The old way to die

'Mourning Col. Stephenson' is October exhibit at Stephenson House
2011-09-29T05:45:00Z 2012-07-16T14:27:07Z The old way to dieBy Jim Merkel stltoday.com
September 29, 2011 5:45 am  • 

Nearly 200 years ago, people laid shroud-covered bodies of loved ones in a room of their homes, while a cabinet maker made a coffin.

If it was summer, flowers or something else with a strong scent might be brought in to mask the, er, odor during the two or three hot days it took to make the box. "Depending on the time of the year, you might have a real issue on your hands," said RoxAnn Raisner, director at the 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House, 409 S. Buchanan St. Edwardsville.

The way bodies of the dearly departed were laid out will be one of the subjects in "Mourning Col. Stephenson," an exhibit on mourning customs around the time Stephenson died on Oct. 10, 1822. The popular annual exhibit will be held throughout October at the Stephenson House.

Stephenson was a politician and businessman in Edwardsville and the region before and after Illinois became a state.

During the exhibit, guides will be in black and those on the tour will learn about practices such as covering the body until the coffin is made.

"The fact that he (Stephenson) died in October kind of adds to the Halloween-type genre," Raisner said.

The mourning period covered is from the time of Stephenson's death to five weeks later, when an auction of properties was held.

"We set up everything within the house to represent a different day within that five weeks," she said.

The parlor, where the coffin will be, will be darkened. "Anything reflective is either removed, or it's covered," Raisner said.

The dining room will contain the items to be sold in the auction. The master bedroom upstairs where Stephenson died has a display of medicines used at the time.

The exhibit has drawn school groups, including one from Lincoln Middle School in Edwardsville. Cynthia Herndon, who brought her seventh-grade language arts class, said the subject matter appeals to seventh-graders' love of anything gross. It also provides fodder for ghost stories they write in her class.

"The fact that they have the coffin sitting there for several days, they find that very interesting," Herndon said.

Contact reporter Jim Merkel at 618-344-0264, ext. 138

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