When I was 10 years old, my parents gave me a copy of Gone With the Wind as a birthday present. While I didn’t understand it all, one of the many things that stuck out in my mind from the book was the concept of mourning. I learned that in Scarlett O’Hara’s world, society had strict rules to follow about behavior and attire after the loss of a family member. In just a few chapters, Scarlett goes from 16-year-old flirt to widow, and, as society dictated, being a widow she wore a long veil and black, eschewing social activities in observance of her loss.
While these strict customs have mostly faded, one physical relic that remains from that time is the jewelry. Called mourning jewelry — also referred to as memento mori jewelry — these pieces commemorate the death of a loved one and serve to remind us that death will come for us too. As an antique jewelry enthusiast, I have seen many mourning pieces over the years. While I appreciated them as historical pieces, I didn’t get the fascination and really had no interest in owning a piece.
Then my father died. And, fours years later, my mother.
Well. Now I get it.
They were suddenly gone, and I desperately wanted to hold onto something physical that was about them and that marked my loss. My father died fairly unexpectedly, and my mother quickly after a brief illness. Anyone who has gone through the loss of someone close will pretty much tell you the same thing: Nothing prepares you for it, and nothing really heals it. When we compare mourning customs from the last century to now, our world seems to have flip-flopped. I would never want to wear black for three years, but it seems that we seldom acknowledge that the pain stays with you long after society had stopped acknowledging it. We’re rushed into pretending that everything is back to normal, perhaps far sooner than we should.While before I was slightly skeeved out by the hair — I have now come to see these pieces as mementos of love and life, not death…
My mind went back to mourning jewelry, and I wondered if I should get something to remember them by…maybe a ring? Back in the 18th century and up to the end of the 19th century, locks of hair were preserved as love tokens of the living and also as memories of loved ones who had died. While it might seem odd now, it was a commonplace practice; photos were non-existent, so this was one way to preserve a person’s memory. Not only was hair neatly preserved in the backs of lockets and woven into jewelry, it was also used to create monograms, elaborate pastoral and funerary scenes and plaited hair was often preserved under glass topped with a cipher or some other design. Jewelry with a locket of hair is definitely not for me. While before I was slightly skeeved out by the hair — I have now come to see these pieces as mementos of love and life, not death.
Sometimes enamel bands were made and handed out to mourners as directed from the settlement of an estate. There was also a color code: White enamel was typically for children and unmarrieds; black for everyone else. These bands would almost always include the name of the deceased, age and date of death. Engraved tributes may also be found on these old pieces; the ones to children are heartbreaking. As I follow the antique jewelry community, I see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of these historical and sometimes heartrending pieces.
Sarah Nehema, bench jeweler and author of, In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, agrees: “Mourning jewelry and art have had somewhat of a resurgence over the last 10 or so years. I think part of that has to do with the popularity of the Art of Mourning website… there is a growing need for people to re-connect with death and dying as part of the life cycle and with that, the desire to acknowledge its place and physically mark and honor the life that has passed away.”
Lately, I’ve thought about getting a ring that commemorates them and how important they are to me — something close to me every day that reminds me of how much we loved each other. Of course I don’t need a ring to remember and honor them. Every day I think about the things my parents said to me over the years and I think about the things they would say to me if they were here now. These memories surface at odd times: I might be walking my dog, I might be cooking or telling one of my kids to do their homework. In that way, I feel their presence.
The appeal of a ring is that I want something to have something that will not leave me. I want to feel its weight on my finger every day. I want to physically feel their presence as I’m walking, as I’m working, as I’m living. While loss might appear to be an intangible thing, to me it has been very, very real. But so far, no item I’ve found has quite fit the bill. While I see many beautiful old pieces, I’d rather not repurpose someone else’s love, life and sorrow into mine, but I’m not sure what I want yet. Whatever it might be, it doesn’t matter. Their memories, like all the antique pieces I’ve seen, will go on: a story of a time and a life now gone, if not for a band of gold.