Friday, May 26, 2017

Aberdeen: Death and Mourning

The Maritime Museum in Aberdeen, Scotland, is hosting a series of five exhibitions while the Art Museum is temporarily closed. The current one is called "Kiss of Death: Death and Mourning in the Victorian Era." It is anchored by the fanciful bonnet by Jo Gordon (left), the feathers of which simultaneously hide the wearer's face in her grief and project it outward into the public sphere. It cunningly captures the materialistic and highly ritualistic [ideal of] Victorian mourning. The whole concept is named, of course, for Queen Victoria's prolonged mourning for her husband of 21 years, Prince Albert, who was inconsiderate enough to die of typhoid fever (or was it Crohn's Disease?) less than two weeks before Christmas 1861.

(This is an excellent article on the historical importance of Albert's death.)

Of course the mourners had to wear black--shiny black for "full" or "deep" mourning, dull black later on, and shades of purple and even white in "half" mourning. One whole case contained black jewelry at various price points, from jet (actually hardened coal) and onyx through black glass, enamel, and bog wood on down to vulcanite (a hardened rubber). There were two other contemporary art pieces in the exhibition; one of them was a time-lapse video of a performance artist wearing a black crepe dress and weeping while a hidden hose soaked her with water. This made the dye run from the fabric onto the white floor. By the end of the mournful tune playing over the images, the top of the dress was gray and the puddle an inky black at her feet. If a woman cried (or sweated) while wearing crepe, this symbol of public mourning would mark her skin, so she was reminded of it in private as well.

The other contemporary art piece is the one to the right--a curved mirror with pink, tan, and black blobs representing the ectoplasm that might haunt a seance. It reminded me of the review I did of Heather Wolffram's 2009 book, The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939 for the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. They also had examples of "ghost photography" on display, as well as funeral announcements.

How fitting that while we were in this exhibition, the museum called for a minute of silence to remember the 22 victims of the bombing in Manchester.

Death was all around us in Aberdeen. There's a big bronze sarcophagus commemorating a bishop connected with the University standing on its grounds. We wandered among the tombstones in one old church yard on our way back from the beach on Thursday. Dear Husband walked through another on Friday after attending a choir concert at St. Machar's. Many of them are made of granite, as that stone was mined for building in nearby quarries and gives Aberdeen its nickname of "The Granite City." I snapped the picture to the left while on our way to catch the bus to the airport Sunday morning: we couldn't figure out if that was a granite mushroom that had sprouted among the other memorials or some kind of decorative finial that had fallen off. I'll close with a more somber example: the story told by the headstone below right.

Under the Christian insignia "IHS" (IHSOUS, Greek for "Jesus" in Latin letters), it is dedicated
"To the Memory of Elizabeth Deborah, Wife of John Paton of Grandholm, and youngest Daughter of Thomas Burnett Advocate: died 24th Feb.y 1860, aged 37 years. And of their Child, Elizabeth Bertha, died 11th June 1861, aged 16 months. Also the above John Paton, of Grandholm, who died August the 27th 1879, aged 61 years. His Widow Katherine Margaret died 26th Feb.y 1919, aged 87 years."
The font for the wife and daughter are of the same size, so they must have been done at the same time. Perhaps Elizabeth Deborah was buried with a simple stone, and then when Elizabeth Bertha died too, John decided to purchase a larger one. Because his father in law is mentioned, Thomas B. A. must have contributed some money. Little E. B. was just 16 months old when she died in June, perhaps of polio, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, or even small pox. Her mother E. D. must have died in childbirth, although at 37 it was unlikely her first. Maybe she caught "puerperal fever" from the midwife's dirty hands, or maybe at an "advanced maternal age" she developed high blood pressure and eclampsia. Smaller type records the dead of John at the relatively young age of 61. Fourteen years his junior, his second wife outlived him by forty years. She must have raised the older children well, as I imagine one of them took care to add her name and dates to this record of their family. Gone, but not forgotten.

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