Have you ever watched a BBC period drama about the Victorians? If so, you know they were all about pageantry. Their approach to funerals and mourning was no exception. You could even say the Victorians turned mourning into a major cultural experience.
Jump ahead to these sections:
Why were the Victorians obsessed with death? What can their death rituals teach us about their culture? If you wanted to plan a Victorian-style funeral for a loved one (or maybe yourself someday!), what would that look like?
Victorian-Era View on Death and Dying
Victorians didn’t shy away from thinking about death. They actually confronted the topic much more directly and bluntly than you might expect. Movies and TV make the Victorians appear to be supremely proper types. You might imagine they’d avoid talking and thinking about something so morbid.
That’s a fair assumption. However, the truth is pretty much the opposite. Some scholars say the Victorians were literally obsessed with death.
This obsession started in earnest after the death of Prince Albert. Queen Victoria loved her husband so deeply that she mourned Prince Albert by wearing black attire every single day for the next 40 years.
Her influence on society naturally resulted in a greater focus on death and dying throughout Victorian England. Victorians expressed this obsession through a number of rituals and customs.
Why death was so important to Victorians
What could have made the Victorians want to treat death as a major topic of cultural fascination?
Well, in retrospect, it makes sense. The sad truth is, mortality rates were high. Death was a common and constant part of life for everyone, from average citizens to members of the upper classes.
Art and poetry from the period reflect this fact. That’s a key reason Victorians ritualized death. Practicing established customs helped all members of Victorian society cope with the realities of life at that time.
Victorians also believed strongly in the idea of death being a transition between this world and the next. Family members and friends of the dying would visit them at their deathbeds to hear their loved ones’ last words.
Unfortunately for the dying, sometimes family members even chose not to use drugs to treat the pain of a loved one nearing death. They worried the drugs would prevent them from making a clear statement before passing on to the next world.
Victorian Funeral Customs
Victorians had many funeral and mourning customs. Victorians turned mourning into a series of rituals designed to show respect for the deceased, allow mourners to provide each other with support, and reflect on the belief that the deceased had traveled to a better place.
The Victorian funeral sermon is an example of a custom reserved for significant members of society. The entire country often participated in mourning the passing of important figures. The experience of mourning together as a nation united them.
Not all Victorians could attend the actual Christian funerals of dukes, princes, and other famous people.
Preachers helped them mourn with the rest of the nation by delivering funeral sermons to their own congregations when important figures passed. These sermons were usually scheduled to coincide with the funeral dates. Victorians could all mourn together at once, even if they were dispersed throughout the country.
These sermons didn’t merely serve to provide citizens with the opportunity to mourn in their churches. Many of them would also go on to appear in books and other publications. This fact yet again illustrates that Victorians obsessed over the topic of death, sometimes preserving significant funeral sermons as important cultural documents.
In Victorian England, image was everything. This was as true during funerals as it was during any other social gathering. When someone died, mourners needed to attend the funeral to ensure it was appropriately sad and serious. That’s why Victorians hired “mutes.”
Mutes served as professional mourners. They would often perform key tasks, such as escorting the coffin of the deceased from their home. Most importantly, Victorians expected mutes to maintain solemn expressions.
Flowers have been an essential component of funerals and mourning throughout various parts of the world and periods in history. As you might assume of a culture obsessed with appearances, Victorian England was no exception. For example, when Queen Victoria passed, mourners surrounded her corpse with flowers.
Victorians also tended to spend a lot of money on funerals.
Wealthy family members of important figures who passed often arranged lavish funeral processions featuring glass-sided hearses. This allowed onlookers to see the ornate displays inside. Many of these featured floral arrangements became part of memorial displays in homes after the actual funeral was over.
Flowers also became common at Victorian funerals for a less pleasant (but very practical) reason. Quite simply, before embalming became more commonplace, mourners would rely on flowers to mask any odors during funerals.
Victorians didn’t always allow mourners to express their grief with flowers. For example, Victorians specifically discouraged mourning women from wearing hat flowers.
Attire and jewelry
It’s not necessarily an exaggeration to say that death had its own miniature fashion industry in Victorian England.
Clothes and jewelry played a very important role in Victorian funerals. Victorian customs required mourners to dress appropriately not only during funeral proceedings but during extended mourning periods as well. Proper funeral attire was actually so essential that drapers frequently established successful businesses dedicated solely to providing the cloth and materials needed to create funeral clothing.
What constituted proper attire varied for different members of Victorian society. For example, widows spent years wearing dull black clothing designed to represent their grief. Expectations for men, on the other hand, developed and shifted more frequently.
Consider the expectations Victorian society had for men after the passing of King George IV. Instructions specified that men should express their mourning by wearing “black cloth, without buttons on the sleeves and pockets, plain muslin or long lawn cravats and weepers, chamois shoes and gloves, crepe hatbands, black swords and buckles.”
However, by the 1890s, expectations regarding men’s mourning attire had become much more flexible, while requirements for widows remained the same.
Jewelry was also very important in Victorian mourning customs. It often played a more personal role than attire. Clothing served as a public display of mourning, whereas Victorian mourning jewelry often consisted of rings and lockets containing a few strands of a deceased loved one’s hair.
Victorian society had certain expectations regarding how much time individuals should publicly mourn.
For instance, Victorians expected widows to exclusively wear black parramatta and dull crepe mourning attire for a year following a husband’s death. After one year, Victorian society permitted widows to replace the stark black parramatta silk with duller black silk and crepe for nine months.
Following this period, widows could discard the crepe, but still wore dull black, only switching to such combinations as black and white or grey and lavender for the final six months of mourning. It’s worth noting that some widows would continue this period of “half-mourning” for their entire lifetimes.
Widows also weren’t the only members of Victorian society who mourned publicly for specified periods of time.
Although Victorians had much stricter expectations for widows than for other mourners, all citizens typically mourned publicly for several months after the deaths of such major public figures as the Duke of Wellington. For instance, Queen Victoria’s death prompted the Earl Marshall to establish a period of public mourning lasting just shy of three months.
In cases when the deceased’s family was wealthy, important, or both, Victorians would prepare for burials by sending coaches to certain friends and relatives. These coaches brought key figures to the family home of the deceased, where everyone would gather before traveling to the funeral together in a cortege.
Not everyone could afford to plan costly burials. Cassell’s, a Victorian funeral company, offered a range of options based on what mourners were willing to pay. Those who could only afford to pay £3 would be able to bury their loved ones in a basic elm coffin. On the high end, those who could afford to spend up to £53 buried their loved ones in coffins of a strong elm shell with a tufted mattress and all the trimmings.
Some Victorians chose to cremate their loved ones instead of burying them. However, this was usually a rare occurrence until the 20th century.
Victorian Rituals Carry On
Mourning rituals still play a similar role. While today’s mourners may not be quite like Victorian traditions, our own traditions continue to help all who have lost loved ones find strength in unity. From funeral attire to funeral songs, these rituals help us find peace.
- Bedikian, Agop Y. “The Death of Mourning: From Victorian Crepe to the Little Black Dress.” RsearchGate. Omega, February 2008. www.researchgate.net/publication/5344273_The_Death_of_Mourning_From_Victorian_Crepe_to_the_Little_Black_Dress
- Evans, Richard J. “The Victorians: Life and Death.” Gresham College, 2010. www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-life-and-death
- Hunter, D. Lyn. “A Victorian Obsession with Death.” Berkleyan. The Regents of the University of California, 5 April 2000. www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2000/04/05/death.html
- Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family. Oxford University Press, 1996. books.google.com/books?id=QRVRXc9oiCAC&pg=PA300&dq=victorian+mourning+period&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjm44uxqtvnAhVxvFkKHYn1B_gQ6AEwBnoECAMQAg#v=onepage&q=victorian%20mourning%20period&f=false
- Rosen, Bruce. “To Die For - The Victorian Way of Death.” Academia. www.academia.edu/28188917/The_Victorian_Way_of_Death
- Wolffe, John. “The Victorian Funeral Sermon.” The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon 1689-1901. Oxford University Press, 2012. books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-oEVWwNJC54C&oi=fnd&pg=PA338&dq=victorian+funeral&ots=90Y4OqwhU5&sig=qXsSg6cdv8XXQSnvSRPk_7qGnRM#v=onepage&q=victorian%20funeral&f=false