Home History A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes
Nineteenth Century England and America
In nineteenth century England and America, child death was a predominant theme in both literature and poetry. Some of the most popular works included: Stepping Heavenward (1869), The Empty Crib (1873), Agnes and the Key of Her Little Coffin (1857), Our Children in Heaven (1870), and Gates Ajar (1868). Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was written in response to the aftermath of the Civil War.
As noted above, poems served to educate parents in appropriate mourning in addition to providing consolation; they advised parents not to weep as the child was “now [thought to be] an angel”. In a poem written to a deceased child, Felicia Hemans explains that openly mourning and the use of funerary symbols were denied, even for a beloved child. “No bitter tears for thee.. .We rear no marble o’er thy tomb; No sculptured image there shall mourn”.25
Despite, the belief that expressions of grief should be tempered, colonial mothers (and indeed, mothers everywhere) insisted that it was biology, carrying the child for nine months and subsequently nursing for as many as three years, which entitled her to mourn. While in the above poem, Felicia Hemans advises steadfastness, she later says to her grieving sister in a letter “I can feel deeply for the sorrow you communicate to me; it is one which Heaven has yet graciously spared me; but the imagination.. .has often brought all the sufferings of that particular bereavement before me, with a vividness from which I have shrunk almost in foreboding terror. And I have too those sick and weary yearnings for the dead.”26
During the eighteenth century the Quakers in Philadelphia counseled parents to find consolation in resignation to “God’s will”. Mourning was a process through which the living “took stock of their own spiritual health” and prepared for their own death. While parents were also urged to keep “due distance” from infants in order to protect themselves from the grief that the child’s death would bring, parents, mothers in particular, found respite in a new form of consolation literature beyond the emotionally charged poetry that stemmed from this time. Lowry Wister, an eighteenth century Philadelphia mother, provided us with an example of consolation literature, likely meant to be private, in the form of a diaries and letters to her sister and children. Shortly after her three year old son’s unexpected death from small pox, Wister set out to describe the events and her attendant feelings about her young child’s demise. In her narrative Wister does not discuss the preparation of the body, burial or any other mourning rituals, which are often public. Instead, she only writes about the grief she experiences. But by expressing her grief and even questioning the doctor’s choice of treatment for her son, she is retaliating against the notion of resignation. By “textualizing her loss” she memorializes the bond she had with her son.27
By basis of comparison, Wister’s twenty year old daughter Sarah wrote a more typical example of consolation which was tinged with the concept of resignation: “in the full bloom of health and beauty it pleas’d the Lord of heaven to call him from a world of woe and misery in to the regions of happiness...” Contrasting this with Mrs. Wister’s remembrance of her son’s last words ‘‘mamy where is thee.’...[ these words] everlastingly engraven on my heart”, illustrates the private realm of a mother’s grief versus societal expectations. These writings helped to support new modes of allowing other women to similarly grieve.28
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