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Dover Post
  • Old Methodist Cemetery lantern tour sheds light on 19th century burial rituals

  • As tradition goes, it's always been a custom for Americans to wear black at funerals. Have you ever wondered why?
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  • As tradition goes, it's always been a custom for Americans to wear black at funerals.
    Have you ever wondered why?
    Historical interpreters will wind back the hands of time to the Victorian era where they'll discuss the origins behind many of our modern day burial rituals, as well as many of the unusual traditions that were practiced around that time during First State Heritage Park's annual Lantern Tours at the Old Methodist Cemetery in downtown Dover on Friday. Guests will meet at the Johnson Victrola Museum then walk as a group to the Old Methodist Cemetery.
    Considering a number of people own a camera phone, it's rare you'd find someone today who hasn't had their portrait taken at some point in their lifetime. Many people take this for granted these days, but not during Victorian times. Back then when a family had a child die young who never had their picture taken, the family − if it could afford it − would hire a photographer to practice a bizarre custom to keep the child's memory alive.
    "They would keep the body as preserved as possible and the entire family would gather around and take a photo with the deceased," said Sarah Zimmerman, programs coordinator and historic interpreter for First State Heritage Park.
    Next, modern day families look elegant while donning black at funerals, but folks weren't as trendy in the Victorian era. Back them people started wearing black because some believed "it helped you hide from death," Zimmerman said. "But the dyes they were using in the 19th century weren't nearly as effective as our modern dyes. So if it was hot, if it rained, you'd often have black dripping down your hands or your neck."
    And it gets worse. "Sometimes as a way to honor the dead, they would make jewelry out of the deceased person's hair, lockets bracelets and all sorts of things," Zimmerman said.
    What's more, it was even frowned upon for women to attend their husband's burial.
    "Widows were also very discouraged from attending their own spouse's funeral," Zimmerman said. "Their sensibilities were considered, too, delicate and they wouldn't be able to handle the strain of the pain. [However], men could attend [their wive's] funeral and they were actually expected to remarry very quickly, within weeks, especially if there were children involved." But women, of course, were forbidden to remarry as swiftly.
    One of the most unfortunate rituals from the Victorian Era were the expectations a community placed on families to throw a grand funeral for their loved ones, even if they couldn't afford it since a funeral back then "could actually bankrupt a family," Zimmerman said. "Even if they didn't have the money, they were still expected to follow social customs. They were still supposed to put on an elaborate feast. They were still supposed to include all the accruements that go along with it: all of the clothing, the monuments and the other things like that because it was really associated with how much you loved your loved one. And everyone would base how much you loved your family member on the ceremony you produced."
    Page 2 of 2 - Learn more during First State Heritage Park's lantern tour of Old Methodist Cemetery Friday night at 8:30 p.m.
    IF YOU GO
    WHAT Old Methodist Cemetery lantern tour
    WHEN 8:30 p.m., Friday
    WHERE Johnson Victrola Museum, 375 S. New St., Dover
    COST $5
    INFO Visit destateparks.com or call 744-5055
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