Death Through the Ages: A Brief Overview - The Nineteenth Century
dying dead loved romantic
The beginning of the nineteenth century witnessed yet another shift in the attitude toward death and dying. This change was partly a holdover from late eighteenth-century Romanticism, and partly the result of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. New ideas ushered in by Enlightenment thinkers changed people's outlook about their families. People began to think less about their own deaths and more about the deaths of their loved ones.
Bonds between family members grew stronger and parents began the practice of naming their newborns. (Because the life expectancy of infants was short, children had previously seldom been given names at birth.) That, coupled with the romantic belief that families would reunite in the afterlife, meant that the death of a loved one, although still a cause for great sadness, was no longer considered such a dreaded event.
The Concept of Death in America
The Europeans who settled in the New World brought with them many beliefs about death and dying. Death was accepted as a harsh fact of life. Even as family and friends were dying, the survivors went on with their lives. In the 1800s many Americans continued the practice of not naming their infants at birth because, just as in Europe, infant mortality was high.
As it had been during the Romantic period (1795–1805), death was viewed as leading to another existence where the departed happily waited for the arrival of family and friends. Mourning was not so much for the dead, but for the indefinite length of separation until that final reunion. During this period, no mention was made of eternal rewards or of retribution, although the dying gave themselves gladly to God.
By the mid-nineteenth century, romantic solicitude for the deceased had taken on a new twist in America. In 1848 Maggie and Katie Fox of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a man murdered by a former tenant in their house. The practice of conducting "sittings" to contact the dead gained instant popularity. Mediums, such as the Fox sisters, were supposedly sensitive to "vibrations" from the disembodied souls that temporarily lived in that part of the spirit world just outside the earth's limits.
This was not the first time people had tried to communicate with the dead. Spiritualism has been practiced in cultures all over the world. For example, many Native Americans believe shamans (priests or medicine men) have the power to communicate with the spirits of the dead. The Old Testament (I Samuel 28:7–19) recounts the visit of King Saul to a medium at Endor who summoned the spirit of the prophet Samuel, which predicted the death of Saul and his sons.
The mood in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s was ripe for Spiritualist seances. Virtually everyone had lost a son, husband, or other loved one during the Civil War (1861–65). Some survivors wanted assurances that their loved ones were all right; others were simply curious about life after death. Those who had drifted away from traditional Christianity embraced this new Spiritualism, which claimed scientific proof of survival after physical death.