Most Macabre I

The Tomb of the Chief Lords

“The Tombe of their Werowans or Cheiff Lordes”

Hariot, Thomas A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: of the Commodities and of the Nature and Manners of the Naturall Inhabitants. Discouered by the English Colony there Seated by Sir Richard Greinuile Knight In the Yeere 1585. Which Remained vunder the Gouernment of Twelue Monethes, At the Speciall Charge and Direction of the Honourable Sir Walter Raleigh Knight Lord Warden of the Stanneries Who Therein hath beene Fauoured and Authoriesed by Her Majestie and Her Latter Patents: This fore Book is Made in English By Thomas Hariot Seruant to the Abouenamed Sir Walter Raliegh, a Member of the Colony, and there Imployed in Discouering. Francoforti ad Moenvm: Typis I. Wecheli, svmtibvs vero T. De Bry, 1590.

This engraving, "The Tombe of their Werowans or Cheiff Lordes," by Theodore de Bry, after a drawing by John White, shows the method used by the "Algonquin" Indians in preparing the bodies of the deceased "Wiroan" their tribal chiefs, for the afterlife. Thomas Hariot’s gruesome account of the ceremonial proceedings is aptly captured pictorially by the collaboration of John White and Theodore de Bry.


Death mask of Oliver Cromwell

Plaster copy of the death mask of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, 1653-1658. 

Oliver Cromwell Death Mask

English historian, Thomas Carlyle, owned one and noted that "many were commonly sold in shops." Death masks were mourning souvenirs made to recall the faces of loved ones, a custom which dated to ancient times. The deceased’s face was masked and oiled, then coated with a quick-setting substance. The dry mould was then lifted off, and plaster casts made from it.


Pressed leaves from the grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Pressed Leaves From the Grave of Percy Bysshe Shelley

The British poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned when his boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822. His body washed ashore ten days later and was identified by family and friends because of the volumes of Sophocles and Keats found in his pockets. Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny oversaw the cremation of the body. It is said that the heart would not burn, and Trelawny snatched it from the flames. He gave it to Mary Shelley, Shelley’s wife and author of Frankenstein (see "Most Difficult"), for a mourning souvenir to be kept by the family. Shelley’s ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where the poet Keats was also buried. The inscription on his tomb is from Shakespeare’s Tempest:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

These leaves were plucked from the gravesite in Rome in June of 1911 by Nellie Porterfield Dunn.


Locket containing George and Martha Washington’s hair

Locket Containing George and Martha Washington’s Hair

Mourning jewelry was a common feature of nineteenth-century funeral customs. Plaits of hair were encased in rings, broaches, and lockets to remind wearers of the deceased. 

Locket with George and Martha Washington’s hair, enamel cover

This enameled locket contains the intertwined hair of George and Martha Washington.


Thomas Jefferson's peruke

Clipped from Thomas Jefferson's peruke

Locks of Hair from Thomas Jefferson

The longer lock of hair was taken from Mr. Jefferson’s peruke several days before he died. The shorter curl was clipped from Mr. Jefferson’s head after his death by his bedside attendant and grandson-in-law, Nicholas Philip Trist. An 1860 description from Godey’s Lady’s Book describes the significance of hair in the mourning customs of the 19th century:

Thomas Jefferson's hair

Thomas Jefferson's hair

"Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials and survives us like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a lock of hair belonging to a child or friend, we may almost look up to Heaven and say: 'I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.'"