How the Victorians Dealt With Death
Victorians treated death morbidly and in public. Grief was ritualized and elaborate ceremonies surrounded sending a loved one off into the hereafter.
In the 19th century, three children out of every 20 died before their first birthdays, and those that survived infancy could not expect more than 42 years of life. So, death was a constant and common companion; more so among the lower classes.
Poor people saved from their meagre incomes for future funeral costs. They would scrimp on food to avoid the shame of a family member being put into a common pauper’s grave.
For the middle and upper classes an ostentatious display of grief was socially important.
The centrepiece of the Victorian approach to death was the funeral.
M.C. Dunbar advised in Dunbar’s Complete Handbook of Etiquette (1834) that “The arrangements for the funeral should be such as to show proper respect for the dead, rather than a pompous display, denoting vulgarity and ostentation; on the other hand illiberality or meanness in expenditure is to be avoided.”
Most people died in their homes and the body was kept there until internment. Cremation was rare and considered uncivilized.
The corpse was washed and dressed in their daily attire and flowers were strewn in and around the coffin.
The Funeral Service
People did not attend the funeral service and internment unless invited. It was also clear that, if invited, you attended. Not turning up was a major social gaffe.
Sometimes, if a contagious disease caused the death, the family might announce in a newspaper that the funeral was “private.” This was the signal to mourners to stay away.
The service was often held in the family’s house. If the deceased was a prominent person then the service was held in church so as to accommodate the many mourners.
The body was carried out feet first and placed in a hearse. This was to prevent the corpse from looking back towards the house and encouraging someone to follow.
The hearse was pulled by black horses that were draped in black cloth and had black ostrich-feather plumes on their heads. Professional mourners with sad faces were hired to accompany the procession. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens described the title’s main character being used as what was called a mute for the funerals of children.
There were complaints that the hired mourners were often plied with gin by their employers.
The secretary of a burial society is quoted in Leisure Hour (1862) as having witnessed several disgraceful episodes: “I have seen these men reel about the road, and after the burial, we have been obliged to put these mutes and their staves into the interior of the hearse and drive them home, as they were incapable of walking.”
The hearse was the first coach in the procession. It was, of course, black with glass sides and would be stuffed with flowers and wreaths.
The family followed in the next coaches in order of their close relationship to the deceased. The blinds of these carriages were usually drawn.
If the family wanted to make a grandiose display of its grief, the procession would take a circuitous route through town to the cemetery.
Only men attended the internment. Indeed, women were encouraged not to take part in the funeral at all. Cassell’s Household Guide for 1878 pointed out that having females at funerals was usually only done among the poorer classes.
Queen Victoria turned mourning the loss of her husband Prince Albert in 1861 into the central core of her being. She fell into a deep depression and practically disappeared from view for several years.
Her subjects took their cue from the monarch and created a complex ritual around the end of life. When someone died, the curtains in the house were drawn and mirrors were covered because it was feared the dead person’s soul might be trapped in the reflection.
Also, black crepe was tied to the front door knob, the clocks in the house were stopped at the time of death, and, of course, everyone had to wear black. For Victoria the wearing of black lasted for 40 years, until her own death in 1901.
“What do I care whether it becomes me or not? I don’t wear black because it becomes me ... I wear mourning because it corresponds with my feelings.”
1863 diary entry of a Tennessee woman, Nannie Haskins
There were several types of mourning prescribed; first mourning, second mourning, ordinary mourning, and half mourning.
Ben Schott in his Original Miscellany (2002) writes that, “By tradition first mourning was the deepest and lasted a year and a day.” Each period of mourning had its own curious code that dictated the shade of black to be worn, what kind of cloth from crepe to silk to wear, and how wide black hat bands should be. Caps, bonnets, and jewellery also followed carefully described conventions.
The death of a husband required a period of mourning lasting two to three years for the widow, during which her social engagements were restricted to attending church.
However, a husband who lost a wife only had to mourn for three months. Nephews, nieces, great aunts and uncles, first cousins, grandparents, and others all had their own mourning timetables.
The mourning costume worn by women was called “widow’s weeds,” which came from the Old English word “waed” meaning garment.
The Forever Memento
The invention of photography started a new phenomenon for Victorians; posed snapshots of the deceased. They were called memento mori, which can be translated to mean “remember death.”
Some of the bereaved family chose to pose with their dead loved one. The long exposures needed for the film of the day presented some difficulties for the photographer. While the dearly departed was still as a rock and in perfect focus, the still breathing family members were inclined to move a little so their images appeared a bit blurry.
Sometimes, open eyes were painted on closed eyelids.
Infant mortality was high in Victorian times, so the grief-stricken parents often wanted a keepsake of their treasured child so quickly taken from them. To make the image more poignant, the dead baby would be posed with a toy or cradled in a parent’s arms.
The author Catherine Cavendish has written “Should a mother die in childbirth, she was often pictured with her face shrouded, her child on her lap.”
Victorians of the English-speaking world were shocked to learn that in Paris nightclubs could be found in which death was celebrated. At the Cabaret du Néant (The Cabaret of Nothingness) people dressed as monks attended to the guests and served drinks named after the diseases that might have carried off a loved one. Coffins served as tables. Cabaret de l’Enfer (The Cabaret of the Inferno) had a satanic theme, with visitors being welcomed by the chant “Enter and be damned, the Evil One awaits you.”
Nineteenth century London had a huge problem in disposing of dead bodies. For those with money, there were private cemeteries, for everybody else there was a scramble to find a plot. Writing in The Guardian, Lee Jackson notes, “Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst the tombstones …”
After Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria instructed servants to tend to his rooms exactly as they had before. Also, they were to bring hot water to his dressing room each morning for his shave. The servants had to wear black for three years after Albert’s death.
- “The Victorian Way of Death.” Catherine Cavendish, December 31, 2012.
- “10 Fascinating Death Facts from the Victorian Era.” Elaine Furst, Listverse, February 7, 2013.
- “Victorian Funerals and Mourning.” Dr. Bruce Rosen, Vichist.blogspot.ca, June 3, 2008.
- “Glamour and Grieving: How the Victorians Dressed for Death.” Allyssia Alleyne, CNN, June 29, 2015.
- “Victorian Era Death and Mourning.” Avictorian.com, undated.
- Death in the City: the Grisly Secrets of Dealing with Victorian London’s Dead.” Lee Jackson, The Guardian, January 22, 2015.