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Waterford Ghosts: Mary Moody Emerson’s Freaky Fashion Statement

by Brenda Hambleton

Ralph Waldo Emerson's aunt Mary Moody Emerson bought a 150-acre farm in Waterford with an inheritance from her Aunt Ruth, and she called it "Elm Vale." It became her "sanctuary," and Ralph visited her there. Though she loved Elm Vale, she lived there only sporadically, for she was unmarried and frequently called upon to care for relatives.

Mary was just four feet two inches tall and had short blonde hair. She was eccentric and did not care what others thought of her. She was fascinated by death – so much so that her friends cheerfully greeted her by quoting Shakespeare, “I wish you the joy of the worm.” For many years Mary slept in a coffin-shaped bed. One hot summer day, she shed her heavy skirt, corset, and stockings for the burial shroud she made for herself. It was so comfortable that she continued to wear it even when riding horseback. She made new shrouds as the old ones wore out.

From "Costumes from the Grave," more detail is given on death shrouds, popular in the 1800s.

"Every dress intended expressly for the dead may be styled, generically, a shroud. Modern usage, however, makes a distinction according to the color of the dresses, applying the term “Shroud” to those which are black or white and “habit” to those of brown material. Only black, white or brown material is used. There are large shops for the manufacture of dresses for the dead, as for clothing for the living. The manufacturer sells to the undertaker. He usually makes coffins and coffin trimmings, and everything he sells to the undertaker is, as a rule, sold for just half of the retail price and often for less than half. A lawn shroud that is retailed to the mourner for $2.25 costs the undertaker, usually 90 cents."

Images of death and longing filled her writing. She died in 1863 at almost ninety years old while in Concord caring for family, so she is buried there. But her heart was always in Elm Vale — she often wrote of “pitifully ... saying goodbye” when she was away from Elm Vale.

It's easy to imagine that her spirit visits her “sanctuary,” that a small figure, wearing a shroud, can be seen strolling through Elm Vale. She reflected, "The humblest example of meekness will shine in light when the meteors are gone …. Good night. Oh for that ‘long and moonless night’ to shadow my dust, tho’ I have nothing to leave but my carcass to fatten the earth—it is for my own sake I long to go."

Happy Halloween!

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