Spotlight: Victorian Funerary Customs
The Victorian era, or the latter part of the 19th century, is a time often associated with elaborate funerals and mourning customs. Much of the traditions of the time stemmed from the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in 1861. Queen Victoria and her entire court wore mourning for three years after his death, well past the customs of the time.
Victorian funeral customs are varied and complicated. Here are some of the basic customs, as well as some interesting superstitions from the era:
Black was, as today, the official color of mourning.
A man could continue working following the death of a close loved one, but women were expected to be isolated at home. Men did, however, still wear mourning as widowers. Black suits, ties, and gloves were worn for a year following the deaths of their wives.
Widows were expected to stay in mourning for more than two years. For the first year and one day, a widow was expected to wear all black with no adornments or jewelry and a black cape known as her “weeping veil.” Crepe was always worn for the first year of mourning. Over time, she was allowed to wear slightly more embellishments and jewelry. Near the end of the mourning period, widows were allowed to wear gray or purple clothing.
Children who had lost their parents were also expected to wear mourning clothes for the first year.
During the Victorian era, funerals largely were held at home. Prior to the funeral, there was a wake that lasted three or four days, where family members and friends monitored the deceased around the clock. Part of this was to guard against burying someone who may not actually be dead, but it is a custom that is still somewhat in place today with visitations prior to funerals.
Funeral directors first came into prominence during this time period, assisting families with arranging elaborate funeral processions. Funeral processions often included black horses pulling the hearse, glass viewing coffins, and paid mourners to follow the procession.
“Momento mori” to remember the deceased were common, often taking the form of photos taken after death. Sometimes, pupils were painted on the deceased’s closed eyelids to make him look awake. Another “momento mori” that dates from this time is a hair locket. A portion of the deceased’s hair would be removed and twisted into an elaborate locket, sometimes a heart or circle, and given to close loved ones.
Elaborate headstones and mausoleums also began to grow during this time period, with many wealthy families spending great deals of money to ensure their loved one had an appropriate resting place. Many middle class families would take weekend outings to cemeteries to visit the graves of loved ones.
- The Victorian era had many superstitions surrounding death, dying, and the funeral process. Some of the more interesting superstitions include:
- The deceased person was carried out of the house feet-first so that he couldn’t look back and beckon anyone to follow him into the afterlife.
- Windows and mirrors were closed and covered so the deceased’s image didn’t get trapped inside the glass.
- If you saw flowers blooming on a grave, that means the deceased lived a good life; only weeds would grow on the graves of the wicked.
- Family photographs were sometimes turned face-down following a death to prevent the deceased’s spirit from possessing anyone still alive.
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