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Victorian Art of Death - Oct. 12


“Dear Madam,
… No one can better appreciate than I can, who am myself utterly broken-hearted by the loss of my own beloved Husband, who was the Light of my Life,—my Stay—my All,—What your sufferings must be; and I earnestly pray that you may be supported by Him to whom alone the sorely stricken can look for comfort, in this hour of heavy affliction. …”

– Queen Victoria to Mary Todd Lincoln, April 29, 1865

America’s adopton of Victorian-era funerary customs received a much-needed embrace, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. Still despondent over the death of her own husband, Prince Albert, four years before, Queen Victoria wrote her friend, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln,  and helped influence history an ocean away.

 “The way we dress - in black [is rooted in England],” said Michael Murschel, a funeral consultant, spiritual director and owner of Caring Farewells Funeral Designers in Elgin. “It’s why we do flowers the way we do flowers; why we dress the body; why we have caskets and visitation; why we have a service. … Why we do we call our main gathering room the living room nowadays when it was not called that before 1900? We moved it from the parlor at home to a funeral parlor. We shunt the dead off to other places and that ties into this [program] and how we relate to the grieving process.”
Murschel, author of “The Uncommon History of Elgin, Illinois and Surrounds,” and friend Judi Brownfield, owner of Books at Sunset, will undertake to lead you in a shadowy procession when they present “The Victorian Art of Death” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum, 6422 Main St. in Union.

Murschel, 65, a South Dakota native with Russian descent, moved with his family to Elgin in 1968. In 1975 he married a “third-generation Elginite” and immediately became engrained in Fox Valley history. Not only did his wife, Cate, seemingly know “half the community,” she was related to those operating regional Yurs funeral homes.

He had inadvertently tapped into an underlying passion he had nurtured since a seventh-grade occupational test concluded he was best suited to be a funeral director. And he’s come close. Nor was he ever ordained, despite earning degrees in pastoral care and theology from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in Hyde Park.

Instead, he found another niche – personalized care to those who may not identify with a formal religion or church.

“I saw this huge need and I stepped into there,” Murschel said. “I’m Lutheran, but I don’t want to see anybody go through that pain. How a lot of us view that is we’re doing two things: Ministry to the deceased, to be true to their tradition and to usher that soul or spirit into the next world; and then on the other side of it is the care and attention to the survivors. … To me it’s about healing and closure. All of this transformational language and ritual gets them into a better place.”

His interests evolved to include writing and authoring a quirky book, which led to speaking engagements and eventually a litany of programs. Launched last year, “The Victorian Art of Death,” became a huge hit. Murschel believes he has managed to tap into a public fascination with historic funerary customs and symbolism.

“People are intrigued by this. I believe there is a latent sense in most of us to find out more about the darker side of our traditions – plus it’s Halloween. People are pre-disposed to this type of thing at this time of year,” Murschel said. “It’s Penny Dreadful type stuff, but I handle it in a respectful way. I hold it up and say: ‘This is who we were and this how we have become who we are.’” It’s a transformational moment for a lot of people.”

Murschel said attendees will be treated to a “Ken Burns experience” with readings, letters and real-life images from that time period.

“It’s very engaging,” he said. “People can expect a boatload of their senses being engaged as we transport them back to that time. …

“It’s an abiding passion for me. I love going to cemeteries and looking at monuments. That brings it all to life for me. There is a whole whole underlayment of 1840s and 1850s throughout the Fox Valley. Once you start peeling back the layers of these communities you get an entirely different landscape. It’s like archeology. People become captivated with what lies just under their feet.”

Doors to the museum open at 6:30 p.m. Halloween refreshments in the society’s 1895 West Harmony School follow afterward. Admission is $5 for society members, $10 for nonmembers. For additional information, visit www.gothistory.org.