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  • Barbra Davis

Tear Bottles -- an Old Tradition Updated for the 21st Century

Updated: May 4, 2022

When I lost my daughter a few years ago, I quickly learned the value of memorial gifts. While I received dozens of calls, hundreds of cards, and many personal assurances, it is the beautiful gift from a special friend that lingers in my mind. Every time I see that lovely throw, I think of my daughter and am grateful to have shared her life, even for a short time.

Since I sell my stained glass creations online, and I already had some memorial items listed, it seemed only natural to want others to experience the same comfort and peace from a memorial gift. I began to look for new and different expressions of sympathy I could create for people to give as sympathy gifts. In the process, I discovered the age-old tradition of using "tear bottles" to express grief and remembrance.

The History

Tear Bottles have been a part of the world's history from a very early date. Historians have discovered them in both ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire. In fact, it seems the tradition dates back nearly 3,000 years!

The Bible refers to the idea of collecting tears, though it’s God doing the collecting. In Psalm 56:8, David writes, "You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book." (New Living Translation) This verse was written over 1000 years before the birth of Jesus.

Tear bottles were fairly common during the time of Christ. Mourners generally placed them in tombs when burying their loved ones as a sign of respect. During that age, the more anguish and tears the deceased could generate, the more valued they were thought to be.

History even shows that women mourners were sometimes hired to cry into the bottles during the funeral procession. Those crying loudest, or producing the most tears, were supposedly paid the most.

Tear bottles made a comeback during the Victorian era, when once again mourners began collecting their tears in tiny bottles with special stoppers. Traditionally, when the tears evaporated, the official period of mourning ended. However, the family kept the empty bottle as a token of continuing love.

The Purpose

The original purpose of the bottles, also called lachrymatories, was to provide a place for mourners to collect their tears throughout the grieving process. Today tear bottles are sometimes given for occasions besides the death of a loved one; for example, as a commemoration at weddings, births and anniversaries.

One of the most precious ideas I discovered was the exchanging of tear bottles between a mother and daughter, representing the tears that have been shed between them. Unlike flowers, cards or phone calls, tear bottles last for years and can be handed down to others. They are often a powerful expression of sympathy, love and devotion.

Characteristics of Tear Bottles

Tear bottles are also called lachrymatory bottles, tear catchers, tear vials, unguentaria, or unguentarium. The tear bottle is generally about 2-4 inches high and made of glass or ceramic. Sometimes it is formed in the shape of a tear drop, thus providing an hint about the purpose of the container. The bottle usually has a long, narrow neck, and a stopper which is often made of cork to allow the tears to evaporate.

Whatever you call it, the tear bottle is an age-old tradition which updates nicely for modern times. We all want to remember loved ones we lose, and we enjoy finding unique ways to commemorate special events and times in our lives. Whatever memory you want to create, why not choose a tear bottle?


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