleaned up” the photo taking away the imperfections. Then our research showed he died of a skin disease,” he adds.


“It was understandable that Victorians were preoccupied with death, given how ever present it was in their lives compared to ours,” Olstein says. “Infant mortality rates were high, death in childbirth was common, and the Civil War took an extraordinary toll.”

Many of the items on display come from Olstein’s own extensive collection of Victorian funerary memorabilia. Objects on exhibit include special mourning clothing, jewelry made from the hair of the deceased, black-bordered stationery, and post-mortem photographs in which family members pose with dead loved ones propped up in a life-like positions.  Antique tools and a portable embalming table--most likely the same ones used by the undertaker in 1873 (which was Bellows Funeral Home, one of the oldest funeral homes in New England and still in business just a short distance away from Hearthside) to prepare Thornton’s body--are on view in the master bedroom.


While the exhibition takes place around Halloween, and visitors enjoy it all the more for this reason, it is not a Halloween program, Kathy Hartley, president of the Friends of Hearthside who sponsors the event, stresses. “It is a carefully researched presentation on Victorian customs, a few of which survive in today’s funeral practices,” she says.

The dates for the Gone But Not Forgotten exhibit are:

Saturday, Oct. 18                   4-7 p.m.  (candlelight)
Sunday, Oct. 19                     1-4 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 25                   4-7 p.m. (candlelight)
Sunday, Oct. 26                     1-4 p.m.

Admission is $8 general admission, $6 for seniors (age 62 +), $4 for ages 10-17, and under 10 free.  Candlelight tours are $10 general admission and advance reservation is recommended due to limited space.  Last admission one hour prior to closing.  Call Hearthside at (401) 726-0597 or email kathy.hartley@hearthsidehouse.org for reservations.  Hearthside is located at 677 Great Road (Rt. 123), Lincoln, RI.  For information, visit www.hearthsidehouse.org.