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Memento mori

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Bob Vybrenner responds to questions about Victorian mourning.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Bob Vybrenner responds to questions about Victorian mourning.
Published October 25. 2013 05:00PM

Fifty adults took the challenge.

It was a night devoted to the reality that human life has a 100% mortality rate, and our patterns of mourning evolve.

The public was invited, and 50 inquisitive, brave-hearted souls accepted on an eve when a foreboding feeling was in the air.

Silent fog rolled in. Darkness fell and a heavy mist turned to drizzle, eventually rain.

Similar to Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Indians,' guests meandered one by one into the former Christian church.

These merchants of memento mori shared a mission - to immerse themselves in the bizarre world of Victorian death and mourning.

Attendees at the Lansford Historical Society session united in support of understanding things often unmentionable. Their faces were hard to discern in the darkness. Many said they preferred the anonymity.

In some ways, it was a study in contrasts.

For instance, the guests' curiosity with all things morbid belied a commonness.

These were average, everyday folks: a homemaker, factory worker, policeman, schoolteacher, journalist, hospital worker, and so on.

But they shared a unique interest in things not normally discussed within discourse of the common moral code.

Inside the chamber, dim light of a candle chandelier suggested an aura of atonement.

Guests quietly took their seats while a mysterious, caped organist serenaded in maudlin, phantom-of-the-opera manner.

On that quiet night of Oct. 17, the stillness was broken by a loud rattle and the slamming of two heavy, oak doors.

"The entrance has been chained and nobody shall leave," announced a formally dressed, burly, ghostlike figure in black face.

At that point, yet another dark figure commanded a presence directly in front, in space once an altar. He stood and spoke.

"In the 19th century, most people were obsessed with death," explained living history authority Bob Vybrenner, Tamaqua, Victorian mortician extraordinaire.

Death, he said, was all around in days prior to modern medicine.

"One in five children died before five years of age. Death was a constant companion," said Vybrenner, a Lansford native.

Back then, women wore black, such as a mourning dress. They mourned an entire year, he said. As for men ... well, they wore black, too, as in black armbands. But 30 days of open sorrow was enough because "men had to go back to work."

Vybrenner spoke of life in the 1800s and prevailing fears of the Black Mariah, the coal miners' death wagon.

Coal miners often died tragically, he said. But most folks longed for "the good death." The good death was peaceful, or at least as pleasant as possible. Far more desirable.

"You could buy books on how to die," said Vybrenner.

But much more unpleasant was the occasion when a person was mistakenly buried alive. It's wasn't so rare.

It happened in days before widespread adoption of embalming techniques.

In fact, one reason for a wake, said Vybrenner, was to allow time for others to watch over the body in case the deceased moved or showed signs of life.

The wake helped "to make sure the person was deceased."

In answer to the "Is he dead?" issue, a string sometimes was attached to the fingers of the deceased prior to burial. The string led through the coffin and up to ground level, where it attached to a bell.

"If the fingers moved, the bell rang," alerting passers-by that someone accidentally had been buried alive.

"It's how we began to use the phrase that someone is a dead ringer," said Vybrenner.

As for embalming, it was started in France in the 1850s, but became popular during the American Civil War.

"Civil War families wanted to bring home their dead," he said. And they wanted to deceased to look at normal as possible.

Every mortician had his own home-cooked embalming fluid. Recipes varied. Typical formulas consisted of zinc plates inserted in hydrochloric acid, creosote mixed with alcohol, or even the use of root beer.

"At first they didn't drain the blood and eviscerate the body," said Vybrenner.

In that case, rock salt would be used to preserve the remains.

The group sat and absorbed details. Guests studied artifacts, examined reference books, explored embalming fluids. They shared knowledge and asked questions. There is fascination with all things funerary. And maybe that's simply human nature.

Afterward, they partook of cookies and cupcakes. They thanked Vybrenner and his period-dressed mourning crew: Dale Freudenberger, Bill Harleman, Richard Hadesty and Brian Turner.

They gathered and toasted with sips of special-recipe punch.

Beneath the eeriness of strobe lights and cobwebs, the punch bowl appeared brightly colored.

"Oh my," someone remarked. "What did they use to get the punch so red?"

Nobody answered. Sometimes things are best left unsaid.

The phantom organist played a spooky adaptation of Amazing Grace, as visitors basked in the unexpected.

But the time was nigh. The end had come, proclaimed by rave reviews.

"A great and fascinating program," concluded Tom Applegate, Lansford.

"Wonderfully depressing and morbid," said Freudenberger. Sometimes there is merriment in the macabre.

Chains were unlocked, the doors unbolted, and those 50 local residents returned to their stations.

It was the right thing to do. It was time to leave the unknown and resume the familiar.

After two ghoulish hours in the beyond, it was time to filter back into society.

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