Death in the Victorian Era

Modern society calls death prohibited, unmentionable…taboo.Society has not always considered death to be a forbidden subject. Please bear in mind that the Victorians took death in the highest regard. Most families would rather go to the poorhouse than have a parish funeral for a deceased relative. The cemetery (Side note: graveyards must be within church grounds, cemeteries need not be. There is a difference!) was considered a perfectly appropriate place to go for a walk with your family or suitor. There were all sorts of societal rules for mourning techniques (as well as some superstitions) as compiled in a (in no way complete) list below:

  • Post-mortem photographs,  i.e. daguerreotypes taken of the loved ones (particularly infants and children) after they had died. If you think for a moment about the fact that most children would not have had their photographs taken pre-mortem (mainly because the young had untimely deaths) this custom does seem more logical. However, for these photographs, pupils and rosy cheeks were often painted onto the deceased beforehand!
  • Societal rules on appropriate mourning attire-mainly dependant on the intimacy of the relationship between you and the newly dead, as well as the gender of the person in mourning. There were various manuals that one could consult for proper mourning attire and etiquette, such as Cassell’s or The Queen. Men often only wore black gloves, cravats, and hatbands with their usual dark suits. Women, on the other hand, had a significantly more complex and detailed code. For deepest mourning, clothes were to be the colour of spiritual darkness, i.e. black. Dresses for this type of mourning were often made of paramatta silk or bombazine, which was cheaper. (and also worn by many of the widows in Dickens’ novels) These frocks were trimmed with the hard and scratchy crape, which is often tied to mourning as it does not combine well with other articles of clothing.  After a specified period, ‘slighting the mourning’ occurred, that is to say, the crape could be omitted from the wardrobe of the wearer. As mourning continued, the inky hues could be lightened to white, grey, or mauve. This process was called ‘half-mourning’. Jewelry-wise, one would wear jet, a fossilized form of coal also known as lignite, during the first stage. During the second stage, jewelry either including or composed of the deceased’s locks of hair was to be worn. Children were not expected to wear full mourning clothes, although some girls did wear white dresses. Widows were meant to wear full mourning for at least two years (Queen Victoria wore full mourning after her husband Albert died…as well as asking her servants to put out clothes for him and set him a place at meals.), whereas everyone else presumably suffered less. For child-to-parent mourning (or vice versa), the time was one year; for siblings and grandparents, six months, for uncles and aunts, two months, and four weeks for first cousins (Begging the question of how long Poe mourned his wife).
Lady in Mourning

A Victorian-era lady in mourning.


Now, as for superstitions:

  • The Victorians believed that it was bad luck to keep any mourning clothes (particularly crape) in the house after mourning ended.
  • After someone in a household died, it was obligatory that all the mirrors in the house were covered. If a mirror in the house fell and broke, it was believed that someone in the home would die.
  • If someone died in their home, all clocks were to be stopped at the precise hour of death or bad luck would ensue.
  • When a body was displaced from the house, it was to be taken out headfirst, so as not to beckon others to follow.

Grave robbing was rampant in the Victorian era. The main cause of this crime was actually robbers digging up graves and stealing the bodies for doctors and students at medical institutions. This allowed advancement in medicine, however, as you can imagine, the relatives of the deceased weren’t exactly thrilled. Thus, a range of intriguing protection methods ensued. Such as coffin alarms, simply a bell attached to the headstones with a chain connected to a ring worn on the finger of the cadaver! Another option was the classic iron ‘cage’ or mortsafe, as pictured below.

Mortsafe at Logeriat Church, Scotland

An example of a mortsafe at Logeriat Church in Scotland.


My advice is, if you are interested in this topic, to read more about it at your local library! The Victorians had numerous peculiar customs, about death and otherwise. I would recommend you read Horrible Histories:Vile Victorians written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Martin Brown. The rest of the series is brilliant as well. They were my childhood.

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