Imagine if one of the Obama daughters were to contract some dreadful disease and die. It would be all over the news, cameras would follow the family, and there would be (rightly so) a sort of national outpouring of grief for the family – all political issues set aside.
It was 150 years ago this past week that Abraham and Mary Lincoln lost their second surviving son, Willie, at age 11 to Typhoid Fever. (The same year Willie was born, they lost their second birth son.) Younger brother Tad was sick at the same time with the same disease, and oldest son Robert was a student at Harvard.
It was on this date that the news of the burial was reported briefly in the New York Times. The death had occurred on the 21st, with the funeral on the 24th. The funeral was in the Green Room of the White House, and attended by a private gathering. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. A Doctor Charles Brown – noted for his perfecting of the embalming process – did the preservation work on the body. Certainly the following seems strange to us, but the Lincolns actually had the body disinterred twice to view it! Yes, odd … but it speaks to the depth of grief suffered by the First Family.
Of that grief, Lincoln is quoted as standing at the foot of bed where the boy had just passed, and saying, “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!” Mary Lincoln was nearly completely inconsolable, and did not attend the funeral or burial. Apparently, as the funeral was progressing, a storm of violent proportion was raging on the other side of the windows. This engendered more than a few comments upon the convulsive emotions of the moment and occasion.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Willie’s casket was exhumed and he accompanied his father on the funeral train back to Springfield, Illinois.
I am sure Lincoln felt the need to not make a public spectacle of his grief, knowing that there where thousands upon thousands of homes having lost sons in the fratricidal conflict engulfing the nation. Of course, the 19th century was an age where the loss of children before maturation to adulthood was more the norm than the exception.
We tend to sometimes romanticize certain eras of the past … moved by the grandeur of an age where occurred gigantic events affecting the global structure of that present day and many decades to follow. But really? Would we want to live with our families in a time preceding modern medicine and all the benefits of public health?
I’ve always been moved by the circumstances of the Lincoln family and their boys … perhaps because I have five boys myself. My heart is moved by their losses. Beyond that, as compared to the President, I don’t have to deal with a rather crazy and bizarre wife! We have had a couple of life-threatening situations with our sons, but by God’s grace, we’ve seen them survive. Only one of the Lincoln’s four sons would survive both parents (Tad died at age 18 in 1871).