When Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in the East Room of the White House, “the windows at either end of the room were draped with black barege, the frames of the mirrors between the windows, as well as those over the marble mantles, being heavily draped with the same material. The heavy gildings of the frames were entirely enshrouded, while the plates of the mirrors were covered with white crape.” Likewise, when the railroad magnate Charles Crocker died in San Francisco in 1888, all of the paintings in his house were turned to the wall. The custom of draping mirrors and paintings with black mourning ribbons was most commonly practiced not in Holland in the seventeenth century, but in England and America in the nineteenth. Draping mirrors and paintings with black borders, or in some cases covering them up entirely, is one of the recurring features of Victorian mourning culture, with its peculiar obsession with the trappings of death.
The Victorians had a great love of such grand, ostentatious gestures, and had gradually evolved mourning itself into a display of wealth and status. As James Stevens Curl writes, “the expressions of social position and status [are] found in coffin-plates and -handles, in hearses, in mourning-cards, and in dress. They are found among the faded, discoloured mementoes of another age (a past that in many respects seems infinitely remote), and include black-edged mourning envelopes and stationery; immortelles or artificial flowers protected by glass domes; embossed patterns around verses of a lugubrious nature; and dried, colourless leaves from wreaths long collapsed to dust.” The draped mirror was only one gesture in a whole panoply of mourning practices. Particularly in an age defined by excessive mourning—in which one could never have too many black ostrich plumes, too many pages bearing wands in front of the casket, too many black silk scarves or coaches with horses—the simple act of draping a mirror threatens to fade into the background noise of a cacophony of grief.
But this practice of covering mirrors with fabric extends far beyond the Victorian period. In parts of Germany and in Belgium, it was long customary to cover mirrors with a white cloth because it was thought that if a person saw his or her image in a mirror after a death in the household, that person would die shortly. In different parts of China, mirrors are immediately covered upon a death, or turned upside down. “The Suni Mohammedans of Bombay,” writes James Frazer in The Golden Bough, “cover with a cloth the mirror in the room of a dying man and do not remove it until the corpse is carried out for burial.” According to Frazer, covering mirrors or turning them to the walls appears in England and in Scotland, in Madagascar and in the Crimea, particularly in Judaism, one of the few cultures in which it still persists to this day.
W. G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn ends, “Sir Thomas Browne… remarks in a passage of the Pseudodoxia Epidemica that I can no longer find that in the Holland of his time it was customary, in a home where there had been a death, to drape black mourning ribbons over all the mirrors and all canvasses depicting landscapes or people or the fruits of the field, so that the soul, as it left the body, would not be distracted on its final journey, either by a reflection of itself or by a last glimpse of the land now being lost for ever.”
It is an odd sentence, curiously conditional: up until this point the novel is sure-footed, as Sebald’s narrator walks through the Norwich countryside, revisiting the past and tracing themes in Browne’s writing—but here is this sudden moment of indecision, a lapse in memory from an otherwise confident narrator. The effect on the book as a whole of this stammering in the final line is a calling of attention to a failure to locate or remember this citation, the passage now lost.
In Judaism, covering mirrors is not dissimilar from rending one’s clothing: a display of humility and an avoidance of vanity, focusing all of one’s attention towards the dead. But Jewish sources also speak of ghosts.
The draping of mirrors appears in Prudence Punderson’s needlework masterpiece, The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality. Punderson completed it sometime in the early 1780s, shortly before her death. It displays, from right to left, Punderson’s birth, her adulthood, and her death, and is noteworthy in that it places as its center a woman engaged not in domestic chores but in artistic pursuit, and features an African slave prominently integrated into the home life of a white family. But it also shows, above the coffin of Punderson, a mirror draped in a white cloth, suggesting the practice was well-entrenched in the United States long before the Victorian era.
There seems to be no universal reason behind the custom. Reginald Fleming Johnston, documenting this practice in China in 1910, claimed that the reason mirrors are covered is because “if the dead man happens to notice a reflection of himself in the glass he will be much horrified to find that he has become a ghost, and much disappointed with his own appearance as such.” Johnston also notes that for some, there is a belief that “every mirror has a mysterious faculty of invisibly retaining and storing up everything that is reflected on its surface, and that if anything so ill-omened as a corpse or a ghost were to pass before it, the mirror would thenceforth become a permanent radiator of bad luck.”
A 1964 survey of North Carolina customs offered a slew of sometimes contradictory explanations: mirrors must be covered otherwise whoever looks into the mirror will be seriously sick during the year, or because if you see a corpse’s picture in the mirror there will be another death in the same house in less than a month. You should cover the mirror in a house where there’s been a death because the soul of the dead person wanders around for three days, and it should not see itself in the mirror—if this happens the mirrors will tarnish and never be clean again, or in days to come the mirror will turn and make a picture of the dead.
Sometimes people simply don’t know. In 1773 the Scottish Reverend George Low visited the northern Orkney islands, and, questioning locals about their funerary customs, confessed: “I know not for what reason they lock up all the cats of the house, and cover all looking glasses as soon as any of the family dies, nor can they give any satisfactory account of it.”
Judaism is one of the few cultures that still practices this tradition, and because of this (as well as a long tradition of exegesis and explanation), Jewish explanations for covering mirrors have often been seen as authoritative. Mirrors are covered in a house during shiva because one must never pray before a mirror—a centuries-old prohibition meant to prevent one’s concentration being broken. A second reason is closely related: if one prays in front of a mirror, it may appear that the person is bowing to him or herself, and during mourning one focuses on the deceased and avoids all appearances of vanity. Covering mirrors is not dissimilar from rending one’s clothing: a display of humility and an avoidance of vanity, focusing all of one’s attention towards the dead.
But Jewish sources also speak of ghosts. The Talmud mentions that mourners need special protection from evil spirits, and that looking into mirrors not only leads to arrogance but also gives power to evil spirits. Some have argued that mirrors are covered in a house during shiva because evil spirits are commonly found in homes where a death has occurred, and that during shiva spirits can most easily attach themselves to the reflections in mirrors, so they must be covered or turned around.
The ritual prohibitions—such as not wanting to appear vain, rending one’s clothing, etc.—have to do with turning the focus to the dead rather than the living, ensuring that her or his memory is enshrined. The superstitious reasons, however, involve an opposite motivation: we fear the dead, fear the power they continue to exert over us, and so take steps to ensure that they do not continue to haunt us, that they leave us quietly and do not return in mirrors or in other ways. Draping a mirror after a death, depending on how you look at it, is either to protect the dead or to protect the living.
The period of mourning is always delicate, temporally speaking. The procession from death to the afterlife is represented in many human cultures as a journey, sometimes including a psychopomp like Anubis or Charon, a ferryman to guide us on our way. A one-way trip to a new destination, it is at the same time a process of forgetting, a baptism in the River Lethe. Mourning involves not just guiding the dead on their way, but encouraging them to forget, all the while reminding ourselves—those left behind—to remember. Memory, you could say, is a thing that only belongs to the living. Grieving is presented as a gift: we, who are left behind, will now bear the burden of remembering; you dead may go on your way, free from that terrible obligation of memory.
The covered mirror is a gesture with a curious ambivalence: bearing the traces both of ritual and of superstition, a way of honoring the dead and warding them off, a solemn vow that hides within the fear of something going wrong.
Mirrors, with their distracting reflections, along with paintings that may display earthly wealth, are dangerous to the extent that they disrupt this travel and this process of forgetting. Mirrors must be covered so the dead don’t accidentally remember what they have been asked to forget. This motivation is perhaps as important—and certainly more primal—than the promise that we will remember our dead.
The covered mirror, then, is a gesture with a curious ambivalence: bearing the traces both of ritual and of superstition, a way of honoring the dead and warding them off, a solemn vow that hides within the fear of something going wrong.
But all memorial practices harbor some degree of ambivalence. Sebald himself, writing of his visit to the graves at Piana in Corsica and their endless rows of soldiers’ monuments—each inscribed simply with either Regrets or regrets éternels—remarks that “like almost all the phrases in which we express our feelings for those who have gone before, it is not without ambiguity, for not only does the announcement of the everlasting inconsolability of the bereaved confine itself to the absolute minimum, it also sounds, it one stops to consider it, almost like an admission to the dead of guilt, a halfhearted request for forbearance made to those laid in the earth before their time.”
All of Sebald’s writing, one way or another, is attuned to the questions and tensions of mourning, and the subtle contours by which it takes shape. When he references Browne’s comment on draped mirrors and paintings, Sebald focuses specifically on taking care of the dead, keeping them from getting distracted as a gesture of kindness, of helping ease the transition of the dead from the burden of remembering towards their new life free of memory.
But Browne never wrote the line Sebald quoted; scholars can’t seem to find any reference to draped mirrors inPseudodoxia Epidemica, or in any of his other writings. The citation that ends Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, of mirrors and landscape paintings draped with black silk, it would seem, is an invention cut whole from cloth.
In fact, as I discovered a few years ago, the source of Sebald’s anecdote comes not from Browne, but from another work from the same period: Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy—a work that shares many of the same affinities, particularly its obsession with mourning and melancholy, and which influenced Sebald as deeply. There are good reasons, artistically speaking, for this sleight-of-hand: ending with a reference to Burton rather than Browne would have of course destroyed the equilibrium of the text as Sebald has constructed it, disrupting the constant refrain to Browne. Additionally Burton, despite being the source for this custom, writes from a different temperament than Browne, less prone to reveling in grief and sadness. In his catalogue of all the causes of melancholy, Burton minimizes many, including what he felt to be the kind of excessive grief that might lay low even the most composed of great men. As he writes midway through the second volume of the Anatomy, “we do not forbid men to grieve, but to grieve overmuch…. I require a moderation as well as a just reason.” Burton saw a great deal of nonsense in the notion that the dead might look back wistfully on what they were about to leave behind. “For what is there in this life, that it should be so dear unto us? Or that we should so much deplore the departure of a friend? The greatest pleasures are common society, to enjoy one another’s presence, feasting, hawking, hunting, brooks, woods, hills, music, dancing, etc.; all this is but vanity and loss of time, as I have sufficiently declared.”
A few years ago, the theologian Zvi Ron set out to trace the origins of the practice of covered mirrors in Judaism, to finally establish the provenance of the ritual. He discovered that the earliest rabbinical mention of the practice dates to the eighteenth century. The ritual of overturning mirrors has in fact quite a different origin in Jewish theology—an older practice known as kefiat hamittah, the ritual act of overturning the beds in a household where a death has occurred. The practice of overturning beds is an ancient one, for which a few reasons are offered. One: man was created in the image of God, but this image was “overturned” by human sin, and thus to represent this we overturn our beds. And second: the marital bed is the facilitator of new life, and so in the presence of a death it must be overturned. Other rabbinical authorities also note the connection between overturned beds and turned mirrors: “both act as reminders that intimate relations are suspended during the shiva; furthermore, mirrors are an expression of vanity and should not be used in a house of mourning.”
But since references to overturned or covered mirrors predate the Jewish explanations, and appear in such far-flung locales, Ron ultimately concludes that it is most probable that Jews adopted this tradition from their neighbors, and that Rabbis gradually incorporated it into the tradition in order to both honor these folk beliefs and to codify them.
Even as we make a pact with the dead, promising to bear the burden of memory so that they can be free to forget, we know that it is a pact that we are always breaking, that we cannot hope to keep forever.
The actual origins of the practice, then, seem to have been forgotten. Or, put another way, so many different explanations have been offered as to create a kind of cacophony that makes the true origins extremely unlikely to be recovered. Wherever it originated, it seems to have had such an immediate and strong resonance that it was adopted by a wide variety of peoples for different reasons that overlap but are not identical.
Our inability to trace the origins and meanings of such mourning rituals suggests that we sometimes carry out practices whose meaning we do not know and could not hope to know or to understand. It is often the physical act of the ritual itself, more than any possible meaning behind it, which matters. The ritual act itself is something of an empty vessel: it holds whatever we put into it, means what we want it to mean. We no longer remember why we began to do it. And yet it is a practice that is often explicitly about remembering, about not forgetting, about bearing the burden of remembering so that the dead can let go of their memories, so they can forget the beauty of their lives and move on into that other realm.
But even as we make a pact with the dead, promising to bear the burden of memory so that they can be free to forget, we know that it is a pact that we are always breaking, that we cannot hope to keep forever. Perhaps this standard is too high to set; perhaps we should not agree to perpetually remember, that this obligation on behalf of those departed is itself a kind of life sentence. If the draped mirror has two meanings—if we seek not just to honor the dead but also to protect ourselves from their wrath—this is because we know secretly we are incapable of honoring our promises, and that the departed, having been forgotten by us, are now forced to remember, and to return to haunt us.
Our relationship to the dead, I cannot help but thinking, perhaps mirrors the story of two mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who, in 1985, tried to summit Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. After Simpson broke his leg on the ascent, the two realized they could not go further, and Yates began to lower Simpson via a belay rope. But as the snow and fog settled over them, they became confused, lost, and Yates ended up inadvertently lowering Simpson over the side of a cliff. With all of Simpson’s weight now on the rope, and Simpson himself unable to climb back up to safety, Yates began to realize that his own strength was ebbing, meaning both men would soon fall. And so Yates decided, finally, to cut the rope holding his partner, sacrificing his friend rather than kill them both.
That moment in which Yates cut the rope must have been emotionally unbearable, beyond agony, and yet to free himself of the great burden of Simpson’s body dragging him to his own death must have brought with it an exquisite relief—bordering, perhaps, on ecstasy. Here, perhaps, is an appropriate metaphor for our relationship to the dead, and the pleasurable relief that comes in that moment of ultimate betrayal.
I read the story of these two mountaineers years ago, and while I can no longer recall the fate of Joe Simpson, the man who went over the cliff, for years Yates was remembered among mountain climbers simply as “the man who cut the rope,” a fate he had to suffer with all its attendant guilt and disdain from those climbers who of course assumed that they would never, in similar circumstances, make such a decision. As though any of us knows well in advance the course we will take when confronted by death.
This, anyway, is how I read Sebald’s act of false misremembering at the end of The Rings of Saturn, as something akin to the pleasure that comes with betrayal—a betrayal of the dead for whom he has promised to accurately and faithfully remember; a betrayal of Browne himself, who, as a faithful reader, Sebald has willfully misrepresented; and a betrayal of his own reader, to whom Sebald has presented himself as a trusted and accurate source. All while admitting and even welcoming the pleasure that comes from such a betrayal, from the lapse in memory, even if that lapse is itself fictional, and has to be imagined by a mind that is condemned to remember far too much.
Grief and memory mirror each other, writes Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, and, as with one stepping back slowly from a mirror, gradually our grief fades with forgetting. This is one of only two times in the entire book that Burton mentions mirrors; the other, of course, is the passage that Sebald misattributes to Browne at the end of The Rings of Saturn. Or so I thought for many years—for I can remember clearly discovering the passage in that labyrinth of Burton’s book, just hours before meeting a former student for coffee, so that, when she arrived, The Anatomy of Melancholy on the table between us, I told her with great joy the results of my literary sleuthing, my uncovering of this rare secret. But in preparing these notes I have gone back obsessively through my copy of Burton trying to find the reference, and I regret that, despite my best intentions, I have lost the passage.