Humans have always been fascinated by death. In the western world, this fascination has taken many curious forms, especially in the past few centuries.
In her thought-provoking book, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, Deborah Lutz states: "The dead body's materiality held a certain enchantment for Victorians, a charmed ability to originate narrative. Bodies left behind traces of themselves, shreds that could then become material for memories. Such vestiges might be found in objects the body had touched as it advanced through existence: clothing worn, letters written, utensils handled... More concretely, the body itself or its parts functioned for the Victorians as mementos[.]"
One such body part was hair. There is a long history in European cultures of preserving hair as a keepsake of lost love, friendship, or affection, stretching back at least to the time of Charlemagne in the ninth century. This practice persisted throughout the centuries, reaching its peak during the second half of the 1800s. As just one example, Queen Victoria created at least eight pieces of jewelry with her late husband, Prince Albert's hair.
Hair mementos most often took the form of jewelry or wreaths, in part because hair is the most ornamental, the easiest to alter, and is "the relic that has the strongest relationship to moments of the past." This post focuses on the latter, hair wreaths, during the Victorian period. Hair wreaths acted as "repositories" for stories about the past, capturing the narrative of the body and displaying it for reading by the living. Victorian culture was heavily steeped in Romanticism and individualism, which gave death mementos a meaningful and tangible connection to a particular person. With hair wreaths, as with other death mementos, one need never feel that a loved - your loved one - was entirely gone; a piece of that person lived on not just in mind, but in the physical world as well. Mementos thus served a dual role of being both a link to times of happiness and togetherness, and also a small, physical piece of the deceased individual that could be carried until one's own death. This mental and physical connection, among other things, provided a sense of permanence for a society that was constantly reminded of the human body's fragility by accident and disease.
Despite being separated by an ocean, middle-class Canadian society was heavily influenced by Victorian culture, particularly when it came to death. The many surviving hair wreaths preserved by local museums across Canada are a testament to the way that Canadians likewise used death mementos as a means to preserve the memory of loved ones. Grimsby Museum, in the Niagara Region, has in its collection a hair wreath from the Merritt family, one of the region's earliest settler families with roots stretching back to Loyalist times. Not much is known about the wreath, save for a few details in the museum's catalogue. We know that the artifact was created in 1870 with blonde and brown hair from at least two members of the family. The hair was shaped into flowers and leaves with the use of wire, and someone unfamiliar with death wreaths viewing it for the first time could be forgiven for thinking it was used for some sort of celebratory purpose rather than as a death keepsake. Aside from these few facts, we are left with many unanswered questions. Where was this wreath kept in the family home? On prominent display, or hidden away for the occasional viewing, when a sight, sound, or smell made family members long for a tangible link to better times? Was it created to forever link two separated lovers, or as a means of family remembrance? Did they live a long and happy life, or were they one of the many young victims of hardship and disease that permeated nineteenth century life?
Although we will never know the answers to these questions, studying death mementos nonetheless brings the nineteenth century and its attitudes towards death into focus and causes us to ponder over our own views and ways of commemorating those we have lost. The recent rise of photography, both print and, more recently, digital, has altered the ways in which we interact with and commemorate death. Mourning photography does not capture the tactile feel of the body; it essentially distances us from the corporeal, tangible person we are mourning. Photos undoubtedly provide some form of consolation, but with photos, especially digital images, the person is out there, somewhere in the sea of our mind, while physical mementos give us the sense that the person is also still right here, in both our mind and our hand. Some may find Victorians' physical preservation of pieces of loved ones odd or even creepy, but in our increasingly digital age we stand to lose some sense of the physical that connects us with our inevitable mortality. The recent return of storefront space for physical books at the expense of digital reading devices, like the Kobo or Kindle, speaks to a continuing and perhaps universal need for tangible experiences. Just as books tell the story of past societies or fictional worlds, death mementos told the story of lives lived and the human experience as encapsulated by the one universally human event: death. They were, in their own way, the books that told of friendship, family, love, and ultimately, separation by the forces that still mystify us today.
This post was co-written with Adam Montgomery.
Thank you to the Grimsby Museum for providing information about the Merritt family hair wreath. And, a special thank you to Julie Bushey for assisting me with photographing it.
Deborah Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015),1.
Susan Smart, A Better Place: Death and Burlial in Ninteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011), chapter 3.
Dorothy Turcotte, People & Places from Grimsby's Past (Grimsby: Grimsby Historical Society, 1995), 150.