Just so you know: The volunteers who run the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion in Benton Park did not intend any commentary on the Cards-Phillies playoff series results when it scheduled its "A Death in the Family: Death and Mourning in the 19th Century" event for this Sunday afternoon, October 9. They've been planning this afternoon of Victorian-style mourning for months, even when it seemed the Cards were on the brink of disaster.
"It's an awesome event," enthuses Edna Dieterle, a board member and co-chair of events at DeMenil. "It sounds really creepy and morbid, but for the Victorians, death was so much a part of daily life. It was a common visitor." Dieterle herself will be on hand wearing the height of 1860s mourning fashion: a heavy black dress with a corset and hoopskirt. In the summer, she says, it's "like an oven, but back then, women had to be in mourning for three years, so if they could take it, so can I for a few hours."
(Men, by contrast, only had to be in mourning for three months, and their mourning attire consisted of a black armband. They also did not have to retire from society. Typical.)
The house, too, will be decorated as though it's 1860 -- a few years before the house was actually completed -- and somebody in the family has just died. The DeMenils were a wealthy family, so they could afford to wear the mourning dresses, put out their special mourning china (the 27 pieces on display belong to Dieterle), drape their mirrors with crepe, weave the deceased's hair into pieces of jewelry or a decorative wreath to hang on the wall. Less well-off families dyed their clothes with tea and struggled to make do, particularly if the family breadwinner was the one who had died. Many widows, says Dieterle, had to resort to prostitution to feed their kids.
Since embalming didn't come into wide usage until the Civil War when the armed forces started shipping soldiers' bodies home, there will be no formaldehyde beside the coffin in the parlor. Instead, in 1860, undertakers used herbs and blocks of ice to keep the body from decomposing before the burial. (Fortunately, there will not be an actual dead body on hand, so you won't have to smell it.) It was also the custom for someone to sit up with the body for three nights running, just to make sure the deceased didn't wake up. Hence the term "wake."
Medicine, of course, was far less advanced in Victorian times. "There were lots of epidemics people didn't know the reason for," says Dieterle. "It was very rare for a family not to lose at least one child before the age of five. It was very scary times. I compare it to H1N1 a few years ago. It's the closest thing in our generation: an illness we weren't familiar with and didn't know how to treat." In 1860, doctors still used leeches for bloodletting, and those will be on display at the mansion on Sunday. Dieterle says that, in past years, they have proven quite popular.
Because death was so mysterious, it inspired a lot of superstition. The Victorians covered the mirrors not only because they considered it unseemly to worry about personal vanity in a sad time, but also because they believed that whoever looked in the mirror would be the next to die and that the spirit of the dead person might accidentally fly into the mirror instead of out a window and be trapped for all eternity.
But the Victorians also invested a lot of energy into trying to contact the dead. In that spirit, there will be a tarot card reader in the basement and two teams of ghost hunters in the attic, who will share the results of their paranormal investigations of the mansion. (On the evening of Thursday, October 20, DeMenil volunteers will share their own experiences with the mansion's ghosts.)
"For the Victorians, mourning was a very serious thing," says Dieterle. "The way people grieved then is not the way we grieve now. Now, if a family member dies, people think they have to snap out of it and get back to work. The Victorians took their time. They knew how to grieve."
"A Death in the Family" will be open on Sunday from noon till 5 p.m.; the mansion's cafe will be serving lunch until 3 p.m. (It's just regular food, not casseroles or cold cuts.) Admission is $10, and a tarot reading is $5. Proceeds will go toward the mansion's care and upkeep.
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