Death and Mourning Practices in the Victorian Age

Victorian rules for the end of life.

Posted Dec 08, 2018

Carl Rudolph Sohn (1845-1908) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Queen Victoria, in a mourning head-dress
Source: Carl Rudolph Sohn (1845-1908) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Victorian society of the late 1800s was obsessed with death. Queen Victoria set the tone for this after the death of her husband Prince Albert. She was devastated by his passing and mourned him for the rest of her life. It is rare that one sees a picture of the Queen when she was not dressed in full mourning apparel. There is an unending list of rules and regulations regarding death, burials, and mourning in this era. Not to follow the rules meant that the offender was somehow ammoral or dishonoring the deceased. This was so important that it did not matter if it presented a financial hardship for the poor. Many would begin saving early in life and foregoing other things to ensure that they had a good burial.

Franz Vester, Newark NJ [Public doman], via Wikimedia Commons
US Patent for a coffin equipped with a bell
Source: "Improved Burial-Case", US Patent No. 81,437 Issued: August 25, 1868 Inventor: Franz Vester, Newark NJ [Public doman], via Wikimedia Commons

Death was a frequent visitor during the Victorian era and people began planning for it while they were young.  Dying was an open and ongoing conversation. As death approached, there was no ambiguity as to what the person wanted or what was expected of the family. The family knew in advance what type of coffin the dying wanted, where they wanted to be buried and what they wanted to wear. Women frequently made their own shrouds and would even include them in their wedding dowry. [1] The Victorians also had a fear of being buried alive as this was not an uncommon occurrence at the time. The dying could even choose to have their coffin equipped with a bell that could be rung if they revived in the grave or a poison that could be taken to ensure a quick and certain death.  It was during this time that there was a flourishing of funeral-related businesses including coffin makers, embalmers, and gravediggers. It was also during this time that burials were moved to large parks in the country as the cities no longer had room to continue burying the dead near their homes.

Etiquette rules related to the mourning period were many and complicated. They encompassed how long one should mourn, for whom, as well as what should be worn in each phase of mourning. There were also rules about what those attending the funeral should wear and how to behave. There were three distinct mourning periods: deep mourning or full mourning, second mourning and half mourning. The length of time for each period would depend on the relationship with the deceased. For example, women were to be in deep mourning for two years after their husband’s death, essentially keeping them from being comforted by others. [2]

Thayne Tuason [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Victorian Mourning Jewelry, containing a lock of hair from the deceased
Source: Thayne Tuason [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

There were rules of what men and women should wear in each period of mourning. Men merely had to wear black gloves, a dark suit and a black band around their hat. There were no specific rules for children to wear black but sometimes little girls would wear white. The rules of what one could wear in each period of mourning were much more austere for women. The dress dictated for women was uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Women were to be dressed completely in black covered in crepe, a stiff, scratchy fabric. In addition to the uncomfortable crepe, women wore crinoline petticoats also made of a stiff fabric which often caught fire when they cooked. Crepe was used extensively during the mourning period. It was draped across the door and hung on the doorknob. Stationary and cards were to have a black border representing the crepe. Women were allowed to wear jewelry during the second phase of mourning. Their rings, broaches, and lockets were often made from the hair of the deceased. [3] It is said that Queen Victoria started this trend by always wearing a locket of Prince Albert’s hair.

In the Victorian era, no one would ever think of telling a mourner that they had grieved long enough or that they should hurry up and get over it. Indeed it would have been a most egregious breach of protocol to do so. But this is often what is told to mourners today. We are less tolerant of peoples’ grief. Many of our customs today would certainly be shocking to someone from the Victorian era, as we are generally much less formal. The Victorians would have been aghast at a funeral that was a celebration of life or a home going. A green funeral where the focus of the burial is on protecting the environment would have been an outrage. We still wear mourning jewelry but today it is more likely to contain the ashes of the deceased. Over the years, we have become a society that does not want to think or talk about death. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Victorians is their openness in talking about and planning for death. It does not need to be the focus of our lives as it was then, but we do need to have more of these important conversations.

References

[1] Woodyard, Chris. (2014) The Victorian Book of the Dead (The Ghosts of the Past 4). Dayton, Ohio. Kestrel Publications.

[2] http://www.avictorian.com/mourning.html

[3] Bronte, Emily Ann. (2018) Victorian Mourning Jewelry. Amazon Digital Service: Emily Bronte.