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Week of December 12, 2011

Exhibit examines death customs of early America

George Washington on his deathbed announced, “Don’t let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead... Do you understand me?” expressing a common fear of being buried alive.

Handwritten first person accounts of the deaths of U.S. Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are among the items on display in the current exhibit “So Once Were We”: Death in Early America, presented from 1-4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday through Feb. 17 in the Great Hall of the William L. Clements Library.

The exhibit explores customs surrounding the human experience of death in America, from the settling of the New World through the early 20th century. Mourning practices, post-mortem care, etiquette, fashion and commemoration of the dead are examined.

The exhibit’s title comes from a partial line in a common epitaph, explains exhibit curator Cheney Schopieray. A variation, inscribed on a Civil War-era tombstone in St. Clair County, Alabama, reads: “Remember us, as you pass by/as you are now, so once were we.”

“The title embodies several themes in the exhibit: the transatlantic movement of ideas and traditions, the universal experience of death, and personal and collective remembrance,” Schopieray says.

The Mapes ambulance hearse parked in front of the Clarence E. Mapes furniture store and funeral parlor in Durand, Mich., circa 1903-1930, is included in the exhibit “So Once Were We”: Death in Early America. It is presented at the William L. Clements Library through Feb. 17. Photo courtesy William L. Clements Library.

Much of the exhibit focuses on the 19th century. It was a time when small pox, yellow fever and cholera epidemics decimated populations within cities. Schopieray got the idea for the exhibit while examining manuscript collections of the time. “Death seemed to permeate everyday discourse, in letters sent from one family member to another, private journals and commemorative products” he says.

Following the advent of photography in the 1830s, it became popular to mourn those who recently had died by taking a post-mortem photo. “Many people, especially children, had no photograph taken of them while living,” Schopieray says. The dead were often photographed in lifelike poses, as though they were sleeping peacefully. One exhibit photo shows a dead child propped into a sitting position and surrounded by favorite toys.

Beyond preserving memories of the dead through photography, interest in preserving bodies by embalming grew during the Civil War. “You have massive numbers of Americans dying a long way from home and family members wishing to preserve their loved ones in order to transport them back to their hometowns,” Schopieray says.

But it was the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 that helped popularize embalming with the general public. “His body needed to be taken from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, by train, so they wanted his corpse to last. Lincoln’s embalming and numerous public viewings of his body helped advertise the procedure and facilitate its acceptance,” Schopieray says.

One display includes the Besson & Son of Philadelphia Mourning Catalogue from 1856, which advertises mourning clothes for women, to be worn for socially acceptable time periods: For a husband, one year and a day to life; for a child, six-12 months; for a cousin, six weeks.

A drawing presented in 1871 to the United States Patent Office shows Theodore Schroeder and Hermann Wuests’ “life detector for coffins.” It sought to prevent premature burial by allowing the user to pull a chain, which would ring a bell and open a latch allowing air into the coffin. Other material in the exhibit includes 16th and 17th century European accounts of Native American death practices, photographs and objects related to the history of the funeral industry, and items pertaining to funerals, burials and cemeteries.



Karl Daubmann, associate professor of architecture at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, on what inspires him:  "Objects where the design adds value and negotiates multiple requirements that far exceed the intended function."


UNStill Life Acrylic Paintings by Joyce Lieberman, through Feb. 6, Gifts of Art Gallery, University Hospital

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