Halloween Special: Death Rituals in the Old West

For my novel Fugitive Hearts, I had to research the subject of death and mourning rituals during the 19th century. I found the history and superstitions fascinating and thought you might, too. Read on to find out more.

When Mourning became an industry

After Prince Albert died in 1861 and the Queen of England set a new standard for bereavement, society on both sides of the Atlantic took on mourning with a vengeance. That same year, the American Civil War began, and death on a massive scale touched communities and families north and south. Mourning became a central fact of wartime life. After the war, death continued to be ritualized. During an age when there were customs for every aspect of life, there were also elaborate rituals to observe after death—starting with what to wear.

Social decorum demanded that family members adjust their behavior and clothing for six months to a year after the death of a close relative. All clothing, even underwear and accessories like gloves and handkerchiefs, had to be black. Thus, mourning attire became a society-wide necessity. Catalogs and stores advertised them. In fact, mourning apparel became the first type of clothing to be purchased "off the rack." 

At home, a wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood tied with crepe or black ribbons hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred. Black crepe covered windows, mirrors, and pictures. Guests coming by to pay respects would be greeted by mourners and served “funeral biscuits” – small cakes wrapped in white paper sealed with black sealing wax. 

The parlor was called the “death room” when a coffin was on display. The body of the deceased was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of “waking.” The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who might not happen to be dead. 

And those weren't the most unusual rituals...

Hair Memorabilia

Jewelry and art made from the hair of loved ones became all the rage during this era when mourning was elevated to an art form. 

Everything from brooches to watch fobs to elaborate works of art was made from human hair. 

Locally, in Kansas City, Leila's hair museum features thousands of examples of this custom, which reached its zenith in the Victorian era. It's truly amazing...and more than little bizarre.  

Memento Mori

Another grim custom was photographs of the dead. 

These images were marketed as treasured mementoes. One can understand why when you consider how photography was just getting started as a business and getting photographs made was expensive. The death photo--or memento mori--might be the only image they had of their loved one. 

In many cases, the photograph was "staged" -- that is, the child is featured with living siblings and family members or with beloved dolls and toys. 

In some cases, they used elaborate systems to prop up the dead person, then painted eyes on the image to make it look as if they are still alive. 

Mourning merchandise

Less creepy, but just as strange is the industry of mourning merchandise. 

Shrewd companies sold everything from buttons to pins that were used during the official mourning period. Everything had to be black and couldn't be shiny (until later in the mourning period)

In fact, mourning became such a big money-maker, people went into the business of becoming "professional mourners." 

I guess if your acting career didn't take off on the stage, you could always show up at funerals.
Tear Catchers

Made popular during the Civil War, this item was generally worn on a chain. 

Lachrymatories (as they were called) were usually made from decorative glass vials about an inch or two long with a stopper at one end. 

A woman whose beau or husband was off at war would "store" her tears in it.  If he returned, she could empty it. If he didn't, she would display it as a demonstration of her continued devotion.
Coffin Alarms

Another curious and widespread concern in the nineteenth century was the fear of being buried alive. Even Mary Todd Lincoln, a relatively well-to-do, well-educated woman, shared in her final instructions: "I desire that my body shall remain for two days with the lid not screwed down.'"

The fear of a loved one being buried alive inspired coffin makers to design warning systems such as a bell on the grave which was connected by a chain to the inside of the coffin in cases of premature burial. Thus the expression: “Saved by the bell.”

You'll find some of these customs featured in my book Fugitive Hearts, Book 4 in the series, Steam! Romance and Rails

Is she a grieving widow or a heartless killer?

Everyone in Parsons, Kansas, considers hotel owner Claire Daines a respectable, decent woman. Until she shocks the entire town when she rushes into a saloon in her nightclothes to confess to an inebriated lawman. “Sheriff, I shot my husband.”

Is it an accident, as she claims? Or is it murder? As Sheriff Frank Garrity unravels the widow’s subterfuge, the truth will challenge his notions about law and justice and force him to make a choice between desire and duty. 

This passionate Western romance follows a suspenseful chase along the historic Katy Railway, where a skeptical lawman learns an unexpected truth and a lesson about love.


Sign up for my newsletter and get started on the series FREE. New subscribers receive a copy of Her Bodyguard, Book 1.  


Jacqui’s Friday Flowers in October

Last year I became a huge fan of Dahlias. Not sure why this flower wasn't on my radar before, but now that glitch in my flower-lover brain has been fixed. 

Not only are Dahlias beautiful flowers, but I really appreciate them blooming not only in late summer but in October when the weather on Canada's pacific coast is headed toward the winter rainy/gloomy season. 

Most of the Dahlia photos that I took (and the ones I've included below) were from Victoria's Government House Gardens or Beacon Hill Park, but a few (like the last two) were incredible finds on or near city streets. 

Jacqui ❤️ 💐










Click here to see my September blog post and a hefty stack of Hydrangea pics 🙂 

To see more of my flower pictures (during the February to October flower season in Victoria, Canada), visit my Facebook and Instagram pages.  

~ * ~ 

Jacqui Nelson - Author Picture
Fall in love with a new Old West where the men are steadfast & the women are adventurous. I love writing stories about women who are Wild West scouts, spies, cardsharps, wilderness guides, trick-riding superstars, and more. 

Read an excerpt from all of my books at JacquiNelson.com/my-books

Join my newsletter & read Rescuing Raven (my Deadwood 1876 gold-rush story) for FREE at JacquiNelson.com/download-my-free-read 



 what story do yours tell?

Our hands work for us in many ways. Sometimes they're our voice. Sometimes they express more emotion than we can say aloud. Sometimes they share through touch. I notice people's hands. I love how they are decorated, how they're unique, but especially what they do. More than anything, I hope others find mine as helpful and friendly. What story do your hands tell? Is it a story you're satisfied with, or remembering, or are you in the middle of creating something new?


My husband and I travel and always stop for sunsets. We've got thousands of pictures of them and still aren't tired of seeing another. In fact, we have an entire wall (during the fall) of sunset pictures we've taken. My hands have shared a beer with the ones I love in many places. I hope the story they tell is that I stopped and appreciated the things and people around me.


Coffee gets me moving and makes me stop as well. Get out of bed, make coffee—then settle down at my desk and write. Visit family or friends—and sit with a cup of coffee to talk. Walk to a coffee shop to meet an author friend—and then (with the buzz of the other coffee lovers around us) sit down with our coffees to write and talk about what we wrote or planned to write next. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, I haven't been to a coffee shop to write with a friend, but I'm hoping to get back to doing this in 2022. Fingers crossed :) The world’s pace seems so hectic that the opportunity to have a getaway where I stop and hold a cup of coffee—and focus on someone’s words or my own—is an opportunity I love seizing. ~ Jacqui 



The moment I saw the above picture, I thought of my Heavenly Hubby! DJ and I were always digging in our yard to build things: flower gardens, veggie gardens, playhouse for the kids, motorcycle shed (for the 5 motorcycles the men in my life have,) the wisteria arbor, drainage, a patio...the list is huge since we bought our home in 1982. DJ and I never minded getting our hands dirty. We always had the same reaction driving past a field that had just been plowed--we'd take a deep breath loving the smell of the fresh-turned earth. One of the first things I noticed about DJ the day we met--aside from his broad shoulders, bright green eyes, and crooked smile, was his hands. 


I sketched DJ's hands for art homework back in '75, and he patiently sat at my folks' kitchen table while I concentrated and tried to do justice to the beauty I saw there. Even at 17 years old, I sensed the strength in them. During our lives together, our children and I depended upon that strength, and he gave it lovingly without question until eleven months ago, when the good Lord called him home. He's waiting for me, and I look forward to grabbing hold of his hands and never letting go.


Hands express so much of who we are. In pre-covid days a handshake was a sign of an agreement, integrity. Whether a friendly welcome, a kind pat on the hand, perhaps a grip of courage or joy. Hands tell a story and that has never been more real to me than recently as my family and I walked my husband/their father/his mother’s son home to his eternal life with Jesus.

My husband and I took each other’s hands many times during the years we dated in our last years of high school, clasped in prayer asking for Gods help, Joyfully clasped as we were married, gripping hands-white-knuckled as our kids were born, comforting one another as we said goodbye to parents and finally holding tight, praying for strength after receiving the news of a cancer that gave him only days to live.

I took this picture during one of the last lucid moments during his week-long home hospice stay. To me, it’s a symbol of our wedding vows of “til death do us part”- a few days later, I held his hand and walked him to be home with our Lord. While I miss him terribly, I give praise and thanksgiving that I will see him again down the road. Until then-- as we adopted the psalm verse that began our friendship which turned into 43 years of blessings & love- so will it always stay rooted in my heart. “O magnify the Lord with me. Let us exalt His name together.” (Psalm 34:3)  


Last month I wrote about my dad who passed away four years ago after battling dementia for ten years. I'm using my memories of Dad one more time here to talk about hands. One thing that is special and a comfort to me is remembering how often I went with my mom to visit, to sit with Dad, and talk to him, to help feed him and hold his hands. But the most special thing from those last years is that, because I am very lucky to babysit my grandchildren once a week, I more often than not spent part of each of our days together bringing them to visit Great-Grandpa. Dad lost his ability to speak during his last three years, but his eyes spoke volumes whenever his greats came to visit. And his hands played such an important part of our visits. We would set baby Riley in Great-Grandpa's lap and push them in the wheelchair together. Dad would not want to let him go and his hands, no matter how frail otherwise, would hold Riley securely. Riley would NEVER cry and would hold Great-Grandpa's thumbs in his tiny fists. Dad would rest his whole hand on Riley's head like a blessing, and I think old and young together would feel peace. We all held hands a lot during those times. Because we didn't have all the words, our hands were our instruments of love and communication. I am blessed to have this picture of Dad's hand topped by Riley's. The old bequeathing life to the young. The young giving comfort to the old. God was so good, holding us in His loving hands, and giving Riley and my dad this first and last year together.

What story do your hands tell? Is it a story you're satisfied with, or remembering, or are you in the middle of creating something new?