Graveyard Shift 22 Morbid Death and Mourning Customs from the Victorian Era  

Lisa Waugh
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Victorian death obsession was driven by Queen Victoria’s grief over the passing of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. In honor of her husband, she wore black and stark colors until her own death in 1901. Her devotion to his death set the standard by which society handled their own mortality. Standards were also driven by the idea that purgatory was nonexistent and the choice for the dying was only between heaven and hell. This change in religious belief gave rise to the concept of “lingering death,” where the dying person must prepare for the next world.

Victorian England was driven by the idea of a “good death,” an elaborate and strict set of Victorian death practices requiring painstaking detail and a small fortune. Failing to properly mourn on a grand scale was considered a societal and moral failure. Considering that there was a high mortality rate at the dawn of the 19th century, especially among children (at around 50%), families found themselves perpetually ensconced in the business of death and dying in the Victorian era.

Victorian mourning etiquette was especially tough for women. Widows were required to embody grief. They were expected to mourn their husbands for at least two years, cloaked in dark clothing, and isolated from society. Every detail of their lives was dictated by social pressure to live in state of never-ending grief.

There were also strange Victorian death traditions we might find odd today, but at the time, they made perfect sense. Mirrors were covered to prevent trapping the deceased’s soul in their reflection. Family portraits and photos were covered or flipped to prevent the dead person’s spirit from possessing the living. The deceased’s hair was put into clothing and jewelry and worn by mourners.

With Queen Victoria’s death, the advent of war, the flu pandemic, and increased interest in cremation, there was a waning in Victorian death traditions. As morbid as Victorian mourning etiquette seems, some of these rituals are still around today, in one form or another.

Families Posed for Portraits with the Recently Deceased

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The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 by Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre gave rise to post-mortem photographs. A common practice would be to pose the deceased in a realistic domestic setting. Adults were posed in a setting that reflected their profession as naturally as possible. Children were posed with family members, sometimes with a toy or sitting with a sibling, often times as though they were sleeping. Dead people were sometimes posed standing, with the aid of hidden clamps and stands. In rare cases, "open" eyes would be painted on top of closed eyelids.

Since photography was expensive, a post-mortem photo might be the only photo the family had of the deceased.

Grieving Parents Would Create Life-Like Doll Versions of Their Dead Infants

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Following the death of babies and young children, families would sometimes commission mourning or grave dolls. These were usually realistic wax effigies that would be dressed in the deceased child's clothing and sometimes even incorporated the deceased child's own hair. The dolls had soft cloth bodies filled with sand that had a lifelike weight and feel, and flat backs so that they would like neatly in their coffins.

The dolls were usually left at the child's grave site, but some families would keep them in the home as a memento, in a small glass coffin, a frame, or even a crib.

Little Girls Would Practice Mourning with Funeral Dolls

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Women were tasked with the complicated business of mourning, and so it's not surprising that "by the 1870s, death kits were available for dolls, complete with coffins and mourning clothes, as a means of helping to train girls for participating in, even guiding, death rituals and their attendant grief."

In addition, many books and pictures geared towards children emphasized the duties of families in times of grief.

The Fear of Accidental Burial Created a Market for "Safety Coffins"

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Medicine was still operating in the gray area of experimentation during the Victorian era. And there were many stories of people being buried alive after falling into a coma-like state, dubbed “sleeping sickness.” The person would recover after several days, only to discover they were ensconced in their coffin. Understandably, there was a widespread fear of premature burial.  

Several Victorian-era coffin designs addressed this fear. One included placing a bell in the deceased’s hand or attached to a ring and then running it out of the coffin and up to the top of the grave. If the person were to come to, they could ring the bell to signify they were alive. Simple, right?

An American doctor, Dr. Timothy Clark Smith, was so terrified of being buried alive, he designed a 14x14 glass window that looked down a six-foot shaft into his coffin. Fittingly, he died on Halloween in 1893.