How We Say Goodbye: Funerary and Mortuary Practices in Stamford opened to the public on Friday, October 2, 2016 in the guise of an Irish Wake for Stamford’s former beloved leader Edward Duffy (d. 1919). Mr. Gerald Bosak, Jr., who contributed many artifacts to How We Say Goodbye, was the keynote speaker at the reception. The community is invited to visit the exhibit at 1508 High Ridge Road during our regular business hours. Suggested donation is $7 per person. The exhibit is open to visitors Thursday – Saturday, 11 – 4, through June of 2016.
How We Say Goodbye: Funerary and Mortuary Practices in Stamford, generously sponsored by Bosak Funeral Home, charts what is known of how Stamford treated the dear departed from the time of the first settlement to the present era. The exhibit includes gravestones, mourning dresses, fans, parasols, jewelry made of jet, jewelry using human hair, embalming equipment and many photos.
The first burials in Stamford were likely to have been marked with wooden graveposts or fieldstones, often with nothing carved into them other than perhaps initials or a date. The Society knows of no 17th century gravestones or furniture in existence for Stamford, although we can surmise practices resembled those in other communities of the same time period. The first burial ground was located in the center of town and served to link the community together. Between the first burials and about 1805 the majority of Stamford’s deceased were laid to rest in this cemetery. Then in 1805 the decision was made by the state to straighten the Post Road. The cemetery was in the path of the construction and had to be moved. Those stones surviving from the 18th century found today in the North Street cemetery were moved from their original resting place. A battle of wills ensued between outraged citizens who felt the deceased should have been left to rest in peace and the road construction crews. While the crews cleared the roadway during the day, gangs of citizen arrived during the night to block the way with boulders. Eventually the roadway went through. This explains why so few stones survive in Stamford prior to 1805. Little remains of this first era other than stones and stone fragments. Since Darien was part of Stamford until 1820 one can find the earliest 18th century stones erected for citizens of Stamford in situ in Darien at the Noroton River Cemetery on the Post Road just over the Darien border and at the Weed Cemetery on the shore of Holly Pond.
The bulk of the material of the exhibit dates to the 19th century, and especially to the later Victorian era. It was during this time that the cult of death spread across the United States from England. Large amounts of money were devoted to procuring fashionable mourning dresses and gowns with a host of accessories including fans, parasols and jewelry. It had been the practice even in the Colonial era to have locks of hair enclosed in lockets or rings to be kept and worn by the living as keepsakes in memory of their deceased kin. During the Victorian era, this practice continued and jewelry was also made from human hair. Women bore the brunt of the cult of death and many spent from months to years in funeral garb. The colors varied based on how long the women had been in mourning, starting with black and graduating to shades of purple, dark blue and brown.
Alongside the clothing, death inspired many decorative arts. In addition to the gravestones themselves, which in Colonial Times bore winged skulls, hourglasses and bones and later depicted a Neoclassical Willow/Urn pattern, embroidered and watercolor pieces were executed showing the grave and people in mourning. Such patterns could even be found on china tea sets specially created in memory of the deceased.
The professionalization of death into a funeral industry began in the Victorian era with the roots of the undertaker as a career. Related professions were monument makers and coffin builders. At the close of the Victorian era a shift occurred in peoples’ attitudes toward how the deceased should be handled. More people opted for a proper funeral in a funeral home and presided over by the funeral director who would coordinate all necessary activity and thus relieve the grieving family. No longer would the body be washed and laid out by the family at home. This change may be related to an increase in the use of hospitals – fewer people were dying at home. The practice of embalming also became more common after 1900. This practice had started around the time of the Civil War as the families of men killed on the battlefield wished the return of the remains. Embalming was a practice that went beyond the knowledge of the family taking care of the body at home and led to the increasing professionalization of death management. Embalming also lengthened the time between death and burial enabling far flung families to travel to attend the funerals of their loved ones.
The nature of how death is handled has changed greatly from Victorian Times. With the professionalization of the death industry the intimacy formerly existing between the family and the deceased has decreased. While people do still die at home, they are often quickly removed to the funeral home where all subsequent preparations are performed. The funeral itself continues to have an element of ceremony, but with the funeral director and religious official often working in tandem to provide for the needs of the grieving family. While people may wear dark colors to the funeral itself, they are quickly shed as life resumes its normal course. This transformation of the relationship between the living and the dead forms the core of the Society’s exhibit.