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A Global History of Child Death

Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes

Amy J. Catalano

Drawing from primary research studies in archaeology, historical analysis, literature, and art this interdisciplinary look at the history of child funerary practices and other vehicles of parental mourning is the only book of its kind. The purpose of this work is to investigate the ways in which funerary behaviors and grieving differ between cultures and across time; from prehistory to modern history. Philippe Aries, the French childhood historian, argued that children were rarely mourned upon their deaths as child death was a frequent and expected event, especially in the Middle Ages. This book draws upon archaeological reports, secondary data analysis, and analysis of literature, photography and artwork to refute, and in some cases support, Aries’s claim. Organized in two parts, Part One begins with a chapter on the causes of childhood mortality and the steps taken to prevent it, followed by chapters on prehistory, ancient civilizations, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the early modern and late modern eras. The chapters in Part Two discuss indicators of parental concern at a child’s death: naming practices, replacement strategy, baptism, consolation literature, and artwork. Students who focus on the psychological aspects of death, funeral practices, and childhood histories will find this book a useful and comprehensive tool for examining how children have been mourned since prehistory.
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9 Consolation Literature: Sympathy Letters, Poetry, and Books on Parental Grief

Plutarch’s Consolation Letter to His Wife

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9

Consolation Literature

Sympathy Letters, Poetry, and Books on Parental Grief

Consolation literature has taken on various forms throughout history. It may be seen in letters between or to grieving parents, lamentation poetry, books of advice on how to deal with the death of a child, or even how to grieve appropriately in public. Some historians consider consolation literature a form of psychotherapy; an avenue by which parents may grieve. For example, Yiddish Holocaust lullabies appear to have been written to sustain morale, “support the psychological structure, and integrate the traumatic loss of a people threatened with psychic disorganization during the Holocaust”.1 This chapter discusses selections of consolation letters, manuals, and poetry written to, about, and by grieving parents.

One of the most well-known examples of consolation literature was written by Plutarch, the Greek historian, philosopher and politician, who eventually became a citizen of Rome. Upon hearing of his two year old daughter’s death, for which he was absent, he wrote a letter to comfort his wife. This letter has been published, commented upon, analyzed and criticized through various perspectives. One interpretation of the letter is that it may be seen as a public show of steadfastness ← 113 | 114 → and dignity; a commentary upon grieving. Another more obvious interpretation is that the letter is a moving attempt to console his grieving wife.

Because Plutarch was away during the death, burial, and subsequent period of mourning, the letter...

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