The Art of Mourning
A Philadelphia Museum Dedicated to the Ritual of Grief
Listen to Neda Ulaby's report.
Aug. 30, 2002 -- Built in 1990 and appropriately attached to a funeral home in a cemetery outside of Philadelphia, the Museum of Mourning Arts is devoted to the representation of grief in American and European culture. NPR's Neda Ulaby visited the museum in preparation for the upcoming expressions of mourning on Sept. 11.
Ulaby first viewed art from the Renaissance, a period characterized not only by music and beauty, but also by disease and devastation. "Death and art went hand in hand," reports Ulaby.
Acording to Anita Shorsch, head of the museum, mourning art achieved new popularity in America in 1799, when George Washington died. The country was filled with mourning kerchiefs, paintings, prints, and samplers.
More elaborate rituals developed in the Victorian era when the performance of grief and sorrow became an art in itself. Intricate jewelry and clothing were worn for long periods of time after the death of a loved one, sometimes until death for the mourner.
The museum houses many items involving human hair. "Dissolved hair and chopped hair and even sometimes long strands of hair would be incorporated because hair, since it survives time and decay, is used in rituals of love and loss the world over," explains Robin Jaffe Franke, an expert on the miniature portraits found on this type of jewelry.
Also included in the collections are a 400-year-old instruction book on how to get into heaven, mannequins draped in mourning clothes, and jewelry adorned with tiny pictures of skeletons, angels, and people long dead.
From her museum filled with items to help people cope with death, Shorsch's message to visitors is simple: live a good life.
More information about the Mourning Museum.
Robin Jaffe Franke, interviewed in this piece, is a curator at the Yale University Art Gallery, which has this online miniature exhibition.
The Museum of Funeral Customs in Illinois.
Albrecht Durer and the art of mourning.
A Web site devoted to the customs and rituals of mouring in the Victorian era.