Graveyard Shift

22 Morbid Death And Mourning Customs From The Victorian Era  

Lisa Waugh
329.7k views 22 items

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 passing in 1901. Her devotion to his memory 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 declining 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 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 this macabre business during 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 a state of never-ending grief.

There were also 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 person's spirit from possessing the living. The deceased's hair was put into clothing and jewelry and worn by mourners.

The stringent Victorian traditions waned with Queen Victoria's passing, the advent of national conflict, the flu pandemic, and an increased interest in cremation. 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
Families Posed For Portraits W... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 22 Morbid Death And Mourning Customs From The Victorian Era
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-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. The deceased 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-life photo might be the only photo the family had of the deceased.

Grieving Parents Would Create Lifelike Doll Versions Of Their Deceased Infants
Grieving Parents Would Create ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 22 Morbid Death And Mourning Customs From The Victorian Era
Photo:  Kristinharris231/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Following the passing 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 incorporate 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 lie 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 Funerary Dolls
Little Girls Would Practice Mo... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 22 Morbid Death And Mourning Customs From The Victorian Era
Photo:  Michel Curi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

During the Victorian era, women were tasked with the complicated business of mourning. According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, it's not surprising that these macabre customs greatly influenced even children:

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'
The Fear Of Accidental Burial ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 22 Morbid Death And Mourning Customs From The Victorian Era
Photo: J. G. Krichbaum/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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 vegetative-state, dubbed "sleeping sickness." The person would recover after several days, only to discover they were ensconced in their coffin. Understandably, there was the widespread fear of premature burial.  

Several Victorian-era coffin designs addressed this fear. One included placing a bell in the deceased's hand, which was attached to a ring, and then running the line 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. Ironically, he passed on Halloween in 1893.