As powerful communicative objects, quilts are made for or used in every aspect of human life. Death and mourning are no exception. In American history, quiltmakers have immortalized themselves and memorialized and mourned loved ones through epitaphs, the use of a deceased’s clothing, and the inclusion of mourning ribbons. They have also had their loved ones photographed wrapped in quilts, a valuable object communicating love and warmth even in death. On a larger scale, quiltmakers mourn local and national tragedies through their quilts.
In the 19th century, Americans approached death as a public and common occurrence often with detailed and public rituals for mourning. Special fabrics called mourning fabrics in shades of black, grey, and purple were used for clothing and often in quiltmaking. Album quilts often included memorials to those who have deceased or commission the recipient to “Remember Me.” Crazy quilts included similar epitaphs or ribbons from funeral services. Other quilts of the 19th century were much more direct. The Graveyard Quilt made in Kentucky by Elizabeth Rosemary Mitchell features a graveyard as the center against a field of stars. The coffins in the graveyard and lining the borders of the quilts feature the names of family members. The paper coffins were intended to be moved into the graveyard as each person passed away.
Throughout the 20th century, quiltmakers have continued to make quilts to remember their loved ones, but they also make quilts as part of national memory-making efforts. Following tragedies such as the Challenger explosion in 1986 and September 11, 2001, makers used quilts to express both personal and community grief. During times of war, quiltmakers used quilts to express patriotism, criticism, support for families who had lost loved ones, and their own personal grief. The NAMES Quilt serves as an expression of personal grief while calling a nation to action and awareness.