View Full Version : Explaining Death to Children in the 1860s

Linda Trent
10-30-2006, 09:11 PM
Death was a frequent thing in the 1860s, and it got me to wondering -- we talk about mourning all the time, but how did people deal with explaining to say 3 or 4 year old children why papa isn't going to be coming to their call anymore?

I'm looking for primary source documentation rather than a modern discussion here. There ought to be something out there that talks about how a parent or relative explained why papa's leaving us and we can't go with him.


10-30-2006, 09:32 PM
I don't see how it would really be any different today that it was in 1860. When my aunt died my then 2 1/2 year old cousins kept asking where Aunt Carol was. The only thing we could get them to understand was that she went away and wasn't coming back. I don't know if how she died was ever brought up with them. At the time it worked, the kids were not unduly upset or burdended with information they were not yet old enough to understand )i.e. cancer, hospice care, the fact that she died in the house they were now standing in). Now, I don't know if questions came up down the line or not. I think the only difference would be that in 1860 it would have happened a little more often. Say to the point where you might mention that so and so died and the child would connect that as them going away or going to be an angel or something.
I think a better question overall would not be the specific incident of a death in the family. Rather how they would view death in general. Afterall, it would have been a larger part of their life as they saw family members and friends died more commonly than they do today and dead animals were delivered to the door to be dinner as opposed to sitting prepacked in the grocery store. I think the reaction to a death in the family would be the same for any century, whereas the way of learning about death changes as society changes.

10-30-2006, 10:00 PM
I was just reading about death in general last night in Intro to Civil War Civilians. That book talks about how today, death is more or less a "taboo" subject but talking about sex is commonplace. In the 1860s, it was the opposite: sex was very much a taboo subject and death was talked about openly. Even young children were prepared to face the death of a loved one, sometimes long ahead of time. Also, and this is just a thought that I have personally, I think it's easier to explain death to a child when you can say that the person has gone to heaven or has gone to be with God. In other words, religion was a much bigger part of the lives of the majority of people in the 1860s, and I think that makes it easier to explain death to a youngster.

10-31-2006, 10:35 AM
Death was a frequent thing in the 1860s, and it got me to wondering -- we talk about mourning all the time, but how did people deal with explaining to say 3 or 4 year old children why papa isn't going to be coming to their call anymore?

Given the high death rate of children back then, it would also be interesting to hear how death of a sibling was explained to a young child.

Linda Trent
10-31-2006, 11:28 AM
Given the high death rate of children back then, it would also be interesting to hear how death of a sibling was explained to a young child.

First, let me clarify that this isn't something I'm planning on doing at an event with a real child, this is a project that I'm working on independent of the hobby and real children.

Yes, my real question is about a family where the father was 56 years old and suddenly contracted pneumonia and was dying. He had a wife, a daughter age 12 from his first marriage, and a step-daughter age 3 1/2 years, he's on his second marriage with a son age 2 1/2, and twin children age 1 year.

The going on 3 and 4 year olds are daddy's little pets who prefered papa
over mama when they get scared or wanted a parent (not that mama was mean or anything, just that they prefered papa). Just like I was always a daddy's girl growing up. :-)

While I agree that the 19th century world had death a lot more than we do today, the younger children (3 1/2 and 2 1/2) haven't experienced a close family member's death in their memory. Grandpa (who lived with them almost since birth) died last winter, but I figure the going on 3 and 4 year olds would hardly remember that, and it wouldn't be as traumatic when it's not papa. But what happens now when the 3 and 4 year old insist they want papa? How did a mother or guardian explain to the children that papa wasn't coming back without scaring them?

Maybe there is nothing out there, but I thought maybe someone's read a
period novel or diary in which a parent, guardian, close family friend, etc. may have had to explain something like this. Maybe I'm making this too complex, but then the world has always been a complex place. But maybe explaining death to 3 & 4 year olds hasn't changed much -- after all there's only so much that they can comprehend in those little minds. :rolleyes:

I do like one suggestion that was given which is that the parent could say something to the effect of, "You can talk about how some day we all get to go live in heaven if we've been good, but it's not up to us when we have to go. So their father would have rather stayed with them, but he has to come when he's called, just like they have to drop what they're doing and come when they're called, no matter how much they'd like to go on playing." That seems like something a 3 or 4 year old could understand.

But again, I was just wondering if anyone's read anything specific like that.



10-31-2006, 11:32 AM

Perhaps a bit beyond the ages of the little ones in your scenario, but I own some original children's books printed in the 1840s. These are referred to as "Toy Books". They are about 3 x 2, and contain about 16 pages. One contains hymns for children. One of the hymns is one of the most depressing, maudlin verses I have ever read, and it's about a dead child. Now, these books were meant for children, so words to the effect of "sleeping in the cold ground" evidently weren't minced.

I'll get the book out of my collection and put the whole hymn up tonight.

10-31-2006, 11:44 AM
My god,Bob.If that's not messed up,semi Gothic,I don't know what is.Having kids sing about death of a friend.Wow.

10-31-2006, 11:48 AM
Try Two Lives by William Blanchard Jerrold p 310-11 on google booksearch. It's the only source I've come across so far from the era that discusses explaining death to children.

10-31-2006, 03:33 PM
Here's web site that should prove of interest; MEMENTO MORI - DEATH AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA:
http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/terminals/meinwald/meinwald1.html I don't agree with some of Freudian sex and death theories posited, but it makes interesting reading (and viewing).

The post-mortum images of children may seem odd to our sensibilities today, but these photographs would have been highly valued within the families of the deceased. We live in an age where pain, including the pain of grief, is something that should be anethesized, whereas in the 19th century it was something that was delt with head on. Three years ago I experienced the loss of two familiy members within four months. The pain of grief was worse than any physical pain I've ever known, but I delt with it it directly instead of trying to sweep it under the rug. I survived. Like Henry in the Red Badge of Courage, I had "touch(ed) the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death."

I think the 19th century attitude toward death was far heathier than what society gives us today. We feast on a steady diet of violent and death images in our entertainment and news, but it only serves to distance us from the reality. The purgative and redemtive value of suffering has become almost unknown today, but was generally more accedtable in the 19th century. That doesn't make it any more bearable, but it I think it makes the stages of grief go a bit faster: Denial (I can't believe this is happening), Anger (Why is this happening), Bargaining (what can I do to make this go away?), Depression (I can't go on), and Acceptance (peace).

10-31-2006, 08:55 PM
My god,Bob.If that's not messed up,semi Gothic,I don't know what is.Having kids sing about death of a friend.Wow.

OK, here's the verse. It from a Toy Book called Infant Hymns designed for Young children. Was published around 1848 in New Haven by S. Babcock. The book is about 3 x 2, and contains 16 pages.

Hymn III
The Grave of an Infant

What is the little grassy mound,
Where pretty daisies bloom?
What is there lying under ground?
It is an infant's tomb!

Alas, poor baby! did it die?
How dismal that must be!
To bid this pretty world good-bye,
Seems very sad to me.

Silence my child for could we hear
This happy baby's voice,
We should not drop another tear,
But triumph and rejoice.

"O, do not weep for me."
The happy soul would say;
"Nor grieve, dear child, that I am free
From that poor sleeping clay.

Mourn not, because my feeble breath
Was stopped as soon as given;
There's nothing terrible in death,
To those who come to heaven.

No sin no sorrow, no complaints,
My pleasures here destroy;
I live with God and all his saints,
And endless is our joy.

While with the spirits of the just
My Savior I adore,
I smile upon my sleeping dust,
That now can weep no more."

I shall now stick my head in an oven.

10-31-2006, 10:09 PM
Thanks for sharing Bob.

Religion seems to be the way many dealt with death during the era.

Delia Godric
11-01-2006, 08:02 AM
There is a small collection of gift book size books. I think these books may have more similar to what was posted above. Try the death and dying section here:
The youth section may also have something.

Anna Worden

11-01-2006, 01:58 PM
"Someday we all get to go live in heaven if we've been good, but it's not up to us when we have to go. So their father would have rather stayed with them, but he has to come when he's called, just like they have to drop what they're doing and come when they're called, no matter how much they'd like to go on playing."

I agree, that sounds like something a 3 or 4 year old child could understand.

Most funeral homes that I know of will refer people to a grief counsellor if someone feels that it's necessary. Perhaps that kind of professional would have an idea of how to explain death to a child.

Another option is to get advice from the pastor/priest if the family is the church-going type.

Delia Godric
11-02-2006, 07:55 AM
I thought of something that might be of interest even though it doesn't answer the question. I have a tea cup with a transfer print of a gravesite scene labeled something like "the mother's grave". If you are interested, I can take pictures as soon as I get new batteries, and send the images on.

Anna Worden

11-18-2006, 10:43 PM
If you want to know what they did back then, you do need to research 19th Century mourning and funeral practices. They were very different than 21st Century America. The body remained in the house for visitation, for example.
Death, be it with children, young mothers, adults, or the elderly was a given, not an avoided or denied reality as our society has tended to view it in the last60 years, or so.

If you are interested in how to deal with the issue today, contact a local funeral home. Many of them have information on hand to help parents talk to their children about death. These aids are quite sensitive, practical and healthy. I speak from the experiences I had as a hospital chaplain and as one who has lost a parent and saw how the funeral home people assisted my brothers and sisters in helping their children cope with the death.

11-19-2006, 08:42 AM
I don't think death was the issue in the 1860's that it is today. With the development of photography it was very common for parents to have photos taken of their deceased children (and relatives) and display them in their homes. Books full of photographs of "Little Angels" were frequently published and photos from those books are easily found today. Too many times we try to put our values on the CW time period rather than trying to understand the values/morals of the time. Death was a very common occurrence, families lost children all of the time and it was rare to find on that hadn't. I'd be my guess that death was a regular dinner table subject in the mid 19th century. So, regular I'd guess, funerals didn't become prominent until after Lincoln’s death. Add in the unavailability of embalming and the need to work to survive, I don’t think a lot of time was spent dealing with a dead person. Mourning, that’s another story. Mourning periods were socially set.

Linda Trent
11-19-2006, 12:09 PM
Thanks to everyone who's responded to my question. Again, I've studied mourning, and many other aspects of death in the 19th century, but what I hadn't found a lot of reference to was explaining death to a child who's never experienced having the death of a loved one before -- for every child there's a first time no matter what century.

Since I initially posted my question, Hank actually found one source for me Mrs. Child's *The Mother's Book* In Chapter VI it talks about "Sunday. Religion. Views of Death. Supernatural Appearances."

On page 75 she writes,
"There is nothing perhaps in which Christians act so inconsistently as in surrounding death with associations of grief and terror. We profess to believe that the good whom we have loved in this life, are still alive in a better and happier world; yet we clothe ourselves in black, toll the bell, shun the room where we saw them die, and weep when they are mentioned. My own prejudices against wearing mourning are very strong -- nothing but the certainty of wounding the feelings of some near and dear friend would ever induce me to follow the custom... I shall only speak of mourning in connexion with other things, that tend to give children melancholy ideas of death. For various reasons, we should treat the subject as cheerfully as possible. We all must die; and if we really believe that we shall live hereafter, under the care of the same all-merciful God, who has protected us here, why should we dread to die? Children should always hear death spoken of as a blessed change; and if the selfishness of our nature will wring some tears from us, when our friends die, they should be such tears as we shed for a brief absence, not the heart-rending sobs of utter separation. When death occurs in the family, use the opportunity to make a child familiar with it. Tell him the brother, or sister, or parent he loved is gone to God; and that the good are far happier with the holy angels, than they could have been on earth; and that if we are good, we shall in a little while go to them in heaven. Whenever he afterwards alludes to them, say they are as much alive as they were on this earth; and far happier. Do not speak of it as a thing to be regretted that they have gone early to heaven; but rather as a privilege to be desired that we shall one day go to them... The most pious people are sometimes entirely unable to overcome the dread of death, which they received in childhood; whereas, those whose first impressions on this subject have been pleasant, find within themselves a strong support in times of illness and affection.

Mrs. Child goes on to extract some of Miss Hamilton's work on Education, on page 77. Miss Hamilton is probably Elizabeth Hamilton who wrote Letters on the Elementary Principles of Education, 1801. In Miss Hamilton's work, she makes a big deal about a child's first lesson in death, stating that it either leads to great expectations or terror, and if the latter "in vain does reason and religion speak peace to the soul of him whose first ideas of death have been accompanied with strong impressions of terror. The association thus formed is too powerful to be broken, and the only resource to which minds under its influence generally resort, is to drive the subject from their thoughts as much as possible." She adds that the terror causes people to not put their affairs in order, as they fear doing so may hasten the coming of their death.

Mrs Child quotes two examples of first lessons in death from Miss Hamilton's work. One of a lady who had nothing to fear, whose
"understanding was naturally excellent; or, in other words, what is in our sex generally termed masculine; and it was improved by the advantages of a very superior education. But not all the strength of a sound judgement, not all the sagacity of a penetrating and cultivated genius, could counteract the association which rendered the idea of death a subject of perpetual terror to her mind. Exemplary in the performance of every religious and every social duty, full of faith and of good works, she never dared to dart a glance of hope beyond the tomb... In every illness it became the business of her family and friends to devise methods of concealing from the the real danger Every face was then dressed in forced smiles, and every tongue employed in the repetition of flattering falsehoods."

In the second she discusses a young lady who doesn't fear death, but sees it as the "first and greatest of blessings." She goes on to state that she cannot credit religion alone for her feelings, but that she is

"chiefly indebted to the judicious friend of my infancy, who made the idea of death not only familiar but pleasant to my imagination. The sudden death of an elderly lady to whom I was much attached, gave her an opportunity, before I had attained my sixth year, of impressing on this subject of my mind in the most agreeable colors.

To this judicious management do I attribute much of that serenity, which, on the apprehended approach of death, has ever possessed my mind. Had the idea been first impressed upon my imagination with its usual gloomy accompaniments, it is probable that it would still have been there invested in robes of terror; nor would all the efforts of reason, nor all the arguments of religion, have been able in these moments effectually to tranquillize my soul. Nor is it only in the hour of real danger that I have experienced the good effects of this freedom from the slavish fear of death; is has saved me from a thousand petty alarms and foolish apprehensions, into which people of stronger minds than I can boast, are frequently betrayed by the involuntary impulse of terror. So much, my good friend, do we all owe to early education."

Finally on page 81 Mrs. Child gives her own thoughts,

To these remarks I will add an anecdote, that came under the observation of one of my friends. A little girl saw a beloved aunt die. The child was very young, -- she had no ideas at all about death, -- it was her first lesson on the subject. She was very much affected, and wept bitterly. Her mother led her to the bed, kissed the cheek of the corpse, and observed how smiling and happy the countenance looked. 'We must not weep for dear aunt Betsy,' said she; 'she is living now with the angels; and though she cannot come to see us, she loves us, and will rejoice when we are good. If we are good, like her, we shall go to heaven, where she is; and to go to heaven, is like going to a happy home.

This conversation soothed the child's mind; she felt the cold hand, kissed the cold cheek, and felt sure that her aunt was still alive and loved her.

A year or two afterwards, this child was very ill, and they told her the doctor said she would die. She looked up smiling in her mother's face, and said, with joyful simplicity, 'I shall see dear aunt Betsy before you do, mother.' What a beautiful lesson.

This is the kind of thing I'm looking for. :p This doesn't appear to be a topic that I've run across a lot in my research (primary or secondary), which is why I was looking for a broader scope like what the membership of the forums and lists may have read, i.e. primary source novels, diaries, parenting books, etc. I have an ample supply of modern books on the topic, what I want are period sources.


Linda Trent

11-19-2006, 01:21 PM
While transcribing some items for the civilian end of Banks' Grand Retreat, I ran across this last night:

Of the therapeutics of the time she has a vivid recollection of the “cupping” of her mother in her last illness. She has always understood that her mother died of dysentery. The passing of the frail little creature after this heroic treatment was the Girls’ first realization of death. She was told her mother had become an angel and had gone to Heaven to live, and she sat a desolate time watching the skies over the cemetery, trying to see the winged angel flying to her new home and hoping that, if she saw her little daughter all dressed up in the blue merino and black lace mits she would take her to the beautiful Heaven, too. . . .
--Scarborough, Lucy Paxton. “So It Was When Her Life Began: Reminiscences of a Louisiana Girlhood.” Louisiana Historical Quarterly 13 (July 1930): 433-434.
(the author throughout refers to herself in the third person)

Vicki Betts