The custom of mourning during the Victorian era

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The custom of mourning during the Victorian era

Mourning dates back to the beginning of human existence. However, during the 19th century, Victorians expanded on the traditions of mourning and made them part of their highly structured system of etiquette. There was great social pressure to make grieving public not private. This “public” mourning had to be practiced in accordance with the popular ideals and culture of the day. Many people who survived the Johnstown Flood of 1889 would have been in mourning for the loved ones they lost, yet most had lost the means to properly adhere to this code of etiquette.

The Victorian era was the time period between the years 1837 and 1901. It was named after Princess Alexandrina Victoria Guelph who became the Queen of Britain and Ireland. When her husband, Prince Albert died December 14, 1861, at the age of 42, Queen Victoria went into deep mourning, which she remained in until her death. Toward the end of the 19th century, people and trends were changing as were the thoughts on mourning etiquette. Because the Queen of England, the biggest trend setter of the day, kept the tradition of mourning, most followed her example and continued to practice strict mourning etiquette until after her death and the start of the 20th century.

During the 19th century death was a constant companion. People died from disease, lack of medical care, inadequate food supplies, poor sanitary conditions, farm accidents, fire, and war. The Industrial Revolution created an environment for workers in which accidents led to the deaths of many men, women, and children. The most common death for women was related to complications related to childbirth.

The average person’s lifespan was around 50 years of age. The mortality rate for children was especially high. One- third of all children died before the age of 10. Regional epidemics put childhood death rates as high as 50 percent. The loss of a child was such a familiar occurrence that most Victorians did not name their children until they reached their first birthday.

In 1889 the people of Johnstown were following the Victorian era’s traditions according to local and economic influences. However, the Johnstown Flood of 1889 left most people with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Afterwards many people were struggling to find shelter, food, and clothing. They were just trying to get through their grief of losing everything including loved ones. Everyone in Johnstown was mourning, but, because the flood took everything, few had access to items that would allow them to practice their world’s mourning customs.

During the 19th century funeral processions were a daily occurrence. Funerals, events attached to burying, immortalizing, and remembering the dead were very important. Many people did not fear death; rather, they feared not being “properly” mourned. Many did without to pay for a “proper burial.” Most funerals were held at home and it was customary to prepare the home for the “death watch,” the time between dying and the funeral. Door knobs were draped with black crepe, all the curtains and blinds were drawn tightly, and a black wreath was placed on the door with the door bell muffled. The portrait of the deceased was draped with black cloth, and often all the mirrors in the house would be covered with black crepe. In America it was customary to stop the clock in the room where the death occurred at the time of passing.

Victorian families would notify relatives and friends of a death by sending out printed funeral cards or invitations that were usually white in color with black borders, colored specifically for mourning. Memorial cards were tokens of the deceased and to be given after the death to family and friends. These cards usually had the name, date of birth and death, the number of years, months, and days of life of the deceased and included a heartfelt message or an uplifting poem. There were also the postmortem postcards that sent the message of death to a loved one who could not be at the funeral. These cards had a picture of the deceased on one side and the address and a message on the reverse. They would later be added to the family photo album.

During the Victorian era, the tradition of laying flowers in and around the coffin and sending flowers to honor the dead was started. Photos would be taken of the flowers as a memorial picture or made into parlor cards that were sent to loved ones or placed in photo albums. The show of flowers at a funeral was a visual reminder of respect and the prestige awarded to the deceased.

Mourning portaits were also popular. It was commonplace for the people who were grieving to be photographed while dressed in mourning, sometimes with a picture of the deceased displayed or being held. There were also deathbed portaits--pictures, sketches, or paintings of the very ill just before death or rendered from memory or a description given to an artist. Other mourning artwork included painted memorials and lithographs displaying scenes of mourners and monuments and religious relics; samplers made of beautiful embroidery work containing various mourning designs; shell work creations; wax work; feather work; dried flower work; and hair work. Human hair would be worked into designs of wreaths and corsages elaborately framed in a shadow-box. Most of these would have used hair from the deceased, the living, or both.

By the Victorian era, mourning expression was highly structured and ritualized. Women were viewed as “true vessels of grief.” In the practice of these customs, women found themselves able to display their inner feelings and expression of grief, but also their moral and spiritual values as well. One of the most elaborate representations of mourning expression and etiquette that Victorians performed was the mourning dress. Mourning clothing was characterized from fashionable clothing by its simple lines, muted decoration, symbolic colors, dull fabrics, and distinctive head coverings. Colors represented defined degrees of mourning and signified the lapse of time since bereavement. Generally, the change of color from black to silver, grey, purple, violet, mauve, or white indicated recovery from deep sorrow and mourning or the distance of relationship to the deceased. Certain fabrics were also associated with mourning; their practicability and their muted textures. Crepe, a material of crimped silk, was considered the “fabric of mourning” and was infamous for its dull finish and unstable black dye. Crepe however did not wear well and became “rusty” with age. It also emitted a strong odor which created serious health concerns and the dye of the material rubbed off onto the skin.

Head-coverings were also a mandatory part of etiquette. A widow always wore a distinctive head covering; whether a white widows cap, worn while indoors; or a hat or bonnet with a veil to wear outside and for engagements during the day. Other embellishments to the mourning costume included gloves, handkerchiefs that were black, black embroidered or black-bordered, black handbags, black fans, and memorial or mourning jewelry. Mourning jewelry incorporated an image of the deceased, with a lock of hair or an inscription. Mourning jewelry that was made of human hair would be distinguished from fashionable hair jewelry by an inscription or motif.

The Victorian era was also the impetus of today’s cemetery and the undertaking and funeral business. In earlier eras, the dead were usually buried on family homesteads, or small church graveyards by a family member or the clergy. Tombstones were made of wood or stone and the inscriptions would be shortly erased by nature. During the 19th century, urban expansion and the need for large public parks created the rural cemetery movement. In an effort to provide adequate urban burial plots, along with a place for the public to go to get out of the crime, disease, and poverty ridden city, America’s first rural cemetery was established in Boston, Massachusetts, as the Mount Auburn Cemetery. It was a “picturesque” park with ponds, lakes, trails, and gardens, while also providing a place for interments.

It was also a time that tombstones were becoming much more elaborate. Many now were created from granite, marble, and bronze, engraved deeply to last a lifetime. Also the profession known as undertaking or funeral directing came about. Now, most communities had undertakers. Undertakers would go to the home of the dead and take care of getting a casket, arranging the funeral service, coordinating the burial and the local graveyard, and preparing the dead.

Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 ushered in an end to the era and the “death” of Victorian mourning traditions. As Victorians began to distance the dying from their physical world they also further distanced the philosophies surrounding the threat of death from their minds. They followed the social development of the country and the faded illusions and preoccupations of death.

With great strides in medicine, hospitals gained new respectability, becoming acceptable places where the dying could be cared for by strangers instead of family. Changes of the perception of embalming and cremation, science, new technology and inventions, industrial productivity, and commerce, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, two World Wars, severe economic depression, and the threats of world holocaust diminished mourning traditions and required people to look forward rather than languish in sorrow. The fading of Christian belief in western culture, advances in social equality of women, changing attitudes towards marriage and remarriage, personal hygiene, disease prevention, and longer life expectancies influenced the changing of mourning practices.

Death is now a “private” not a “public” matter. Today’s mourners are encouraged not to offend others by reminding them of their sorrow. The ritual of mourning is no longer part of modern life. Those who are grieving are treated affectionately but now a great burden is placed on them. There is discouragement from expressing grief and one must define one’s own ritual, guided by their own feelings and the unimplied presumptions of relatives and friends. There is now no symbolic way to show grief. Death is no longer part of our daily conscious thought. All of these things have led to the loss of visible memorial symbolism and design.

Photo: c. 1860-1870

Source: A Time to Mourn, by Armstrong & Pike

Photo: c.1860

Source: Fashionable Mourning Jewelry, Clothing & Customs,

by Mary Brett
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