In deepest Mourning ,Victorian mourning part one ,the deceased

Victorian Mourning can be roughly divided into the years before and the years after Prince Albert’s death.However while its often assumed that queen victorias lifelong mourning radically affected society the case is less clear .Certainly the “mourning industries” grew but the customs largely remained unchanged

At the  beginning of the reign there was a fairly standard set of “rules” for the length of mourning and these controlled also the amount of mourning clothing required,From a mere black armband to full deep mourning  of head to toe plain black.

Mourning lasted anywhere for a few days for a neighbour to over a year  for a close relative.Widows mourning could last for the rest of their lives  and this is one area where the influence of Queen victoria was probably most pernicious as it became the ideal for ladies to refuse to remarry and widows could suffer socially for showing an interest in remarriage.

When a loved one died ,the clocks would be stopped and curtains closed, they would be “laid out” cleaned and tidied and shown to their family and friends .Relatives would change immediately into mourning clothing ,black ribbon or a laurel wreath would be tied onto the Front door and mirrors covered or turned to the wall ,covering mirrors and glass is an ancient superstition and seems to usually be associated with the idea of the soul being reflected in a mirror (Hence the vampire which has no soul has no reflection).By covering mirrors and reflective surfaces it was thought the deceased souls couldn’t get accidentally trapped in them.Victorians perhaps also associated mirrors with vanity and the desire to look your best so covering them signaled the change in priorities.It seems likely that closing curtains was designed to signal to  the outside world ,neighbours and potential visitors that a death had occurred,I remember that being the reason given to me when I was young ,neighbours might also close their curtains on the day of the funeral as a mark of respect .The deceased would remain at home  for a varied amount of time ,possibly until burial and people would “watch with the dead” ,probably the origin of the word wake and waking in relation to funerals .The corpse then was taken to burial  leaving the house ” Feet firs” so it could look back towards the house .

These customs were followed for even the relatively poor but for the  upper and some of the middle class if they had been wealthy enough to afford it the deceased entered the mourning industry.

Perhaps a photograph would be taken

It’s possible they would be photographed fairly quickly after death and while lying in bed or a photograph may be taken at  the undertakers  but slightly more bizarrely their embalmed corpse would be taken to a studio and posed to look alive , many photographers advertised their expertise in post-mortem photography.(This is from Memento mori flickr)

Its estimated one third of all early Victorian photographic images  are post mortem photographs .Sometimes is fairly obvious the person is shown in a coffin or “sleeping”as in this beautiful daguerreotype

Sometimes relatives would pose with the deceased,most frequently this is women holding babies ,,a very high percentage of Victorian baby photographs are post mortem .But wives and husbands also shared photos with their dead loved one

If the person was famous or rich ,a death mask may be taken and / or a cast of hands,queen victoria had a cast of Alberts hand placed in her coffin with her ,.In the case of babies and small children  feet casts might also be taken and sculptures or models made(the photo below is not a post Mortem hand cast but a replica)

This may seen strange to us ,however in the days before cameras became common most people would have no image of their loved one ,Photographs were expensive in the early years of the reign and  for most people reserved for capturing  major events such as Births and marriages, ,and deaths.

The hair  of the loved one was now cut off to make mourning jewelry,this is more frequently the case with women than men though locks of mens hair would also be trimmed from men.Not all brooches or lockets with hair are mourning jewelery but certainly any with black borders or  writing etc are.Some mounring brooches contain simple locks some contain  designs such as that above or most commonly contain braided hair

For those able to afford extra expense there was a specialised jewelry industry that made bracelets ,

brooches ,rings ,watch chains and even earings from hair .Again not all these items may be mourning items but  many are and those with Jet ,opals ,bog oak etc most certainly will be


This hair jewelery and Jet jewelry was the only adornment allowed in first stage mourning and was often worn long after mourning ended ,Hair jewelry was also given as mementos.

The deceased would finally be placed in a shroud or in clothing in their coffin , perhaps with items specified in their last requests and laid to rest ,,the funeral would be as elaborate as the relative could afford ,until much later in the century Women would not have attended the funeral of their loved ones as it was simply not socially acceptable but as the century progressed it became more common.Until late into the century the deceased would be buried ,cremation was considered unacceptable as  people tended to feel you wouldn’t then have a body for the resurrection of the dead and thus be unable to go to heaven.

hopefully this would be the last part of your journey,However an alarmingly large number of  graves were robbed.The victorian custom of burying bodies with mementos and in their jewelry made this a lucrative trade ,while in towns a large number of bodies were stolen especially for towns with medical collages,

The graveyards tried to prevent grave robbers by fencing in the graveyards ,adding locking gates ,locks on crypts or even gatehouses.The most common form of prevention was a grave cage or mortsafe

Railings and locked family plots were also designed to prevent graverobbers These can still sometimes be seen in old graveyards .

Image source( oldwinterrambles )

It’s often been assumed that bodies buried with large stones over them or in cages were done so to keep the corpse from rising to haunt the living  but in reality the mostly likely reason  for cages ,Iron coffins ,heavy stones was to keep the living from disturbing the dead.There is an excellent article on excavations in a graveyard here.Precautions there seem to have included false bottomed coffins and weighting them down with metal

Though the distressing tales of relatives finding empty graves no doubt give fuel to the writers of the gothic novel.

About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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3 Responses to In deepest Mourning ,Victorian mourning part one ,the deceased

  1. Pingback: 1st & 8th October: Posing and Post Production | Reflex Camera Club

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