The Ladies’ Comfort Station

oakgrovewaitingroom.jpg For many years, the small, tiled-roof building directly opposite to the office inside the main gate was used as a lavatory and lounge for the lady visitors to the cemetery, and a convenience during funerals for attendees.  Currently it is a break room for cemetery staff.   It once had the dubious distinction of being the space where the grisly autopsies of Abby and Andrew Borden took place under the eye of medical examiner, Dr. Dolan, city doctor J.H. Leary, Clerk of autopsy, D.E. Cone, and Dr. F.W. Draper of Boston who was called in by Attorney General Albert Pillsbury.

The stained glass lancet windows have been broken and are currently boarded up, but the original deep wainscotting, moldings, and lavatory tiles with a Greek key pattern are still intact.

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Click on thumbnails for enlargements of wainscotting and tile

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Holding Tombs

Long before the backhoe, the six-foot deep hole for the coffin had to be dug by hand with pickaxe and shovel.  In the nineteenth century, during the iron cold winters in New England, sometimes it was necessary to store the coffin until the January thaw or Spring when the frost was out of the ground.  There are several of these Egyptian Revival style holding tombs which were built into hills or mounds, each containing shelving on either side of the interior to hold 6-8 coffins.  Today this particular tomb houses lawn mowing equipment.  This holding tomb, which is at the west side of the cemetery near the main entrance, housed the two coffins of Abby and Andrew Borden for a week while city medical examiner, Dr. Dolan, arranged for a complete autopsy on the bodies to be held at Oak Grove in the Ladies Comfort Station.  It was there that the two skulls were removed and held for trial evidence on August 11, 1892.

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Zinc Monuments

One type of monument especially popular from the Civil War through 1900 is the white bronze or zinc monument.   White bronze is a misnomer, for the monument is not made of bronze, but rather zinc or more rarely, iron.  The final patina is whitish to pale blue to darker blue, and the great benefit of this type of monument is that the embossed metal panels and ornaments hold epitaphs and images in sharp relief for a very long time. They seem to take the weather, moss and lichen growth and acid rain exceptionally well.  The only drawback is that attached elements, such as a top urn, can be easily snapped off, and seams, especially at the base, can separate.  With the proper method of repair, however, this is not much of a problem, but trouble results when concrete is used as a filler.  The zinc monument offers a good crisp image for monument rubbing using rice paper and soft heelball wax. For more information on zinc monuments, visit these two links below.  Oak Grove has many beautiful examples of this monument type.

http://www.si.edu/mci/english/research/conservation/zinc_sculptures.html

http://www.tngenweb.org/darkside/white.html

The Funeral Card

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Victorians liked keepsakes of all kinds.  The idea of some sort of printed memorial which could be tucked into family Bibles, placed on mantels in the parlor, and kept for the future generations found great favor in the nineteenth century. The custom of funeral cards is still observed today although the size and intricacy of the funeral card has changed.  Today we often find the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, or a contemporary poem along with the deceased’s dates, name and age.  The Victorian and early twentieth century cards were on very heavy stock and featured the symbolism Victorians understood, such as the opening gate, cross and crown, dove of the spirit, laurel wreath etc.  Suitable mourning poetry was nearly always included below the name and dates of the departed Loved One. Early cards were generally in either black or white with gold or silver lettering.  (Examples from the blogger’s collection).

 

 

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Postmortem Photography

Today’s culture is one of everlasting youth and denial of mortality. For us, postmortem photography may seem distasteful and unsettling.  The Victorians, however, were no strangers to death- and death among the very young was an every day occurence. 

The Victorian parlor became the memorial space to display mementoes of every single life, no matter how brief, and great love and care went into arranging the deceased as beautifully as could be done for these photographs.  Many appear to be merely sleeping peacefully. Photographs of children and infants were particularly heart-wrenching, as some grieving mothers tenderly held their little ones for the first and last time in these images. 

These cabinet photographs were framed and displayed on mantels and parlor tables throughout the years, just as if the images recorded there were still part of the family. Smaller portraits were given out to mourning family members to be worn in lockets, often with a curl of hair.  Hair jewelry became an art form of intricate workmanship by loving hands which has never seen an equal since the nineteenth century. 

The Dead were gone- but never forgotten in the hearts of their families.  Every life mattered very much, and its loss felt and remembered forever.

our-darling.jpg  “Our Darling”

Coffins and Caskets

Although these two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a coffin and a casket.  A proper coffin is wider at the shoulder and tapers toward the feet.  This was felt to be a prudent saving of costly wood as there was no need for width all the way to the bottom.  This style is still to be found in Europe today. Coffins were sometimes very simple pine boxes, unlined and unadorned. Fancier models were lined, had a coffin plate of brass or silver with the deceased’s name and dates and sometimes a sentiment such as “Our Darling” or “Beloved Wife”, and had three metal handles on each side for the six pallbearers to grasp on the way to the grave. Graves were sometimes lined with fir branches, and after the coffin was lowered, bricked over to discourage graverobbers or other disturbance.  It was not unusual for cabinet or furniture makers to do a brisk side trade in coffin making.

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Lizzie Borden’s father, Andrew J. Borden, was a carpenter by training before branching out into farming and real estate, and although not a mortician, he did build coffins and was an “undertaker” in the sense of providing items needed for a funeral such as chairs, coffin stands, conveyance to the grave, and other incidentals. A newspaper article tells of Mr. Borden displaying a prominent Civil War casualty in the arcade window complete with bunting in the storefront  of the furniture business he owned with partner William Almy, so as more citizens could view the body and pay their repects in a time before the rise of the conventional funeral “parlor”. 

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Embalming became a necessity in transporting Civil War dead from a distance back home again, but before those times, the dead were usually quickly buried and not embalmed.  For this reason, in their haste, errors were made and those in comas or showing signs of death were mistakenly buried alive.  Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story of this unsettling possibility in his 1850 story, The Premature Burial.  Many patented safety coffins were invented to prevent this by means of a bell rope tied to the hand of the buried person which would communicate with the living by means of a bell above the ground.  Sometimes a flag could be raised, or even explosives ignited by the unfortunate Undead.

Exhumations over the years have proven that premature burial did indeed take place, however the expressions “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” do NOT come from this situation. “Saved by the bell” has its origins in the boxing ring, and “dead ringer” refers to substituting a look-alike for the genuine.

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A casket originally referred to a small chest for storing and carrying jewels or precious objects.  A casket is a rectangular container of the same width from top to bottom.  It is generally padded and lined, and goes into the ground after the grave has been lined with a vault. Today cemeteries still use concrete vaults or the new resin “grave liners” which also have sealed lids. Caskets usually open at the top so the head and shoulders of the deceased may be viewed at the wake, and have the customary three handles on each side for pallbearers.

For more information on Victorian safety coffins, click on the following link for an excellent article  http://www.americanartifacts.com/smma/life/life.htm

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Victoria mourns the Prince Consort

 

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The Prince Albert Memorial in London

With the death of Albert, Queen Victoria set a trend for deep mourning rituals and rules which would dictate the standards on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.  The inconsolable widow declared she was ready to join her beloved spouse in days after his demise due to typhoid fever, but she lived on another 44 years, building memorials to her idolized husband all over England.

Queen Victoria circa 1900