This past weekend I went to the Memorial Day service at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. This year’s ceremony had a decidedly Civil War slant, and a good friend of mine was the keynote speaker. The First Minnesota Infantry was in attendance, and I went along in mourning attire.
I created my mourning ensemble last fall (as long-time readers will recall) for a presentation I gave on mourning and death rituals. For me, it was a no-brainer - Memorial Day is about soldiers who have passed away, it began as a day of decorating the graves of veterans, ergo mourning.
When I got there, however, the weight of what was happening felt very heavy. There were hundreds of people there - many of them veterans, many of them the families of those who had served. I realized what I was - a representing everyone who had lost a loved one to war, and everyone who had been left behind. It was an awesome responsibility, but it was very heavy, and for a while I felt incredibly awkward. My life has been remarkably free of grief, and I felt like an imposter.
Thankfully, I was able to pull it together, and many people told me afterwards how much my impression meant to them. I even got a few emotional hugs. It was overall a really positive experience, and it caused me to do some heavy duty thinking about what a mourning impression really means.
It seems to be timely. This week there has been a lot of discussions in groups of reenactors on Facebook about when and how a mourning impression is appropriate, and sharing their experiences with displaying mourning impressions. Some shared their experiences of wearing mourning while grieving the real-life loss of a loved one. A lot of the stories shared were disheartening - women who had been jeered at, who had been interrogated or otherwise accosted with invasive questions. Perhaps even more disheartening were various posts I saw around blogs and social media of women portraying armies of widows, frolicking and mooning for the camera while swathed in black, and presenting the “myth-tory” of mourning instead of the hard facts.
This has brought me to a few conclusions about mourning in reenacting, specifically about how to present mourning when one is not actually grieving a loss, which I would like to share with you:
Grief Is Real. To those experiencing it, whether living historians or those among the visitors and guests to an event, grief is overwhelming and tangible. You may know who these people are based on their attire, the context of the event, or your own prior knowledge of the participants; however, there may be no way of telling who is grieving, and how, and for whom. Therefore…
Treat Mourning As Real. If you see someone at an event in mourning attire, treat them with the same respect you would afford anyone who had suffered a loss. Their use of mourning attire will, hopefully, clue you in to what kind of loss they have experienced. Leave your sarcastic comments or snickering for later; ascertain politely about the nature of the person’s loss.
If You Are Doing a Mourning Impression, You Are A Mourner. If you are actually grieving for a personal loss, this is unfortunately a seamless impression for you. If you are, rather, honoring the hundreds of thousands of those left behind by casualties of the Civil War, then it is your honor and duty to present them in a somber, serious, and respectful impression. Do not go into histrionics, and forget the “merry widow” trope, both of which cheapen the reality of those who grieved then and those who grieved now. The weight of presenting real grief is heavy, and it is now your personal responsibility to carry that load, and to act like a real mourner.
So Do It Right. Before you even consider putting on black, do real research. Use primary sources to find out exactly what they did - avoid going to secondary sources, which have (to be frank) bastardized and muddied this niche topic. Seek out letters, diaries, and etiquette manuals to determine what was actually done. While there are certain elements we cannot reproduce, purchase accurate fabric based on what they wore, and utilize the appropriate accessories. Mourn according to your relationship with the deceased - leave widows’ weeds to the actual widows. Follow the actions prescribed for and followed by those who mourned - this will give proper context and understanding to mourning.
If You Cannot Do This, And You Are Not Really Grieving, Do Not Present a Mourning Impression. Those who have to scramble to put on mourning after a sudden death already have a difficult enough time. If you are not grieving, and want to present a mourning impression, you owe it to those who have suffered losses today, and the many women and men who grieved their sons, brothers, fathers, relatives, and friends who died in the Civil War to do it the right way. There isn’t anything cute or funny about it; it’s not another pretty dress.
Here's why I feel strongly about this: Ann-Elizabeth Shapera, a street performer at a Renaissance Festival, has written an excellent book about improvisational theater for street performers, called Easy Street. It’s an fabulous book for anyone who does modified first person/my-time-your-time impressions or deals with the public in any capacity. The point she makes which stuck out to me the most is that, whether we like it or not, we invite those with whom we interact to understand history by acting as a mirror for them. Our emotions, our actions, our motivation invite the visitor to feel emotions with us, and to remember how they have felt those emotions, and connect their experiences to history and the greater human experience. Think about that - when you present a mourning impression, you’re connecting with every visitor who has experienced grief and loss in their lives, and inviting them to connect with the experiences of the women who lost loved ones in the Civil War, and through that, connecting them with every single person who has experienced grief and loss.
It’s a pretty big and bold statement, but I felt it on Memorial Day and it was a big and bold and important feeling. It’s the kind of statement that cuts through the noise of pretty dresses and niche impressions, and it reminds us of what’s really important and that the way we present ourselves matters, to us and to others.