Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Victorian Death and Mourning Rituals

The Victorians had an obsession with death. The results of their obsession produced some of the most ornate, unusual, and beautiful examples of funerary ritual, mourning ornaments, cemeteries, and sepulchral monuments ever created. The Victorian era (1837-1901) was one of great formality. There were formal rituals for every one of life’s milestones, holidays, birthdays, weddings, but by far the most elaborate rituals were reserved for the funeral.

The Victorian attitude toward death was that it was inevitable. Like any other part of living one must be prepared to die. The mortality rate was quite high in this era. A man in the middle 1800’s could expect to live to between 18 and 38 years old on average. The infant mortality rate was very high, and death was often an unwelcome but expected visitor. This way of thinking enabled one to plan ahead and make well in advance arrangements to have as large and ornate a sending off as one could afford. To the Victorians a “parish funeral” (a funeral paid for out of the parish coffers) or worse yet a “paupers funeral” (a funeral which was non descript and paid for by the state) was the ultimate public humiliation, and was to be avoided at all cost! Every Victorian was accustomed to the many lavish and complex rituals and social expectations of their society, including the elaborate means to which they celebrated death and mourning with a style never equaled. (The Victorian Undertaker 4-5).


Death in Victorian society was treated with an elaborate, solemn reverence. In middle to upper class families, the front door would be adorned with a large black, crape (a stiff, black fabric used by the Victorians exclusively for mourning and funerary needs) covered wreath, while inside lights were kept dim, and clocks were stopped. All mirrors were covered with a sheet of black crape lest the spirit of the newly departed become trapped inside the mirror. The deceased would be laid out in a simple wooden coffin, covered with satin and crape, until the newly ordered coffin could be delivered. In cases of a lingering illness, the final coffin may have been ordered well in advance and would be used. According to The Victorian Undertaker, the well-known actress Sarah Bernhardt is said to have kept her coffin with her at all times even having her photograph taken in it (3). The corpse might remain in the house for as long as twelve days surrounded by floral tributes and a lit candle at all times. Funerals were usually held on Sundays since that was not a day of work. A funeral might have to be delayed while arrangements are made and family members gather money, in order to provide the most lavish rites possible.


The family and especially the widow, if the deceased were a married man, would don all black mourning clothes. These clothes were specially made, and were specific to mourning. They would not be worn for any other occasion, and were to be burned after the mourning period. New mourning attire would need to be purchased for every death. Even the style, cut, and types of fabric and trims used on them had complex etiquette rules. Women had the heaviest social burden when it came to mourning. A widow would have to wear what was referred to as deep mourning for the period of at least a year and a day. Everything down to her stockings had to reflect her social status. “If she lifts her skirts from the mud, she must show by her frilled black silk petticoat and plain black stockings her grief has penetrated to her innermost sanctuaries” The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress (c.1890. qtd. In The Victorian Undertaker 19). After the year and a day, certain other fabrics in dark purples or grays could be included in the wardrobe, but again there were complex social rules that applied. Basically it was not proper for a woman to spend less that two full years in mourning. The socially acceptable rules about what was proper to be worn in the time of mourning also included jewelry.

Primarily, mourning jewelry is made from jet (a deep black coal like stone) both highly polished and dull finish was used on the stone. There were also lower cost substitutes such as French jet (black glass) and Vulcanite or Ebonite (hardened India rubber, mixed with sulfur.) (The Victorian Celebration of Death 201). The metal settings might be of gold or silver but they always had a dull finish. In addition, the Victorians made an art of hair jewelry. In the case of mourning, hair cut from the deceased would be woven into a small braid or flower like twist and enclosed within a broach or woven into a bracelet or necklace to be worn by a grieving family member after the period of deep mourning. Hair of the departed would also be woven into miniature works of art, forming tiny pictures. Lockets and hand made cards containing tiny hair flowers were often made as keepsakes. Aside from ones wedding ring, which was usually covered by black gloves of leather or lace, this type of jewelry was the only acceptable adornment.


Wreaths and flower arrangements that included the use of black crape would be ordered quickly, so that they could adorn the house and room where the deceased would lie in state. The abundance of flowers also served the purpose of helping to cover the odor of decay coming from the decomposing corpse.

The family, for all written correspondence would use mourning stationary. A widow would use it the length of her period of mourning. Plain white or cream paper with heavy black embossing, this item was often ordered along with Memorial Cards for the deceased. Commonly used symbols would include, urns, angels, willow trees and ivy. The Victorians commonly used calling cards, something akin to today’s business card, when they would “call on” or visit a home or business. The Memorial card was used in much the same way; the family would hand a memorial card to all that came to pay their respects to the recently departed. Most were quite elaborately embossed and always included the name and date of death of the newly expired. (The Victorian Undertaker 21-22, The Victorian Celebration of Death 202-203). Many sorts of commemorative items might be produced. Handkerchiefs with black borders or teardrop motifs, black fans with ribbons, paperweights, and even hand made picture books which would include “last” photos of family members in death were very typical, and gave the family a lasting memory of those who had gone to eternity. Victorian art centering on the theme of death was both commemorative and symbolic. And the Victorians found nothing morbid about such keepsakes.


Burial Societies were common. They existed for all levels of society. There were even ethnically specialized societies, such as The Italian Benevolent Society. The members would pay weekly dues, which for the very poor might be only a penny. And upon the death of the member, the society would cover all the costs of a moderate funeral such as befitted the members social standing. (The Victorian Undertaker 10,11). These societies often had large, deep monuments into which members could be interred. This helped defray the cost of a single plot, and sexton to dig the grave. Even the very destitute would willingly go into heavy debt to pay for a funeral, rather than endure the shame of a pauper’s funeral. The idea of Cremation was not popularly accepted until the later part of the nineteenth century. It was thought to be against sacrament and the resurrection of the body. (The Victorian Undertaker 27).

It was customary to hire a livery, preferably a “coach and four” (hearse and team of four dark horses) to transport the celebrated deceased through the streets of the town and down to the cemetery gates. Mourners, including the family, would follow in many cases on foot. Upper class funerals would often have family and guests transported to the cemetery in small black carriages, with black curtains drawn closed. Everyone in the procession would be draped in black. Men in tall black top hats with scarves of black crape, women in their finest mourning gowns, with shawls of black and large, black hats covered with black crape and lace. The walking entourage would include “mutes” (hired professional mourners) who would carry tall polls decorated with yards of draped black crape. Following the mutes would be a man carrying a “featherboard”, which was a huge tall display of dyed black ostrich feathers. The number of mutes and featherboards in a funeral was usually an indication of the wealth of the family of the departed. A large upper class funeral might have as many as fourteen to twenty mutes in the procession. A funeral could never be too ostentatious. (The Victorian Undertaker 3,12, The Victorian Celebration of Death 195). Then came the hearse. The horses would be adorned with headdresses of tall black plumes also made of ostrich feathers. In some cases the horses would be dusted with coal dust to give their coats a dull, deep black finish. The best hearses would have glass panel sides to allow the gathering crowds of onlookers a peek inside at the coffin. (The Victorian Celebration of Death 205).


The coffin was often made of lead or wood. Wood coffins might be of elm or mahogany. Metal trim and moldings made of pressed tin would be applied to dress them up, and metal handles inserted for carrying. Great care was taken it the appearance of a coffin. Even if it was a less expensive model, the presentation was such that it could appear to be the finest as it passed through town on its way to the gravesite.

The lead coffin came into being due to the Victorian family’s concern that after interment, the grave would be opened and the body removed to be sold in the black market to medical schools. This was a common practice in the Victorian era. Bodies obtained legally were scarce, and private doctors as well as medical schools were in need of cadavers for medical research and anatomy study. The profession of grave robbing could be quite lucrative in the right part of the city. Lead coffins would be sealed shut against such an invasion. And it was in this era that the practice of digging the grave at least six feet deep began, as further protection against would be grave robbers. (The Bedside Book of Death 53-83).


The fear of being buried prematurely is one that has been shared by all humans since recorded history. The Victorians were no exception. There were many well-known stories about the newly deceased suddenly waking up at their wake or in their coffin ready for burial. When the famous Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris, France was moved from the center of the city to its outskirts, a large number of coffins were found to contain skeletons lying on their fronts. Some were found with hands up in front of them, as though they were trying to push the coffin open.

These fears prompted some individuals to create elaborate alarm systems, to enable the “corpse” to alert the living that they had indeed only been asleep. Such devices would enable a person mistakenly buried, to ring a bell above ground using a pull rope that had been wound around their wrist, fed up through a hole in the coffin, and run through a hollow tube to an attached bell. Similarly, a hollow tube would be positioned into a hole in the coffin top above the face of the deceased. If they should awake after burial and begin calling out, it was assumed they would be heard by the cemetery sexton or nearby mourners, and could be rescued from the clutches of death. (The Bedside Book of Death 15-35).

There was a young man at Nunhead

Who awoke in his coffin of lead

‘It was cosy enough,’

He remarked in a huff,

‘But I wasn’t aware I was dead.’

Anonymous Victorian limerick (The Bedside Book of Death 25).


The Victorians viewed the cemetery as a place for both the living and the dead. It was not uncommon for cemeteries to be crowded on weekends, especially on Sundays. Families having picnics, folks taking a stroll, or taking the baby in a carriage for some fresh air. The cemetery was a favorite place for young unmarried couples to spend some alone time, while well chaperoned in the midst of a crowd.

Huge garden cemeteries became all the rage both in the United States and abroad. One of the most notable garden cemeteries upon whose design and landscape many American garden cemeteries were based is the splendid Pere-Lachaise, in France. Pere-Lachaise is home to the monuments of many a famous historical figure, but it is renowned for its landscape and garden architecture the world over. In more recent times, it has become known as the final resting-place for its most visited tenant, Jim Morrison, late of the American rock band The Doors. (The Last Great Necessity 99-109).

If nothing else, the Victorians specialized in the ornate, and they did it unlike anyone else. Around 1855, American cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio, with its Spring Grove Cemetery, began to build new and redesign some existing cemeteries into huge memorial garden parks. They became places of tranquility and beauty. Landscaping, walk ways, and even the addition of streams or lakes helped to transform the parks from just a place for the slumbering dead, to a place for the living to commune and feel close to those who were interred there. Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York; Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are but a few existing examples of some of Americas most ornate Victorian garden parks. (The Last Great Necessity 101-103, Victorian Cemetery Art v-xiii).

It was during the Victorian era that grave markers and monuments became so ornate and detailed, that they are considered classic works of sculpture today. Victorians had a taste for the ornate; the more fluff and detail the better. Unlike the relatively plain flat markers of today, Victorian grave markers were created to be permanent, loving, detailed tributes to the dead. Markers in honor of the dead had a wide variety of designs. Among the better known are the classic arch, the cross, human figures, wreaths and angels. On many of these markers the artistic craftsmanship is exquisite. Before the 1970’s most of the carvings were done by hand using classic sculpting tools and techniques. Today modern artists use computer aided lasers to carve the intricate monuments. Classical styles in art abound in some of the larger cemeteries. In addition to the more classic designs, Victorians often used ornate symbolism such as the upside down torch- signifying life extinguished, the broken column- representing a life cut short, tree stumps- signaling life cut off, open and closed books -to represent life as a story unfinished.


Gravestone rubbing first came into being as a way to keep a memento of a deceased loved one. Much less expensive than a photograph, even the less well to do could obtain this simple keepsake using paper and a flat piece of charcoal. The work would be displayed framed and hung in the home just as a photo of a family member might be mounted in a place of honor. Today, gravestone rubbings are taken mainly for their artistic beauty. Victorian grave markers produce the most beautiful rubbings, due to their ornate designs.

A Victorian having a glimpse of our modern death rituals today, would most likely be taken back at the lack of personal family attention given to the corpse. Photos of a loved one in death and locks of their hair are considered morbid and unthinkable in today’s society. And while it is still fairly common to see family and friends dressed in black mourning on the day of the funeral, the strict rules of Victorian society and etiquette in regard to death and mourning have been all but forgotten. Very few cemeteries today allow the grand sepulchral monuments of the Victorian era, instead allowing only landscape flush stone or metal markers.

Fortunately for taphophiles such as myself, the grand memorial park cemeteries have endured the twentieth century, standing as a permanent, living reminders of a complicated, grand, and spectacular age gone by.

© Wendy 2004


Evil Lily said...

I absolutely LOVE everything about Victorian Mourning. Fantastic post!

Anonymous said...

A really good article about mourning, I really enjoyed it!

Dank said...

Love this post. Especially the widowers wearing all black.

Related Posts with Thumbnails