Chapter Twenty-Five: Behind the Veil

All of the mirrors in the house were covered with black crepe to prevent my father’s spirit from getting caught in the house. Pictures were all turned face down to prevent haunting. The clocks were all stopped at the time of his passing and would remain that way until after the funeral. The doors were draped and covered in black crepe and black wreaths were hung.

My mother chose not to hire “layers out of the dead”, instead choosing to do the business herself with the assistance of Duncan and John. She wished to keep the scandal to a minimum, knowing those women would speak of what they saw on his leg and elsewhere. Syphilis was feared with a deep seated terror and carried with it the terrible burden of scandal that would affect the whole family and all of the servants. Likely there was already talk, but my father was well liked in the community. The cult of personality would win if doubt was allowed.

They bathed and dressed him in a black suit. Then, he was placed in his coffin, a polished black mahogany piece lined in silk with sharp angles, bright brass handles, and a peaked lid, and settled in the parlor. Someone had to stand vigil over the body for the next several days, wiping down the face and hands with vinegar every few hours to prevent them from turning black. No fire was lit in the room, keeping it cold to help preserve the body.

William was thrust into the duty of managing the family business and financial affairs, arranging many of the funeral details and meeting with the solicitors. I saw him very little.

There was extensive discussion about whether or not I should attend the funeral with my mother. In the South it was the custom for women of the family to remain home during the burial and here in Massachusetts the custom was just starting to take hold. My mother desperately did not wish to have to put up the act of “mourning” her late husband in public, but was not sure that it was considered entirely appropriate for all female family members to remain home. In the end, it was decided that William and I would accompany the funeral procession while she stayed home.

The servants clothing was dyed black in a large cauldron behind the house. William accompanied me to Boston to purchase a mourning wardrobe. I had my mother’s measurements in hand and also purchased for her. I required a crash course in mourning etiquette as I had not realized how detailed the customs had become.

Men only needed to wear a black arm band or weepers, a black crape band around his top hat, for a few weeks. They were allowed to work and engage in society as normal after the funeral, while women were required to continue in seclusion.

The burden of mourning rested on the shoulders of women. A widow was required to mourn for a year and a day in full morning and then in half mourning for yet another year, or perhaps longer depending on her devotion. Full mourning was black crape (courser than crepe, also known as crepe de chine) with weepers, long cuffs up to nine inches worn over the sleeves that could be used to wipe the nose during a weeping fit. Second mourning allowed a women to no longer have to wear the long veil when outside the home and her dress could be of black silk for the first nine months. For the remainder of mourning, lavender or gray was allowed. A daughter’s mourning period would last six to twelve months. For me it would be six months of full mourning with three months of half mourning because of my newlywed status. By contrast, a man only needed to mourn his wife for three to six months. Several dresses for each season were needed as were the accoutrements…parasols, gloves, crape veil, shoes…all in black. A few pieces of morning jewelry made of jet, bog oak, and gutta-percha were also purchased but could not be worn while in deep mourning.

Meanwhile, letters of invitation to the funeral were handwritten on stationary with black trim by my mother and sent by messenger.

Standing vigil alone in the parlor with my father’s body was almost more than I could stand in the middle of the night. My single candle created frightening shadows on the walls and floor. At one point, I swore that I heard him groan, and I roused the whole house in a panic. Duncan was enlisted to hold a small mirror to his nose and mouth to see if it fogged with his breath. It remained clear and a sigh of relief was breathed by everyone else as they headed back to bed.

On the third day, the putrification was starting. No manner of perfume could hide that odor. Fortunately, the funeral was also that morning. It had been uncertain if the ground would be soft enough to dig a grave as it was now December, but God had mercy upon us. There was space in the icehouse reserved just in case, but I was immensely relieved that it would not be used. We would have our closure once he was safely buried. Friends gathered at our house, many of them were people I had never met. The body was closed up in the coffin and loaded into the horse drawn hearse with its black plumes and large glass windows. Care was taken to remove the body feet first to prevent the sprit from looking back into the house and beckoning another family member to follow him.

Friends and family gathered in the parlor for the brief service. The funeral procession proceeded in carriages to the cemetery where another brief sermon was given. The body was then placed in the ground. William accompanied me home, as I was not interested in watching the dirt actually get placed over the coffin. By then, I was ready to get the veil off. The black dye was flaking off and I was certain I had inhaled some of it.

Funeral cakes were passed out by the servants, both gingerbread and spice, and funeral pie was served, a mincemeat concoction that my father had always found disgusting. We had decided against a meal after the funeral and the friends filed away slowly, leaving us in seclusion.

My mother was soon depressed, essentially trapped in the house. Custom dictated that she was not allowed to go out, even to shop, and was not allowed to attend church or family functions for the next several months. The cold prevented her from even enjoying a walk out of doors. She was not allowed to attend weddings or baptisms until she was out of mourning as her presence would bring bad luck. Her charity work and assistance in the community was not even allowed. On some level I think she had joyfully anticipated her husband’s death and the freedom it would bring her. The reality of social constraints was difficult for her to bear. Soon, her mood matched the black dresses that she wore.

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