Death and Mourning Traditions of the 19th Century: A Tour of the Hermann-Grima House

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA-- Today is all saints day here in the big easy!  It's a time to reflect upon the life and legacy of loved ones who have gone on to greener pastures.  New Orleans has always had a very intimate relationship with death and one historic house in the French Quarter is inviting total strangers to the wake of a deceased individual.

"We're all gathered here to celebrate the passing of Madam Marie Grima.  She was Felix Grima's mother who died in 1850 on October 15th," says Megan Koza Mitchell.

The Hermann-Grima House presents tours throughout the year about the 19th century.  However, for the next month, their tour focuses on the start of death and mourning traditions in New Orleans.

Mitchell is the executive director of the house and studied historian.  She says, "we do seem to really revel in death here. It's in large part due to our combined heritage of catholicism and also West African and African traditions coming together especially in the creole culture as well."

The primary parlor displays visitors chairs and a coffin.

The children's rooms have black clothing laid out on the beds and children's dolls are dressed in black as well.

"You could actually buy doll clothes to dress your dolls in mourning attire in the 19th century," says Michell.

Death was big business in the city. Shops displayed coffins in the windows.  If you couldn't afford black clothing, you could rent mourning clothing.

The average funeral cost ranged from 10 bucks for a pine box and mule carriage ride to the cemetery to hundreds of dollars for a funeral that went above and beyond... or below and beyond, where the undertaker would come in and redecorate the house."

Widows not only had to deal with loss but also the loss of clothing options during their 18 month required mourning period.  Men only had six months.

Mitchell is glad traditions have changed since then saying, "the first year of which is called deep mourning. During that time women could only wear all black and no silk no taffeta. Fabric that could not reflect light. Once they came out of deep mourning they could start wearing hints of grey."

Mourning announcements and obituaries with the persons name, simply read "died," a stark difference from the elaborate obituaries of today.  And mourning announcements went out like party invitations.

"What made this really interesting is funeral going was almost like an extracurricular sport. You could have a lot complete strangers show up because they had read the funeral announcement," says Mitchell.

The mirrors and portraits were covered in black crepe to help transition the family to start using memory instead of visuals to reflect upon the dearly departed.

Death was a very large part of life in the 19th century.  Life expectancies were shorter and disease ran rampant.

However, death arguably is still a very large part of life in the poetic sense.

To quote Shakespeare: "thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die--
passing through nature to eternity."

If you want take the 19th century tour of Ms. Grima's wake and learn more, tours happen every hour from ten to four until November 21st.