Mourning takes different shapes and forms across the globe and human history. In our modern times, it’s common for people to wear black clothing as a sign of respect for the dead, but even this tradition is changing. Death in different cultures changes over time, often reflecting the nature of society. We can see this in our own recent history compared to years past.
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While different traditions around the world have their own specific process for grieving those who died, few are as strict or complex as the Victorian mourning period. The Victorian era in England bound people in the 19th century in clear rules and regulations around how to properly mourn a loved one. I
n this guide, we’ll take a closer look at Victorian mourning customs to explore how they compare to our modern practices.
The Victorian era was far from the progressive, open-minded time we live in today. The Victorian Era follows the reign of Queen Victoria from the years 1837-1901. Though this was a peaceful and prosperous time in England, social class was more important than ever.
The class structure of British society is hard for outsiders to understand. It divided people along greater lines than just income. Beyond royalty, upper, and lower classes, a family’s status was based on land ownership.
With the boom of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, trade and production flourished. For the first time, people had the ability to work their way up the social ladder. Meanwhile, the rich got richer.
With the wealthy finding themselves with greater free time, a new morality took hold of society. There was a focus on religious conformity, social codes, and sticking with the status quo. To act according to the typical social code was a way for the upper classes to keep their status.
Because of this, many lower classes followed along as well to give the appearance of high society. This emphasis on mortality is the driving force behind the mourning customs.
Victorian Mourning Customs
Many cultures use mourning customs to find peace and normalcy after the passing of a loved one. When you’re not sure what steps to take forward, having clear customs to follow simplifies this process and makes it easy to find the support you need.
In the Victorian period, these practices matched the strict social order of the time.
Covering mirrors is one of the Victorian mourning traditions that feel out of place today. At the time, this was simply the norm.
After a death in the home, family members covered all the mirrors. This was because mirrors were a gateway for spirits. By looking in the mirror, the living could be possessed by the deceased person’s spirit. This could lead to an untimely death.
Covering family portraits
Another tradition that was common at the time was the covering of family portraits or images of the deceased. Like mirrors, these were said to contain the spirits of the dead family member for a period of time.
If someone looks at a photo too long, they might find themselves possessed. Sheets and fabric were used as covers, and the family would do this quickly after a death.
Death portraits are an undeniably eerie relic of the Victorian era. With the rise of early photography in the 1800s, post-mortem photographs became a reality for families who could afford this service.
A post-mortem photograph is exactly what it sounds like. The family poses around the deceased, usually in a domestic setting. It was supposed to appear natural.
Parents pose with children, adults pose in their profession, or the entire family would pose together. Because photography was expensive, this was often the only photograph a family had of the deceased.
In Victorian England, it was women who dealt with mourning. This was a time when men were not encouraged to show feelings outwardly, so the role of grieving fell to women. As such, dolls came with “death kits.”
Little girls could essentially practice these Victorian death rituals with their doll, little coffins, and mourning clothes.
Like Charles Dickens’ fictional character Oliver Twist, there were professional mourners who prominent families hired to join the funeral service.
Families competed to have the largest and well attended funeral service in society. Professional mourners joined the grieving family to mourn quietly.
Black doorknob ties
Because friends and extended family were expected to visit the family after a death, a black crepe was tied to doorknobs as a symbol of mourning. A black crepe is an expensive silk that came to be known as the fabric of mourning.
When the family ties this silk to a doorknob, the community knows death made a visit. People would be quiet when entering to avoid reminding the family of life. The door might also be left open so people could enter without disturbing the grieving.
Friends watch over the dead
While it was common for family members to sit with loved ones until they pass, they weren’t to sit with the deceased. To sit with a deceased family member was seen as adding unnecessary grief to the surviving family member. Instead, a friend of the family of the deceased sits beside the deceased as a way to spare them from more grief.
Sitting vigil with the deceased isn’t only about grief. It wasn’t uncommon at this time for families to claim someone passed away too soon. Because it wasn’t always possible to access a doctor, families weren’t always certain whether their loved one was really dead.
Victorian Mourning Dress and Jewelry
Nowadays, it’s common for those who are in mourning to wear conservative, black dress. This is strikingly similar to the Victorian era when some people would wear this type of clothing for the remainder of their lives.
The Victorian mourning period for the surviving family of the deceased was marked by black clothing. This went beyond funeral attire.
For a widow, this time could last up to 4 years or longer. Many widows chose to wear black for the rest of their life as a sign of mourning. To wear normal clothes too soon was a sign of great disrespect or promiscuity.
However, people were also allowed to introduce color back into their wardrobe at “half-mourning.” This is when enough time has passed that the bereaved wears muted colors instead of black. Because it was common to have multiple family members pass away frequently, black was worn often.
Acting as a form of Memento Mori (a reminder of death), hair lockets reminded Victorian people of death on a daily basis.
Artists used the hair of the deceased to create lockets, shadow boxes, corsages, and even jewelry that were worn by mourners. While this might sound morbid now, it’s surprising just what can be accomplished with hair as a medium.
Mourning jewelry dates back to the Middle Ages when it was common to wear skull jewelry as a reminder of death. After the death of her beloved husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep depression and took to wearing this type of mourning jewelry. Because she was the icon of her court, this trend quickly spread throughout England.
Instead of wearing jewelry with skulls and crossbones like in the Middle Ages, people wore brooches, rings, and necklaces with cherubs, clouds, urns, and willow trees. These softer, sentimental images not only showed the world that the wearer was in mourning, but they were a reminder of the lost loved one.
Victorian England’s Obsession with Death
While it might seem like society in Victorian England was obsessed with death, that’s because it was. With the average lifespan under 50 years along with rampant disease and child mortality, death was a natural part of daily life. Nowadays, many people choose to distance themselves from death.
It might seem like these customs are bizarre by modern standards, there’s a lot we can learn from the Victorians. They weren’t afraid of grief and outwardly sharing their loss. This brought people together, and these customs helped people find comfort in knowing their death wouldn’t go unnoticed.
Because death was such a normal part of daily life, many Victorians took the time to plan for their own demise. Families took this seriously, and it eased much of the burden that comes along with planning a funeral. Start end-of-life planning to create your own legacy for friends and family.
- “Antique Jewelry: Mourning Jewelry of the Victorian Era.” Gemology Authority. Gia.edu.
- Bell, Bethan. “Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photography.” BBC. 5 June 2016. BBC.uk.
- Lang, Leslie. “13 Fascinating Victorian Funeral Customs.” Ancestry. 29 July 2014. Ancestry.com.
- Mendoza, Marilyn A. “Death and Mourning Practices in the Victorian Age.” Psychology Today. 8 December 2018. Psychologytoday.com.
- “Social Life in Victorian England.” University of Delaware: British Literature Wiki. Udel.edu.
- “Victorian Mourning Etiquette.” Falling Angels: Historical Background. Tchevalier.com.