Friday, October 17, 2008

Museum of Mourning Art

Undoubtedly, at least once in your life, you sat in your car at an intersection and waited for a long funeral procession to pass. You may have thought, wow, this person must have really been important or was very popular. Recently, large numbers of mourners have gathered together to honor the “last ride” of a soldier who was killed in the mid-eastern wars. However, none of these reasons apply to funeral gatherings which occurred centuries ago. In those days, more mourners meant more prayers beseeching God to save the deceased from Fire and Damnation or Hell, at least according to my tour guide, Elizabeth, at The Museum for Mourning Art.

The museum is located on the grounds of Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, just southwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where a branch of my Russell Sept (family) are also buried. Years ago I requested and received by mail mortuary records for Thomas William Russell, Junior, his wife, the former Mary Edna Ashton, and some of their family who are buried at Drexel Hill. In the return mail was a card from a docent at the Museum. I thought then that I had two reasons to visit Arlington Cemetery: To document the Russell tombstones and to tour this unique museum. I thought with a sort of morbid curiosity what kind of art can be found in dying, death and mourning? I found plenty.

Image: The entrance to Arlington Cemetery, Drexel Hill, PA, includes stone pillars and steel gates. Posters advertise the "Unknown tourist attraction" of the The Museum of Mourning Art, and a website, but wait, read on first.

The cemetery office, a chapel, and The Museum of Mourning Art are housed in a building which is a replica of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon in Virginia. I was told that it was the death of George Washington, our first President who was beloved by all Americans, which started the creation of Mourning Art and its collection. Inside the museum is a trinket in which a lock of former President Washington's grey hair can be seen.

By coincidence, a few days before I visited the offices of the Toppitzer Funeral Home in PA, I toured the real George Washington's home in Mount Vernon. Yes, they do look alike. I visited Mount Vernon with a mission in mind which I will blog about at a latter time.

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take photographs inside the Museum of Mourning Art, but images do appear on the Museum's informative website (see links at bottom). I did not catch her full name, but a lady named Mrs. Schorsch began years ago to put together this collection of mourning items. I intend to research more information on these items on the Internet. But for starters, I saw and learned a little about:

  • Emblem books- profusely illustrated books about death and dying.
  • Hatchments- diamond-shaped panels, similar to coats of arms, which would be placed on the coffin or horse-drawn hearse; they would give a quick identification of the person inside.
  • A vintage horse-drawn hearse, circa 1890. The driver wore a top hat of felt (matted animal fur) with a black-colored silk band around the brim the width of which symbolized the importance of the deceased. The Toppitzer funeral home owns a replica of the hearse which can be rented for funerals.
  • Funeral Invitations- recall that more mourners meant more prayers for the deceased.
  • Mourning clothes- mostly plain, unadorned, and of course, black-colored. However, more and more frills were added with time and additional colors of clothing, mostly white, were allowed as the family member gradually withdrew from mourning.
  • A dire painting by Albrecht Durer aptly titled “Melancholy”, painted with much symbolism of mourning. For example the woman in the portrait is holding a compass. Sometimes, the one who has passed away had previously been like a compass for the suvivor, who now finds herself direction-less in her lonely world. In the upper right-hand corner is a bell the tolling of which accounced the death of an individual. Note also the hourglass which has run out of sand.
  • Mourning jewelry- Rings, necklaces, bracelets, pendants, broaches, “sliders” (oval medallions which slid onto ribbons), and other items of jewelry. I was particularly impressed by images of the deceased or scenes from their life which were made from the person’s own delicate hair.
  • A coffin, made circa 1610, with a glass window at the head just so you could be quite sure that the deceased person inside was actually who you thought it was.


1. I usually put links at the end of my blog, because I don't want readers to run off looking at other sites until they have had a few minutes to see what's here. So now, you should go to the web site for the Museum of Mourning Art which is included as a sub-site for the Toppitzer Funeral Home. There you will find a virtual tour of the museum and stories of the famous who are buried in the surrounding cemetery. Sorry, my Russell's are not in the famous group. Also, there are life stories of beloved persons who have been memorialized on videos. This would be an excellent way of preserving family histories.

2. Gallery of art by Albrecht Durer including his work, "Melancholy"


Anonymous said...

I like the pictures Papaw!
I liked the one of the trees.

Bob Kramp said...

Hi Emma, I believe you were commenting about my previous entry. No matter. I'm very glad that you stopped by to see what Papaw is up to, and by the way, you might learn a little about your ancestors who brought you to where you are today. Love, Papaw.

Linda in Lancaster said...

I think this warrants a day trip from Lancaster! I want to see this place!
Thanks for the blog on it!