By Gwen Shrift Sunday Feb 6 2011 Intelligencer Bucks County Courier Times Life & Travel Section
Life At Large. The purpose wonít bear too much 21st century thinking, but the heavy, simperingly white, glass-topped object in Greg Cristianoís shop in New Hope was a necessity for many Victorian parents. Back in the 19th century, you rented it for a home funeral. The cast-iron lid was airtight to protect viewers from deficiencies in the embalming. Glass panels let you see who was in it. It was white, because it was made for a child. Our ancestors grieved in far more flamboyant fashion than we do now.
Besides making sure everybody got a good look at the baby laid out in the parlor, they clipped the dear departedís hair and wove it into wildly elaborate decorations. They adored death masks molded from a late loved oneís face, pictures of flowers caught in the cruel crook of a sickle, tear catchers, mourning brooches, post-mortem portraits, memorial proclamations. Not lost, but gone before. At a time when half the population gulps antidepressants to stave off weeping, it is strange to think that millions of Americans once reveled in sadness. Or this is the surface impression given by Gregís museum-like assemblage of what an earlier age called mourning devices in Teardrop Memories, his Mechanic Street store.
Greg, who is the cheeriest person you will ever meet standing next to a coffin, says all this emerged from the most wholesome of emotions, even landscapes and shadow-box arrangements made of hair, which, speaking in a strictly decorative sense, are hideous. This is all about love, Greg says. Itís not about tribute. You donít let someone touch your hair unless youíre intimate. You donít display it in your home unless it was the same way. Way in back of the shop is a large post mortem photograph of an infant boy named Irving, who died in 1890. Irvingís family dressed him in a long, frilly baptismal robe and propped him on pillows in a stylish chair. You wouldnít do that unless you really loved that kid, says Greg. Nor were condolences perfunctory. People did not say, Youíll get over it. At a funeral and consider their duty done. If you said that 150 years ago, theyíd look at you like youíre from Mars, says Greg.
I would chalk his enthusiasm for death-related culture up to salesmanship, if I hadnít picked up hints that Greg is blessed with a romantic soul and some detailed historical grounding. His introduction to antiques was entwined with a visit to a nursing home, where his then current girlfriendís mother lived. He moved from New York State to Bucks County because of another flame Another lady, another sad tale of woe. He gets a kick out of latenight visits from people who wander in, fresh from the martini circuit, in a state of accelerated relationship development. On date night, Iím real popular. My shop is like the proving ground. The things here are thought-provoking, he said.
The thought this provokes in my mind is gratitude at not having to fashion hair into palm trees or embroider dismal sentiments on canvas. The older I get, the worse I look in black. If somebodyís idea of consolation is a pat on the back, itís OK with me. Yet who knows? Back in the day, a maiden with a literary bent could have turned into Emmeline Grangerford. She was the adolescent alleged poetess who stalked bereaved neighbors with memorial offerings in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain clearly had had it up to there with his generationís mourning rites.
At Teardrop Memories, the flip side of the curious dater is the customer who freaks out and leaves, said Greg. I get a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of lectures. Also, a memorable anonymous letter from a visitor who said his wife was traumatized. The Victorian backstory is compelling. Counterintuitively to our eyes, these people were less relaxed about death than we are. First, there was the Civil War ó now thereís trauma ó which exploded a continent with grief. Then came the mechanized artillery of World War I, which reduced killing to an assembly-line operation. The mourning gradually changed by 1914, said Greg. When you could kill someone with a long-range gun, there was no personal touch to war and death.
Lots of what you see in New Hope is commonplace. Gregís shop is not. Itís worth pondering what we understand least, such as the postmortem baby photograph or the woven-hair bracelet. Responsibility and feeling seem like vanishing quantities in our antiseptic, digital worldview, and this is where we part ways with our crepe-hanging forebears. Thatís truly sad.