A Ring of Mourning, A Memory of Love

30, October 2014
mourning ring from the mid-1800sMolded mourning ring in the Missouri Historical Society's collections. The clasped hands symbolized "farewell until we meet again."

As Halloween approaches, we prepare to celebrate with costumes, parties, and trick-or-treating. However, at one time, Halloween was a time for remembering the deceased. According to Peter Tokofsky, associate adjunct professor in folklore and mythology at the University of California at Los Angeles, "The earliest trace (of Halloween) is the Celtic festival, Samhain, which was the Celtic New Year. It was the day of the dead, and they believed the souls of the deceased would be available" (as quoted in the Daily Bruin on October 31, 1997).

My thoughts drifted toward death rituals. They can be found among all human societies, and when a member of our social circle dies, we react in structured, patterned ways. Death rituals date back to the Neanderthals and are something that we still participate in today. The symbolism found within these rituals tells the story of our values, attitudes, beliefs, and of our past. Here, at the Missouri Historical Society, we have several items that share this story, and this prompted me to begin looking through our collection to see what I could find. What intrigued me the most was a mourning ring dating from the 19th century.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, death was a continuous presence as loved ones died from untreatable diseases, childbirth, and other environmental hazards. The constant loss would have been nearly unbearable, and the need to find comfort and peace essential to moving forward. Memorializing loved ones was one way in which people during these periods found solace. One of the most common forms of memorialization was the use of mourning jewelry.

The mourning ring was one of the first types of mourning jewelry. The jewelry was given to family and friends before the procession to the cemetery. The rings would often feature the deceased’s name, date of death, and an epithet. Rings were decorated with various symbols, such as winged death heads, skeletons, black stones, weeping willows, and urns, and, by the 19th century, they were made of braided hair belonging to the deceased.

The mourning ring shown here displays a clasped-hand motif, commonly found on mid-Victorian gravestones. Typically with this folk motif, one hand belongs to a man and one belongs to a woman. The hands symbolize "farewell" and that the deceased and the living would meet again. It is a ring of loss, love, remembrance, and friendship.

While such objects of mourning may seem unsettling today, in the 1800s they were a connection to loved ones that had passed. This connection was expressed according to the cultural beliefs of the time and in conjunction with current fashion and art. In truth, it isn’t that far removed from how we mourn today. We say farewell, yet we find something to hold on to, something that will keep us connected and says, “See you again soon.”

—Judy Williams, Digital Engagement Coordinator