Museum in Drexel, Pa., explores the art of mourning

September 23, 1990|By Lita Solis-Cohen

There is a new museum devoted to the fine art of mourning; probably the only one of its kind. It's on the grounds of a 200-acre, non-denominational cemetery in Drexel, Pa., which was named Arlington upon its founding in 1895, in reverence to the national shrine.

The building that houses the mourning museum is a recently completed replica of Mount Vernon. Hearses, mourners and other visitors approach it by a circular drive bordered by posts and chains just like the drive at Mount Vernon.

Inside, it is rather different from Mount Vernon. The entrance resembles the lobby of an inn, and it leads to a chapel that replicates the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Va., except that the antique wooden pews are from an old church in South Philadelphia. One can leave the chapel through the side door and enter the museum, which occupies the east wing of the building. The cemetery's busy business offices are in the west wing.

The six acres of rolling lawn behind the building have been designated for scattering ashes and are planted with trees, but only the varieties that grow at Mount Vernon.

The Mount Vernon replica, faithful even to the wooden siding scored and painted to simulate ashlar stone, and the museum itself, were the ideas of Irvin and Anita Schorsch, who have been collecting English and American mourning art for 20 years and now have a place to show some of it.

The Schorsches were among the first to collect mourning pictures: watercolors and needlework renderings of weeping figures at a tomb. They went on to assemble a large assortment of mourning jewelry -- gold enameled rings, gold lockets and brooches decorated with painted ivory pictures of weeping willows and weeping widows. They collected hatchments, which are diamond-shaped coats of arms that hung on the hearse and then the door of the deceased's house after the funeral.

More recently the Schorsches have begun collecting books of funeral sermons, manuals on death and dying, books of mourners' poetry and broadsides of elegies, which were tacked on to the hearse and distributed at funerals in the 17th and 18th centuries. They bought two horse-drawn hearses, one black and the other white. The black one is on view in the museum along with a cast-iron cemetery gate and a closet full of 18th and 19th century mourning clothes.

The Schorsches, who have a controlling interest in the cemetery, oversaw the construction, and picked out the reproduction Queen Anne and Chippendale furnishings. The museum has been installed by professional designers, who used enlargements of prints as backgrounds, beginning with Durer's famous Melancholia and ending with Phyllis Wheatley's Elegy for the Reverend George Whitfield. In between are photographs of New England gravestones chiseled with sculls and crossbones and winged cherubs.

In the cases and on the walls is a broad spectrum of mourning art, paraphernalia and related items. Three prints by the Pennsylvania German, Christian Peters, trace the rocky road to Paradise and the grassy path to Hell.

Mourning jewelry representing the English tradition includes a dozen enameled rings -- white ones for virgins, black ones for marrieds -- decorated with skulls and crossbones, a holdover of the momenti mori of the middle ages.

The mourning pictures include a number in needlework depicting mourners at the grave of George Washington. They are truly an art form now much appreciated. (The auction record for a silk needlework mourning picture is $77,000, paid for a Washington memorial by dealer Marguerite Riordan at a sale in 1987.).

"The museum is designed to be uplifting, not depressing," said Irvin Schorsch. "We expect groups to come on tour, by appointment, and when they see how beautifully the cemetery is landscaped and kept, they will be impressed. Funeral directors have asked if they can use Arlington in their advertising and people are already asking if they can hold a wedding here."

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