Ostrich Feathers and Black Velvet

There was a certain fascination with death and mourning during the Victorian era, unsurprising perhaps, during a time where the average life expectancy was only about forty-five years and death was a common visitor to many households. Traditions surrounded the event, bringing comfort to those who mourned the deceased. Some of these rituals were matters of etiquette, while others were rooted in superstitions older than time.

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century, the body of the deceased was likely to have been washed and prepared for burial by family or friends of the departed. By the end of the century, however, it was more common for an undertaker to be hired to prepare the body. During the period before the funeral, the body traditionally remained in the home. Family and friends took turns sitting with the corpse. Fear of being buried alive was common, and the wake ensured the deceased was truly dead and not just in a trance or coma.

Fears of Premature Burial

Various tests were devised to verify death. These included using a glass or mirror to check for vapour from breath or tying a string around a finger to see if the finger became congested with blood, suggesting the heart was still beating. More alarming was a suggestion to burn the body with a hot iron. One man, overly concerned that he should not be buried alive, left instructions that upon his death, his toe should be amputated, ensuring he was dead and not capable of bleeding profusely.

By the mid-nineteenth century, stories of premature burials abounded, although most appeared to have been rooted in hysteria. Several patents were registered for safety coffins. In some designs, tubes and mirrors would allow family and friends to watch the corpse for any sign of movement. In other designs, elaborate mechanisms were developed that would allow the corpse to ring a bell in the graveyard, should they wake to find themselves entombed. Experts tried to curb the mania, by stating that physicians were well trained to recognize the appearance of death and would never mistake an unconscious person for a corpse, but rumours of premature burials continued to be published in the newspapers with regularity throughout the Victorian period.

Body Snatchers

In the early part of the nineteenth century, they did not teach human anatomy in medical schools. This resulted in an unexpected market for recently deceased bodies for dissection. Body snatchers would dig up a newly buried corpse, prying the body out of the coffin with a pry bar. They would carry it, bound in a sack, back to whoever had hired them for the grisly deed.

A Mortsafe Guarded New Graves Against Grave-robbers
A Mortsafe Guarded New Graves Against Grave-robbers 1773 By: William Austin Published: May 1773 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

In other cases, to avoid the effort of digging, the thieves would make arrangements with the parish officer to obtain the bodies before the burial. The coffin would then be weighted with bricks or boards so it could be buried without suspicion. Fresh graves were also simply pillaged for valuables. Lead used in the linings of coffins was valuable, as were the silver plates used in mausoleums or burial vaults. In areas where resurrectionists or grave robbers were known to be active, an iron cage called a mortsafe was sometimes hired to guard the grave for the first six weeks. Some churches, especially those in proximity to a medical school, would hire them out, while others were available through a subscription model.

A Mortsafe Guarded New Graves Against Grave-robbers This image was taken from the page collection. See this photograph’s Geograph project on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Martyn Gorman and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Customs and Superstitions

When someone in the household died, clocks were stopped both to record the time of death and to prevent further bad luck. Curtains were closed and mirrors were covered in black crepe. Superstition said that if you saw yourself in a mirror in the house of the deceased, your own death was imminent. A black wreath, often of crepe, was also fastened to the front door of the house, letting everyone know that a death had occurred. When the time came for the burial, the deceased was carried from the house feet first so they couldn’t look back into the house and call someone to join them in death.

The service for the deceased sometimes took place in a church, but other times at the gravesite. For those who could afford it, a funeral carriage would be hired to transport the coffin, but the mourners often made their way by walking behind the carriage in a procession. If there were not enough mourners for a good showing, strangers were sometimes hired for the purpose. The carriage might be adorned with ostrich feathers or, for the more economically minded, it might be draped with a black velvet cloth. In some communities, the church bell would be tolled, one short peal before and another after the funeral service.

Mourning Dress This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

Traditional mourning dress was made from black crepe, sometimes infused with arsenic. The length of the mourning period depended on the relationship to the deceased. A widow was expected to wear full mourning for a period of two years, but other family members might shed their mourning clothes sooner. The only jewelry the widow would wear would be black, often made of jet. jewelry fashioned from the hair of the deceased was also quite popular.

Victorian Hair Mourning Jewelry

Mourning cards, showing the name and death date of the deceased, might be ordered from the local stationers and sent to family and friends. Special mourning stationary could also be ordered, the envelopes and paper printed with a black border. For those who could afford it, photographs of the deceased might be arranged, sometimes with the open eyes painted over.  

Mourning Stationery

After the funeral, refreshments, often alcoholic, would be provided to the mourners, although many ministers recommended against the practice, suggesting a simple devotional service should be provided instead. At one Lewsham workhouse, inmates were buried with no mourners in attendance, their fellow inmates no longer permitted to attend a service having so often returned to the workhouse in an inebriated state.

Ministers could not refuse or delay the burial of any corpse brought to the church. Unclaimed bodies, such as those that might be found washed up on shore, or by the side of the road, were to be buried in the churchyard of the local church at the expense of the treasurer of the county. Fees for the services of the minister, the parish clerk and the sexton were to be paid by the parish. This was in accordance with the right to burial in the churchyard without payment, however it was customary to charge a fee for the breaking of the ground or for erecting a headstone. Persons who died in a public establishment such as a hospital were the responsibility of that establishment. The hospital was required to transport the body, suitably covered, to the burial location.

As funerals became more elaborate during the second half of the nineteenth century, those of lesser means struggled to afford a proper send off for their loved ones. The worst fate was thought to be a pauper’s funeral where there might be no mourners, a cheap and thin coffin, and transportation to an unmarked grave on a pony cart.

During the Victorian Period, gravestones became more ornate.

Funeral companies would offer a sliding scale of funeral packages with costs ranging from 4 shillings to £4, depending on the services provided. The higher priced package might include the coffin, the grave, fittings for six mourners, and conveyance to any of the metropolitan cemeteries. Most coffins were made of wood, but some were made of iron, stone, marble or even glass, with costs being much higher for the more exotic materials.

With the rising costs of providing a socially acceptable funeral, burial clubs became commonplace in the nineteenth century. As with more contemporary insurance policies, members of the burial clubs would pay a small amount weekly, often as little as one penny, to be guaranteed the cost of a funeral when the need arose.

By the mid-nineteenth century, many city graveyards were becoming overcrowded and were too small to support the growing number of burials. The cholera epidemic of 1848, which killed some 60,000 people, served to further highlight the problem. Grounded in public health concerns, the burial acts of 1852 to 1885 sought to regulate burial grounds. City cemeteries were closed, and newer modern cemeteries were established outside the city to meet the growing needs. 

Funeral of Dr. Livingstone in Westminster Abbey

With the new cemeteries located outside of the city, the funeral carriage became increasingly popular. As well as carrying the coffin of the deceased, it could also accommodate from 4 to 12 mourners for the trip to the burial place, combining the function of a hearse and a mourning coach in one vehicle.

Cremation

Citing sanitary reasons, Sir Henry Thompson tried to raise interest in cremation of remains in 1874. According to Thompson, not only would the practice be more sanitary and lessen the chance of spreading disease, but it would prevent premature burial, be less expensive than a regular funeral, and the ashes, kept in an urn in the columbaria would be safe from vandalism and body snatchers. It took another decade, but in 1884, cremation became legal in England and the first official cremation took place in March 1885.

By the end of the Victorian period, improved living conditions and a better economy along with advances in medicine were increasing the life expectancy. Perhaps in response, funerals became less ostentatious and lavish. Gone were the ostrich feathers and elaborate funeral coaches, and simple, unostentatious funerals came into fashion.

Queen Victoria in Mourning

On December 14, 1861, at approximately 10:50 pm, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, took his last breath after a three-week battle with typhoid fever. An hour later, the great bell of St Paul’s Cathedral tolled, letting the people of London know that some major event had occurred. The next day, in an extraordinary Sunday publication of the London Gazette, it was announced that His Royal Highness, Prince Albert, had died Saturday evening surrounded by the Royal family. Those who hadn’t heard the news soon realized what had happened when the prince’s name was omitted from prayers for the Royal family at church that morning.

Queen Victoria’s Children in Mourning

On Monday, orders were issued for the Court to go into Mourning for the late Prince. The ladies were to wear black woollen trimmed with crepe, plain linen with black shoes and gloves and crepe fans. The gentlemen were to wear black cloth, plain linen, crepe hatbands with black swords and buckles. In the same proclamation, Queen Victoria added she expected that all her subjects would put themselves into ‘decent morning’ for the prince.

The following Thursday, Queen Victoria, along with her children, left Windsor for Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where they would remain until the funeral. As the Royal family waited for the train, the grieving Queen was seen to be wearing full mourning dress, including a widow’s cap.

Finally, two days before Christmas, the funeral took place. The Prince Consort’s remains were moved to the entrance of the Royal Vault in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor until the new Mausoleum at Frogmore could be readied. The hearse, drawn by six horses, was followed by nine mourning carriages, each drawn by four horses. Most shops were closed in respect, houses remained dark and shuttered, and the Union Jack fluttered at half-staff. Prayer meetings were held in many churches and church bells tolled throughout the country. The public dressed in mourning clothes, some throughout the month of January until released by Royal order on 9 February. Parliament too was prorogued from January 7 to February 6, 1862, out of respect to the Royal family.

After Albert’s death, Queen Victoria withdrew from public life, retreating into a period of deep mourning. She isolated herself in the privacy of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where she would remain secluded with less than half of the usual servants in attendance. While the public was initially very sympathetic to the grieving widow, it soon became clear that her period of mourning would exceed the customary two years. Queen Victoria continued to refuse to take part in any form of public ceremony and Buckingham Palace remained closed.

In November 1871, almost a decade after his father’s death, the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria’s son, fell ill. Initially, it was reported that he was indisposed, and unable to fulfill an engagement, but a few days later it was announced by the Royal doctors he was suffering from an attack of typhoid fever. Fearing the worst, the public waited for daily news updates on the prince’s condition. By mid-December, the Prince’s condition was said to be precarious, and anxiety grew. A week passed and finally the doctors announced the prince appeared to be on his way towards making a recovery.

The outpouring of concern for her son touched Queen Victoria, and she wrote of her appreciation for the prayers and concern of her people and her gratefulness that the prince had rallied. She appeared with the Royal family at St Paul’s Cathedral on the National Thanksgiving Day proclaimed to celebrate his recovery. While Queen Victoria appeared in public more regularly after that, she continued to wear black and to mourn for her husband until her death in 1901.