The Old Wife’s Kiss: 1883

elderly man in white post mortem
Elderly man in white. c. 1840-60


The funeral services were ended; and as the voice of prayer ceased, tears were hastily wiped from wet cheeks, and long-drawn sighs relieved suppressed and choking sobs, as the mourners prepared to take leave of the corpse. It was an old man who lay there, robed for the grave. More than three-score years had whitened those locks, and furrowed that brow, and made those stiff limbs weary of life’s journey, and the more willing to be at rest where weariness is no longer a burden.

The aged have few to weep for them when they die. The most of those who would have mourned their loss have gone to the grave before them; harps that would have sighed sad harmonies are shattered and gone; and the few that remain are looking cradleward, rather than to life’s closing goal; are bound to and living in the generation rising, more than in the generation departing. Youth and beauty have many admirers while living,—have many mourners when dying,—and many tearful ones bend over their coffined clay, many sad hearts follow in their funeral train! but age has few admirers, few mourners.

This was an old man, and the circle of mourners was small: two children, who had themselves passed the middle of life, and who had children of their own to care for and be cared for by them. Beside these, and a few friends who had seen and visited him while he was sick, and possibly had known him for a few years, there were none others to shed a tear, except his old wife; and of this small company, the old wife seemed to be the only heart-mourner. It is respectful for his friends to be sad a few moments, till the service is performed and the hearse is out of sight. It is very proper and suitable for children, who have outgrown the fervency and affection of youth, to shed tears when an aged parent says farewell, and lies down to quiet slumber. Some regrets, some recollection of the past, some transitory griefs, and the pangs are over.

The old wife arose with difficulty from her seat, and went to the coffin to look her last look—to take her last farewell. Through the fast falling tears she gazed long and fondly down into the pale, unconscious face. What did she see there? Others saw nothing but the rigid features of the dead; she saw more. In every wrinkle of that brow she read the history of years; from youth to manhood, from manhood to old age, in joy and sorrow, in sickness and health, it was all there; when those children, who had not quite outgrown the sympathies of childhood, were infants lying on her bosom, and every year since then—there it was. To others those dull, mute monitors were unintelligible; to her they were the alphabet of the heart, familiar as household words.

Then the future: “What will become of me? What shall I do now?” She did not say so, but she felt it. The prospect of the old wife is clouded; the home circle is broken, never to be reunited; the visions of the hearthstone are scattered forever. Up to that hour there was a home to which the heart always turned with fondness. That magic is now sundered, the key-stone of that sacred arch has fallen, and home is nowhere this side of heaven! Shall she gather up the scattered fragments of the broken arch, make them her temple and her shrine, sit down in her chill solitude beside its expiring fires, and die? What shall she do now?

They gently crowded her away from the dead, and the undertaker came forward, with the coffin-lid in his hand. It is all right and proper, of course, it must be done; but to the heart-mourner it brings a kind of shudder, a thrill of agony. The undertaker stood for a moment, with a decent propriety, not wishing to manifest rude haste, but evidently desirous of being as expeditious as possible. Just as he was about to close the coffin, the old wife turned back, and stooping down, imprinted one long, last kiss upon the cold lips of her dead husband, then staggered to her seat, buried her face in her hands, and the closing coffin hid him from her sight forever!

That kiss! fond token of affection, and of sorrow, and memory, and farewell! I have seen many kiss their dead, many such seals of love upon clay-cold lips, but never did I see one so purely sad, so simply heart-touching and hopeless as that. Or, if it had hope, it was that which looks beyond coffins, and charnel-houses, and damp, dark tombs, to the joys of the home above. You would kiss the cold cheek of infancy; there is poetry; it is beauty hushed; there is romance there, for the faded flower is still beautiful. In childhood the heart yields to the stroke of sorrow, but recoils again with elastic faith, buoyant with hope; but here was no beauty, no poetry, no romance.

The heart of the old wife was like the weary swimmer, whose strength has often raised him above the stormy waves, but now, exhausted, sinks amid the surges. The temple of her earthly hopes had fallen, and what was there left for her but to sit down in despondency, among its lonely ruins, and weep and die! or, in the spirit of a better hope, await the dawning of another day, when a Hand divine shall gather its sacred dust, and rebuild for immortality its broken walls!

Gems for the Fireside, Otis Henry Tiffany, 1883: pp 244-246


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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