The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Death, Skeletons, and Fashion: New Exhibition and Book on the Jewelry of Mourning

How do you remember your deceased loved ones? Today many mourners have unique rituals for honoring the dead. Some brand their bodies with tattoos, or print photographs of the departed on T-shirts they can wear. In other cultures the more traditional outward displays of grief persist, such as donning black clothing for a period of time after the death.

Trends in mourning rituals and attire change with the times, and centuries ago the bereaved had their own ways of commemorating loved ones. In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, an upcoming exhibition at the MHS by jeweler Sarah Nehama and MHS Curator of Art Anne Bentley, examines the practice from the 17th through the 19th century of commissioning and wearing rings, bracelets, brooches, and other jewels to honor the dead.

The exhibition features mourning jewels and memento mori pieces. The former memorialize a family member or close friend who recently died. Examples in the exhibition feature inscriptions with the dead’s initials and date of death, hair work made from the locks of the deceased, and miniatures and daguerreotypes depicting the visage of the loved one. Memento mori pieces, however, do not remember a specific person, but rather serve to remind the wearer that a good Christian does not live for this world but for the next. Memento mori translates to “remember death."

Co-curator Sarah Nehama authored a companion book to the exhibition of the same name. In Death Lamented, now available for purchase on Amazon, displays vivid color photographs of the jewels, along with detailed information about the pieces, the mourners, and the mourned. It also examines the changing trends in memorial jewelry style, from baroque to rococo to neoclassical, and beyond.

Both the exhibition and book feature jewels commemorating prominent historical figures, including George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Abraham Lincoln. View these and other mourning jewels at the MHS exhibition beginning September 28, or preview the jewelry now by purchasing a copy of In Death Lamented. Also, check our events page for upcoming public programs related to mourning jewelry. You just might learn a little about the origins of your own bereavement traditions.

permalink | Published: Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 4:48 PM


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