New Hampshire in WWI: Changes in Mourning Customs

Even before World War I the customs of mourning were changing. More of the seriously ill were dying in hospitals rather than at home. Undertakers (then called) were taking the place of home-based wake preparations. When the influenza pandemic struck, burial preparations were often hasty and the funeral itself sparsely attended.

New Hampshire was affected, and as deaths from the flu were peaking,  the Portsmouth Herald newspaper (Portsmouth NH) of 25 Sep 1918, Wed., on page 5 published this notice: “MUST HAVE NO PUBLIC FUNERALS. Only Immediate Families Can Attend Services and Burial of Dead. Orders were issued today to the several undertakers and the public forbidding any more public funerals until the epidemic of influenza is checked. Only the immediate families of the deceased will be allowed to attend the services and interment for the dead until further notice. This action was found absolutely necessary owing to the increase of the malady.”

During WWI with the frequent absence of a body due to military deaths in Europe or on the seas, the funeral rites were difficult to plan and heart-breaking to the families who hoped for closure. When the remains of soldiers, sailors, aviators and nurses were eventually returned from Europe, there was a second funeral–a military one often arranged by the local veterans organizations.

23 Jan 1908 newspaper
Angola Record (NY)
on usual mourning fashions.

More women were working outside of the home, and many of those from necessity due to a loss of a husband, son or other income provider. These were practical reasons to forego the black crepe, expensive clothing, hat netting and extended grieving time. During WWI it was generally felt that there was a unhealthy gloominess and and death-fatigue that could only be overcome by forgoing the extended “mourning period.”

In March of 1917 the Washington Post spoke on the matter, but in a fashion-oriented way. “Every year there are fewer women who follow the conventional rules of mourning, but in spite of the number who are breaking away from old customs, there still  remain a few women who cling to them. No one can deny that a woman dressed in mourning garb of good quality and becoming lines is just as smart and attractive as the woman who wears fashionable clothes selected for gay activities. It is the person who wears cheap mourning and who does not wear even that consistently who makes many persons anxious to decry the old customs.”

Prior to World War I, the traditional mourning period for a widow was two years, but by 1917 some people had shortened it to one year. Where formerly a widow would be in near seclusion for at least a year, this time had been shortened to 3-4 months or even less. Though the shopkeepers and advertisers were still trying to push for the elaborate mourning dress, in reality the fashions were changing.

19 Feb 1917 Philadelphia
Inquirer advertisement

The Kansas City Globe newspaper of 2 June 1918 page 3 wrote: “The custom of wearing heavy mourning for many months, or even years, at a time has passed away, and there are many good reasons why it should pass. The main one is the sense of obligation and consideration for other people, who are depressed by the mourning of their friends. Another is that strength of character is measured by fortitude, among other things, and griefs must be borne without complaint. Women put on all-black and wear it for several months, or a year, but it is not the deep mourning that it used to be. Instead of long veils of crape, they wear veils of net, bordered with crape or with the weaves in black silk that are used for morning.”

By May of 1918 the Woman’s Committee, Council of National Defense recommended a dramatic change–a substitute for mourning when it involved anyone dying in government service. “There should be worn upon the left arm a three-inch band, upon which a gilt star should be placed for each member of the family whose life has been lost in the service.” The resolution was given to President Wilson who endorsed it in June of 1918. The Women’s Committee explained: “This action of the committee at this time is prompted by a feeling on their part that we should  determine before hand the attitude we are to take toward the inevitably growing death roll of the defenders of our country. The wearing of such insignia will, they feel, express better than mourning the feeling of the American people that such losses are a matter of glory rather than prostrating grief and depression. For a long time the Women’s Committee has been receiving letters from women urging some such action on their part. The determined avoidance of mourning by English women has been much commented on and praised. One woman who advocates this step has four sons in the service, one of whom has already been killed. She wrote recently: “I know the costliness of such supreme glory and sacrifice, and have felt both the selfish temptation to hide my pain behind a mourning that would hod off intrusion and the inspiration and stimulus of keeping up to my gallant son’s expectation that I should regard his death as a happy promotion into higher service. Patriotism means such exalted living that dying is not the harder part.” The insignia which has been chosen by the Women’s Committee is of a kind that can readily be made at home out of whatever material can be procured. The band is to be black and three inches wide–the stars gilt, and one for each member of the family who has lost his life in service. These stars may be gold, of gilded metal, or satin, or of cloth. The design will not be patented, and the insignia will never become a commercial article.” [Chillicothe Gazette (Chillicothe, Ohio) 14 June 1918, page 5]

The years of 1917 to 1921 were ones of going without, of pinching pennies, and of great loss.  The thought of expensive funerals during this time of belt-tightening was abhorrent to some, and resulted in changed in attitudes toward what was proper for after-death arrangements.

9 Oct 1917 Bridgeport Times story
on mourning apparel.

The El Paso Herald newspaper, El Paso TX of 22 June 1917 on page 8 printed what was probably the most caustic criticism of funeral customs at that time. “We have full mourning, mourning jewelry, mourning stationery, mourning visiting cards, which by its gradual narrowing indicates that the days of mourning are approaching their end; but the ghastly humor of our mourning customs reaches its climax in second mourning, followed by the full bloom of gorgeous colors, for the time appointed by the inexorable decree of fashionable society has passed, and now mourning may be laid aside with funeral garments. If you deprecate these practices when death occurs in your family, have the courage to do away with what good sense declares objectionable features.  Dare to defy silly social customs. Take the matter of flowers. In many households there is a display offensive to refined taste, and among the poor the display is frequently sinful in its profusion; they put their last dollar into flowers. Funerals are nowadays so expensive that it costs more to die than to live. I have known men who died solvent, but became insolvent before they got under the ground. It is not only false reverence and mistaken affection, but downright dishonesty, if a man’s family or friends indulge expenditures that cannot be met. Take the matter of funeral addresses. Generally the less good a man has done the more good the preacher is expected to say of him, and the preachers often discharge their duty in this particular in such a way as to bring their profession into ridicule. Sunday funerals are rarely necessary; they nearly always assume a magnitude that amounts to Sabbath desecration. The Lord’s Day is for rest and divine worship and not for great funeral pageants.”

Women seemed to be the major objectors of the old-fashioned funeral customs. One addresses the question in The Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City Utah) of 13 Feb 1919 that published it in their advice column. “Dear Miss Kaye: They say that every cloud has a silver lining, and I was wondering if we could not find the silver lining in this terrible “flu” scourge, in the custom that was enforced forbidding funerals? Why not make it a permanent custom? Funeral has always seemed to me the most barbarous things that could be conceived. If there is ever a time in the world when we want to be alone it is in the last few hours we have have with our dead. A funeral does the dead no good; it is an absolute torture to the living. Then why continue them? Many and many a woman has fainted dead away during this unbearable torture of a human being’s life–that undergone at a funeral, whereas the few words and the simple prayer spoken at the grave answer all purposes. Surely it would help to take some of the sadness from this world–which seems to have been given more than its share in the past few years. Can’t we have something done along this line? INTERESTED.  (Reply) Interested, I agree with you perfectly, and many many times have so expressed myself; possibly there are others who sentiments are the same–there must be, but for the most part human nature seems to carry a strain of the barbaric–a something that prompts the mixing of a bit of torture with the grief. As I read your letter I believe I must feel you like the Wise Mouse of Aesop’s fable (if you will pardon me for likening myself unto so important a personage) when he said to the assembly that had advocated the hanging of a bell about each cats neck, that the mice might be warned of their unholy approach. “The plan is an excellent one, but WHO will bell the cats?”  My dear, WHO will undertake the abolition of the traditional funeral?

6 June 1918 Alta Vista
Journal Alma Kansas. Burial
of an American soldier in France.


Perhaps the best way to express the feelings of New Hampshire and the American people at this time was identical to those suffering from the War in Budapest.  The Buffalo Commercial newspaper of 13 February 1917 published the following poem, that appeared in the Budapest Ad Est at Christmas time of 1916.  This is the last stanza of the poem.

“Let it be as it was of old
Let it be as it was before,
Of hatred, of senseless murder,
We’ve had enough, we’ve had enough.
A thousand times, enough;
Let it be as it was of old;
Of never-smiling faces, of burials and
We’ve had enough, we’ve had enough.”

[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I.  Look here for the entire listing].

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7 Responses to New Hampshire in WWI: Changes in Mourning Customs

  1. Amy says:

    Fascinating, Janice! I didn’t know that women were forced into near seclusion for two years after a husband died. And I’d forgotten about the custom of wearing black for that period. Thank goodness those customs have disappeared. Were there any comparable traditions for a widower?

    Of course, we still do have funerals. Some traditions are not going to disappear. Having just been to one earlier this week, I do think that they provide some closure and support for the mourners. Jewis tradition is to keep funerals fairly simple—no flowers, no open casket, no long service. And I have found that the practice of shiva really does help the family during their darkest times. I think most families do find it important to know that their friends are there for them.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting Amy. Of course belief systems greatly influence a funeral as do cultural differences. My grandmother died in the 1960s and I got to witness probably one of the last Irish wakes in New Hampshire. That is an experience, and thankfully I was only in my early teens and didn’t understand all of what was going on. Women were actually more the focus of mourning than men were, even though of course they would wear black, but they got “back to business” faster and remarried sooner especially if they had children and no one blinked. It just seemed that there was a great change in attitudes pre-WWI and post-WWI and I tried to offer the reasons why it did. And yes, of course, funerals, or whatever arrangements we make after someone dies, are really for the living.

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  4. I got the sense that part of what people were objecting to at the time was the commodification of mourning by the funeral industry, as well as the fashion industry, it would appear.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Funeral services, then as today, was/is big business. Having had several personal experiences where I was responsible for visiting with the funeral director to make arrangements, I can say that in the 1960s-70s there was a great deal more pressure to “buy up” rather than on what was actually necessary and within someone’s budget. In some ways laws have forced the industry to be more forthcoming, but on the other hand there are always subtle sales techniques that pressure the buyer into having more elaborate and expensive funerals. I don’t want it to seem that all funeral directors are scam artists, for they are not. Like someone in any business, you have those who are thinking 100% of the customer, and others who think 100% of their bank account, and lots of those in between the two. World War I really changed everything in the funeral industry more quickly than it would have otherwise.

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