BURLINGTON — Steve Person walked into a room full of coffins at the Burlington Public Library, wearing traditional Victorian-era garb — a black top hat, black neck-tie and black suit.
He wore all black because funeral goers in the Victorian-era, which covered a large period of the 19th century, were very superstitious. They believed that the “spirit of death” that apparently loomed over a dead individual couldn’t see the color black. So, why do people still wear black at funerals today, Person asked the group attending his Feb. 27 historical program at the library, 166 E. Jefferson St.
“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said.
Another tradition from the time involved closing the eyes of a dead individual shortly after death. This tradition also came about because of superstition, Person said, as many believed if their eyes were open the “spirit of death” could peak around. So, why do we still do this today, Person asked.
“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he chimed again.
Person’s Feb. 27 presentation about death in the Victorian-era, “When Angels Carried Them Away: Death and Mourning in the Victorian Era,” was sponsored by the Burlington Public Library and Black Point Estate and Gardens, a state historic site near Lake Geneva, where Person has given similar presentations multiple times as a volunteer.
But it isn’t Person’s goal to creep people out during his presentations. Rather, his goal is to educate others about death to make it easier to talk about.
“In the past, people at death were surrounded at their moment of death until burial … they talked about death,” said Person. “Today it happens in a hospital or nursing home behind closed doors. There’s a lot of mystery, and with mystery comes ignorance.”
Person is a Walworth County resident and a retired funeral director of 47 years. He uses his expertise and knowledge for his presentation, which he has been giving throughout the area for more than five years.
Educating the public
His presentation also discusses embalming — something he says many people are scared to learn about.
“Very few people under the age of 40 have seen a dead body. That’s quite a difference from 150 years ago,” he said. “If this helps to take away some of that mystery, I am tickled pink.”
The presentation was insightful to Margo Potter, an East Troy resident.
“It’s good to know what happens,” said Potter. “I know people think it’s so morbid, but death is part of life.”
Lora Gensler, a Burlington resident and regular at the Burlington Public Library, agreed.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to funerals as a child. But talking about cremation and embalming cleared some things up for me,” she said. “For me, there is a need to talk about death.”
That the program resonated with the attendees was especially important to Barbara Lebak, a reference librarian who helped organize the event.
“We had someone here recently talking about advanced directives,” she said. “To be able to know how important it is to plan ahead so you can have things happen the way you want to happen is very important.”
‘The graveyard shift’
Person’s talk also discussed some common phrases we use today that originated during the Victorian era. For example, the phrase “for whom the bell tolls,” came about because the church’s bells in a town would often announce a local death, delineating the age and gender of the individual by the number of rings.
The term “graveyard shift,” was also explained. Because being buried alive was not uncommon in the still unsophisticated medical days of the Victorian-era, families would occasionally hire individuals to listen for a bell that could be rung from inside the grave that would let others know that the person inside was still alive. That hired person would often stay at the graveyard overnight, hence it was known as working “the graveyard shift.”
“In the past, people at death were surrounded at their moment of death until burial … they talked about death. Today it happens in a hospital or nursing home behind closed doors. There’s a lot of mystery, and with mystery comes ignorance.” Steve Person, historical presenter and retired funeral director