History is Present

Not Alone in History: How are You Mourning?

A print of a group of women of various ages burying a covered body. A black man with a shovel stands at the foot of the body. One woman is at the head of the head of the body looking up reciting a passage of the Bible.

Not Alone in History is a limited blog series that seeks to find insights in the ways that Americans faced another national crisis as we confront the present pandemic.

I held dad’s hand when he died. Mom gave him a long final embrace, and a kiss.

These rituals comforted us, the living, and perhaps the dying. We let dad know that he was not alone, was grieved, and loved before, during, and after his passing… and never forgotten.

Whether that did him any good can’t be known, but it was everything to us and essential to processing our loss.

That was twelve years ago.

Too many people today are denied that comfort. Because of social distancing guidelines, officials discourage hand holding, kissing, and hugging at the bedside of a dying person. In many places, families are kept apart entirely from a passing loved one. Kept apart from funerals, too.  

It’s heartbreaking.

It also calls to mind the experience of death during the American Civil War. Social distance of six feet now pales against the hundreds of miles that separated families from their dying loved ones. It proved traumatic, and transformational.

Prior to the Civil War, affecting bedside death scenes and funerals in homes had been a new thing. Formerly, Colonial Americans viewed death as a sign of sin and human corruption. The survivors modestly mourned and dispatched the body quickly and with little ceremony to the ground.

But the Romantic wave overcame Americans in the 1800s. This cultural style encouraged religious and emotional displays as a way of comforting the living, and the dying. Deathbed testimonials took center stage: the dying confessed their spiritual contentment and readiness to be in heaven. The soundness of this good death reassured survivors. This, followed by extended funerals in the home, allowed them to publicly share their grief.

Taylor on his death bed, in the White House, July, 1850. Surrounded by his wife, two children, and a group of ten other men.
“Death of Genl. Z. Taylor” by N. Currier, 1850
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

It all gave meaning to the processing of death, and of grief.

But how does that happen when the loved one is destroyed on a battlefield or fading in delirium in a hospital bed, all so far from home?

civilians gawking at dead and wounded soldiers strewn across the battlefield.
Maryland Farmers at Antietam (detail), Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, October 18, 1862.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Civil War soldiers specialized in crafting letters to widows with eyewitness accounts of the ways their men died: either happily resigned and comfortable in his faith, or so engrossed in battlefield bravery that they didn’t even realize the fatal blow.

Additional information about the deceased having been attended by friends and buried in a marked grave gave further comforted those at home.  

Photograph shows Dr. Richard Burr, an embalming surgeon in the Army of the James demonstrating the procedure on a dead soldier.
“Enbalming Surgeon at Work” (detail), Brady’s National Photographic Galleries, 1863.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

But death on this scale—upwards to three quarters of a million men—became a massive logistical problem. Entrepreneurs stepped up, and became specialists in providing air-tight coffins, deodorizers, refrigeration, and transportation. Best known is the spectacular rise in embalming services. With all these, families could still experience funerary rituals with a life-like body weeks after death.

In managing mass death and mass grief, Americans transformed the meaning and the business of dying. Sorrow over fallen soldiers on the battlefield took on patriotic overtones for both northerners and southerners. A death did not mean just a loss for the family, but a sacrifice for the nation. Most Americans knew someone who had died, so most personal grief became a way to share in nationhood.

A print of a group of women of various ages burying a covered body. A black man with a shovel stands at the foot of the body. One woman is at the head of the head of the body looking up reciting a passage of the Bible.
Burial of Latane
Courtesy of the American Civil War Museum.

The sheer logistics of preserving and transporting bodies also gave rise to the funeral industry, and public funerary rites as an essential commercial commodity and a cornerstone of the 20th Century American culture of death and mourning.

COVID-19 may be simply impacting the logistics of an industry in certain hard hit cities. The disease could also be transforming the ways that Americans experience death and mourning.

“It’s hard to find a new ritual and give it meaning,” a death counselor told a Vox reporter, “This isn’t about thinking outside the box, it’s about creating a whole new box—and that’s hard when we’re anxious and fearful.” 

If we are creating new rituals, they would be new to us, but we’re not alone in history.