Death Parts United Hearts

I wrote this miniscule essay for work and it’s never seen the light of day. Let me know what you think:

Are you wearing a ring at this moment? What kind of ring is it? If you think about it, rings are inherently symbolic. For the MIT graduate, the distinctive square beaver ring announces long hours over mathematical equations. The diamond crusted “bling” of a super bowl ring declares dedication on the gridiron. Wedding rings symbolize that the wearer is committed to another.

Typical 18th Century Ring

Typical 18th Century Mourning Ring

Are you wearing a mourning ring? Never heard of one? They reached popularity in the late 18th century to remember the deceased. Does your wedding ring have an inscription? For these rings phrases like “Love conquers all,” “My heart is yours,” and “Forever and always” are the most popular. Mourning rings bore inscriptions such as, “Death parts united hearts,” and “Death conquers all.” These rings were made of gold and enameled in black. Decorated with coffins, sometimes the ring held a framed lock of the deceased.

Historic New England.

English or American, 1782. Source: Historic New England.

Similar to wedding rings, jewelry makers kept mourning rings in stock. When bought, the name or initials of the deceased and date of death were engraved. Letters were sent to distant friends and relations to buy a ring and send the bill to them. It is typical to read old diaries and come across accounts such as, “Made a ring at the funeral,” or “Lost a ring [by not attending].”

The usual dilemma of our 18th century ancestors was what to do with all the rings they accumulated over the years. The custom had become so overdone that by 1741 the Massachusetts provincial government outlawed the giving of mourning rings, “upon penalty of 50 pounds.” The typical solution may have been to throw out or melt down the rings for money because finding historic mourning rings on the market today is quite rare.

Bakelite, 1940s

Bakelite, 1940s

Though the practice of wearing mourning rings is not common in contemporary America, it is not extinct. Bakelite mourning rings were produced in the 1940s which included a photo of the deceased. Rings were created to memorialize the New York City firefighters lost on 911.

It’s true that mourning rings are an artifact of a time when death struck frequently and coping with such an unrelenting reality was needed. Perhaps these rings are a necessary expedient in today’s culture. When the popular notion is to “get on” with life, such a portable reminder of a lost loved one may help the grieving do just that.

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2 responses to “Death Parts United Hearts

  1. You learn something new everyday!!

  2. This is a fascinating story of our history and heritage. To think, the value and significance of life in the 18th century was pervasively manifested with such beautiful symbolism. Thank you for sharing such a well written story.

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