Thursday, May 2, 2019

Before the flowers fade

Treasures from the Kellenberger Room

Featuring books, pamphlets, photographs, documents, and the occasional object from the collections of the New Bern-Craven County Public Library

by John B. Green III

Grave of William Thomas McCarthy, March 1898,
Cedar Grove Cemetery, photographer unknown
When we revived the Kellenberger Room blog six weeks ago we promised that the new series of posts would highlight some of the "interesting, rare, and in some cases, just plain odd" items in our collection.  This week we discuss one of our oddities - perhaps the oddest item in our extensive photograph collection - an 1898 image of a freshly-made grave in Cedar Grove Cemetery.

The grave is that of William Thomas McCarthy, popular New Bern attorney and state senator, who died young and much lamented on March 25, 1898.  While his funeral was attended by a large crowd of mourners and his family was surely grief-stricken by his untimely death, why would they have commissioned a photograph of his grave and then had it elaborately framed for display?  The answer may lie in the 19th century's romanticizing of death and mourning.

In a time before modern medical care, many parents could expect to lose at least one of their children and many adults died before the age of sixty.  With sudden, often unexplained, death ever-present,  survivors who could afford to do so expressed their grief through ever-more elaborate funerals, monuments, floral displays, and a variety of  mourning clothing, jewelry, and memorial objects.  Among the more unusual memorials were photographs today known as posthumous or post-mortem.  In these images the deceased were posed as if asleep in their beds, or in the case of deceased infants, in the arms of their parents. Other photographs show the deceased prepared for burial and placed in the open coffin or casket.

The photograph of the elaborately decorated grave of William Thomas McCarthy can be loosely grouped with posthumous or post-mortem images.  While it doesn't show the actual remains of McCarthy, the numerous floral tributes do include a photograph of McCarthy taken during his lifetime. [see enlarged detail below]  The McCarthy family was thus able to preserve, through the medium of photography, memories of their loved one and the tributes paid to him by family and friends.

Detail of above image showing photograph believed
to be of William Thomas McCarthy