The American Perception of Death in the 1890s and 1990s.

By Colleen vonVorys-Norton


Between 1897 and 1997 the public perception of death and funerals switched. In the 1890s, grief was a public act. Women especially, would publicly show their grief with their clothes and veils. Even though the funerals would be reserved for family and loved ones, the view of grief was very public. But in the 1990s, grief and funerals took on a different form. Grieving was a private issue but funerals were the opposites. The amount of people at the funeral was a way to show how loved the deceased was. But once the funeral was over, the grief was seen as a burden to others. This shift is due to the public view on death. In the 1890s, grief was incredibly common due to not only the Civil War but also because child mortality was incredibly high. Greif was public but personal because the funerals were reserved for the family only. Everyone understood the pain. In the 1990s, there was no longer mass grieving. It became private, but the visual of funerals itself was public. Public grief was only acceptable for a few weeks. Then the loved ones have to go back to being productive members of society.

In the 1890s, the funeral itself was a very personal ceremony. Deaths were announced but not with the expectation that funerals would be attended.


“Died.” Milwaukee Journal [Milwaukee, Wisconsin] [Sep. 13, 1897]: 2. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 17 Nov. 2017.

Since society was still in mourning of everyone who had passed in the war, the public acknowledged that grief was a long process. Women especially bore the brunt of the public grief. Since they are the symbol of the home and family, their public grief was especially important. Women would wear specific clothing and dressed to show how long it had been since their family member had died.



Queen Victoria with the five surviving children of her daughter, Princess Alice, dressed in mourning clothing for their mother and their sister Princess Marie in early 1879.


Then, death was not as compartmentalized. It was everywhere and a very common and open experience. The funeral itself was supposed to be quiet and a sacred religious service. In Christian burial, the need for funeral was seen as necessary for the deceased to receive their last rites. The services were short, just a pastor and a small musical accompaniment, if the estate was able to afford it. At this time in American history, grief was not a sign of weakness, but a natural part of living. It was understood that grief lasted for months and at most a year. It was accepted in that society.

Over the course of the century, the view on funerals and grief changes. Grief was more of a private issue. Funerals were very public. If someone knew the person, it was expected for them to go to the funeral to pay their respects. For the first few weeks after the death, the society around the family would support them but would quickly move on and expect the family to do so as well. Funerals were spectacles about not only the individual but also the other people that were around them. People would loudly cry and show their grief but then a few weeks later that was no longer accepted.

Something as simple as an obituary was something that showed the class symbol. Where in the 1890s it was common for all obituaries to be a few lines, in the 1990s, this expanded to including the surviving family members. Also if the estate had enough money they could add the deceased accomplishments. This was a form of a class symbol with how long the obituary was since lower income estates might not be able to afford a whole column.

Another motivating factor in the shift towards grief being private in the 1990s was due to the public no longer being faced with so much death. Infant mortality had decreased, especially in America with the increase in medicine. This also lead to infections and illnesses not leading to death at a young age for many people as well.


In the graph above, there is a clear increase in the life expectancy across the board. Specifically looking at America, this increase lead to death being less prominent in society. Death was able to be compartmentalized and pushed to the side.

Funerals became a business. The average cost of a funeral was $5,000. Even though some funeral homes offered reduced pricing, most were still very expensive events. The reason it was so successful was because the estate and family felt that they needed to give their loved one a beautiful funeral because of all they deceased did for the family. The market understood this and monetize it.

The century split between the 1890s and 1990s had many difference, but one of the most prominent ones was the ways the public viewed death.


Works Consulted:

“September 13, 1997 (Page 10 of 63).” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1927-2008), Sep 13, 1997, pp. 10, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Singleton, S. (1994, Jun 18). The high cost of death–the funeral business. New York Amsterdam News Retrieved from

“Mr. Wyman’s Funeral.” Boston Journal, 1 Jan. 1897.

Brett, Mary. The Custom Of Mourning During The Victorian Era. 2011,


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