What is Mourning Jewelry?

Even if you are not mourning, this kind of jewelry is one way you can commune with your dearly departed.

Mourning jewelry is exactly what is sounds like. Upon the death of a loved one a piece of jewelry is commissioned to remember the person and their passing. These pieces are typically black, and can be made from anything. Often times, they are lockets that hold a painting, photo, or lock of hair of the deceased.

The practice of mourning jewelry has been around since at least the early Roman traditions, but it probably predates society. The earliest western instances of mourning jewelry are really Memento Mori which roughly translates to Remember Death (Daily Stoic). Initially this was a reminder, similar to the saying Tempus Fugit, or Time is Fleeting. The idea that death was coming, was meant as a motivator for action. Therefore a jewelry item that was a memento mori would be emotionally similar to pre-mourning your own demise, only with the intention to make every day worthwhile. In modern society it would be like telling high school graduates to start thinking about their obituaries and live life accordingly.

During the Victorian era, mourning jewelry gained popularity in no small part due to Queen Victoria’s consistent mourning for her deceased husband, Prince Albert. She mourned his passing, passionately, for 40 years (Hunter). She also had the misfortune to mourn her daughter Alice, and grandchild Princess Marie, both of whom died in 1878.

These deaths prompted the royal family to commission mourning jewelry made of jet (also known as blackstone), onyx, and banded agate with diamond and pearl accents set in gold. The royal jewelry is stunning, each piece assembled with the greatest care and craftsmanship (Pendant and Ring Jewelry).

Can we make our own mourning jewelry? Today, around 80% of deaths occur in hospitals. We do not typically have the same level of access to our deceased as our ancestors did. Nonetheless, you can still commission, or make your own mourning jewelry. Some funeral homes will allow, and sometimes provide, family members a lock of hair upon request. Failing that, you can procure a locket and a photo of the dead. The photo does not have to be of their dead body lol. A living image is typical in mourning jewelry, although photos of the dead have been collected too, but, let’s save that discussion for another post.

Creating mourning jewelry is similar in spirit, although not exactly the same as creating ancestor worshiping aids like zemies. A zemi is a skull carved representation of a deceased loved one, refereed to as an ancestor in native Haitian populations, and any modern practitioners of Haitian faiths that pre-date voodoo. A tangible aid in the practice of ancestor worship, zemies function as a reminder of the deceased and as a conduit for the power of the deceased. “Zemies who represented ancestors were objects of great power and were perceived as supernatural beings who could help the person who possessed [the zemi]” (Taino Museum). Zemies were typically made of bone from the deceased whom they represent.

Our ancestors had a close connection with their dead. Like today, the closest family members were responsible for ensuring a proper death rite. Today the work of burial, or cremation is completed by what we call professionals. Through most of history, however, the family prepared the body for burial, cremation, internment, and sometimes exhumations at regular intervals. That closeness with the deceased carried on, sometimes for years, allowing the living access to the bones of their dearly departed. In that community, with those norms, the creation of zenies and other bone remembrances were commonplace. Although, to be fair, the absence of germ theory made a lot of hygienically questionable practices commonplace.

Failing the access to make remembrances like zenies, the tradition continued in various forms and enjoyed a resurgence in the Victorian era with mourning jewelry.

Thank you for joining us today. We hope you have a wonderful week!

References:

“Memento Mori” by Daily Stoic. https://dailystoic.com/history-of-memento-mori/

“A Victorian Obsession With Death” by D. Lyn Hunter. https://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2000/04/05/death.html

“Queen Victoria’s Mourning Jewelry” by Pendant and Ring. https://pendantandring.com/2021/02/18/queen-victorias-mourning-jewelry-wowmewednesday/

“Little Bone Zemi with Skull Head” by Tanio Museum. https://tainomuseum.org/portfolio-view/little-bone-zemi-with-skull-head/

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