THE DOWNSIDE of the "good old days" is the basis of an eerily fascinating demonstration at Alexandria's Lee-Fendall House. The historic dwelling has gone into mourning mode to demonstrate the Victorian way of death.

There's a black wreath on the door, the place is draped in black crape (as they spelled it then), the mirrors are covered, and a coffin stands in the front parlor, all in accordance with the solemn Victorian rites of mourning.

It's a sharp change of pace, to say the least, for the nonprofit Virginia Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns and maintains the house. Although once a family seat of the Lees of Virginia, the dwelling was extensively modified in the late 19th century, which makes the Victorian interpretation more logical than one keyed to 1785, when the house was built.

The home was refuge and sanctuary for affluent Victorians buffeted by fast-changing times, docents tell visitors. Death might come at any time to call for any member of a family in these last generations before medicine became a science. "Laying out," embalming and funeral services all generally took place at home, with women particularly constrained to carry out a series of rituals and customs honoring the departed.

"Widow's weeds" grew progressively less somber and more fetching as the months went by, in tacit acknowledgement of the necessity of getting on with life and perhaps seeking a new partner; remembrances took such forms as lockets, jewelry woven from the hair of the deceased, onyx mourning rings and brooches, photographs of the dead person in the coffin.

At first the show may seem macabre to the majority of us to whom modern science and medicine have given the privilege of being able to deny death until it becomes desirable. But in the good old days, the Grim Reaper was the familiar of nearly every child, woman and man. This is an exhibit with great style and unforgettable substance.