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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Love and Death

There is no end to the ways we humans express our love. Be it a violent passion or a quieter flame, we each struggle for ways to show that special person, and the world, how we feel.

In Georgian times, when love was perhaps more frequently found outside of marriage than in it, unabashed sentimentality is apparent in the keepsakes that were created. Aside from the engraved gold bands that, as we use them today, symbolize marriage, our Georgian’s ancestors were incredibly inventive.

Miniatures, painted on ivory or vellum, were very popular from the early 1760’s. Portraits featuring remarkable detail were often set in gold frames, or worn as jewelry. Depending on the importance and wealth of both parties they might be set with diamonds, pearls or gemstones. But can you imagine wearing your partners face on you finger? While I do adore my hubby I think that might be a bit much for me. [Oops hubby just read this and very heartily disagreed. LOL.]

The more disturbing variation, at least to me, of the full portrait was the “lover’s eye” miniature portrait (above right). In 1786 the Prince of Wales paid five guineas for eye miniatures of himself and Mrs. Fitzherbert which were encased in gold lockets. Before his death in 1830, the then King insisted that he be buried with her portrait around his neck. Given that they were no longer “together” at the time I find that so endearing. However, the invention of photography and its increasing popularity put an end to much of the interest in miniature portraits beyond the 1830’s.

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” ~ Jack Lemon.

Wearing mourning jewelry was a way for the bereaved to hold onto the memory of their loved ones after death. Lovers, friends, and relations could still wear the miniature portraits of the deceased, but what else could be worn?

This memorial urn ring (below) is a fantastic example. The smooth, flat back is really a glass covered locket and although this particular one is without any contents, I imagine a loved ones hair might have been placed there.

Some mourning jewelry is sad and heartbreaking, especially where the inscriptions indicate a young person’s death. Mourning broaches featuring urns, broken columns, fallen trees, and distant ships are common imagery.

The fashion of keeping a lock of hair belonging to a loved one has been around a long time. And although often seen as mourning keepsakes alone, many kept these mementos as tokens of love and friendship, as would be the case with children’s hair. I know I have a lock from the first haircut my children ever had tucked away in a drawer. But locks of hair they could also be kept to record sexual prowess, somewhat like cutting notches on a belt. According to diarist Charles Grenville, who quotes that the Duke of Wellington found King George IV had kept a ‘prodigious amount of hair – of all colours and lengths’ as souvenirs from his lovers. What a startling discovery that must have been.
The business of arranging mourning jewelry was often decided before death. Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford died in 1745 and left seventy two rings for his mourners. Samuel Pepys, famous for his published diary from the end of the 17th Century, left one hundred and twenty three.

The expression of love and mourning for loved ones has changed over the years. What was common in my grandparents’ time is far different from how modern love and death is dealt with lately. These days, apart from the actual burial site, a death can spur a facebook page where mourners can gather to post their thoughts or remembrances from now until the internet age ends. Just down the road is a street-side shrine where a young girl was tragically killed and quite often I see her family and friends gather to change the flowers.

So, I’m touching wood as I write this. I’m just a wee bit superstitious, you see. How you would want your family to remember you? Would something like jewelry be for you or (for the technically minded) would a facebook page be ok? How would you remember the love of your life if they were taken from you?

All photos courtesy of The Three Graces


  1. Fascinating post, Heather! The lover's eye is totally creepy, though! LOL!

    I hate to be morbid, so I'm not going to answer your questions :) But I will tell you about my dad's ex-girlfriend who keeps a jar of her deceased dog's fur in her nightstand. She pulls it out to show guests when they come over. LOL!

    And this is one of my favorite stories that my dad always likes to quote...

    Roy Rogers’ son, Dusty, once said of his father. “Trigger died and Dad had him stuffed. Bullet died and Dad had him stuffed. Buttermilk died and Dad had her stuffed. Now Mom sleeps with one eye open!”

  2. It is so interesting how mourning practices have changed over the years. These days, nearly anything is acceptable. It's just a given that everyone grieves in a different way, so why not remember our loved ones in unique ways, too? I'm actually working on an art piece using my grandpa's old handkerchiefs to hang on the wall in my house. It might not have any meaning for anyone else, but it will have meaning for my family.

  3. Interesting post! My father's casket had a special drawer where members of the family could put something small in it to remember him. I put a newly minted penny in because he called me his 'shiny penny'. My son put a wood peg from a chair that they built together. Someone else included a wrapped peppermint candy since he always had one around.
    Me? My friends will probably bring teabags and leave them piled on top of my grave.

  4. When my Papa died, I took all of the polo shirts he had worn for all those years, and made a full quilt out of them. He was a veteran and very patriotic, so the whole thing was red,white, and blue. I gave it to my mother, and she was so moved she couldn't speak.

    I have always found the hair jewelry fascinating. It is kind of creepy to me, but it is amazing how beautiful the pieces can be.

    Very interesting post, Heather!

  5. Wow what a fascinating post, Heather. If the only people who ever remember me are my children, I'll be happy. Hubby and I have decided that whoever "goes" first will be cremated and buried with the other one so that we can always be together, even in death. And whatever way they choose to remember me is all right with me. I know it'll be special.

    I have to agree with Jerrica though the lover's eye is very creepy LOL.

  6. Heather,

    Interesting topic.There are several neat ways to honor our loved ones who've passed before us.

    I've heard of some people taking a favorite old shirt or robe and having a stuffed animal made from it. (I'm not really into stuffed animals, but some people are.)

    I like the idea of a memory garden or living memorial.

    There's a family I know that has an annual pool tournament in memory of their loved one. It's a fun time for friends and family to gather and to remember the joy he brought to their lives.

    And lastly, I like the idea of having a life celebration gathering while the person is still alive. It allows people the opportunity to tell the person how much they've meant in their lives.

    We will always hurt when we lose someone dear to our hearts. This is one of the biggest risks of loving another, but the alternative to never knowing love makes for a bleak existence.

  7. Heather,

    You always have the most interesting posts revolving jewelry. I always learn something from you!

  8. What an interesting topic. I don't wear jewelry or carry around pictures much, but it's fascinating to see what others have done throughout history.

  9. Sorry for commenting late - I have a rotten cold.

    Jerrica - Ew pet hair? But I totally love your dad. Great story!

    Catherine - The hanky art sounds like a great idea. There have been mountains of handkerchiefs found amoung my relatives things. :o)

    Mary - So big tea drinker huh? My kinda gal!

    Erin - the quilt would have cracked me up too ... no, not going to think about that too long. Tears forming.

    Melissa - both sets of my grandparents are buried together. I think its so lovely they wanted eternity to be together too.

    Samantha - you are so right about the way we remember.

    It never occured to me when I wrote this but I remember my grandparents in two different ways. My grandfather is buried with my nanna, who I don't remember, and the grave is about half an hour down the road. I go there quite often to talk.

    My other grandparents are buried about five hours away and I haven't gone back to the grave. But beside my bed is a little framed picture of them. They were actually goofing off for me while I took the shot - only their pet dog was behaving at the time. It occured to me this morning that that picture has been beside my bed for almost 30 years. :o)

    Lydia and Clarrissa - I hope you enjoyed the post.