13 Fascinating Victorian Funeral Customs

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 29, 2014 in Family History

Many Victorian funeral customs started when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861. She mourned him for the rest of her life, dressing in full mourning for the first three years after his death (her entire court did the same). Her style of mourning was copied the world over, especially in England, and it ushered in a period of elaborate, ritualized behavior after death — including mourning periods, styles of dress, and extravagant funeral and burial arrangements.

  • 14-Day Free Trial

Here’s how your Victorian ancestors mourned their dead:

1. In both Europe and America in the 19th century, the deceased were always carried out of the house feet first so they wouldn’t look back into the house and beckon to someone else, who would have to go along with them.

2. When a family member died, you closed the curtains and covered the mirrors so that — yikes! — the deceased’s image didn’t get trapped in the looking glass.

3. If you saw yourself in the mirror of a house where someone had just died, some thought that you might also die.

4. People stopped the clocks in the house at the time of death so they wouldn’t have further bad luck.

5. A widow in Victorian England was expected to stay in mourning for more than two years. For the first year and one day, she wore only dull black clothing without jewelry and a black cape that was her “weeping veil.” The clothing became slightly more adorned and a little less crepe-covered as time went on; in a later stage of mourning, a woman could wear purple or gray.

6. What style, material, and color a widow wore — and for how long — depended on whether she was mourning a spouse, parent, child, sibling, grandparent, aunt/uncle, etc., and how long it had been since they died.

7. Men could continue working after a loved one died, but women were expected to be isolated at home.

8. It was common to take a photograph of the deceased as a remembrance, especially babies and children, and often with the rest of the family in the photo, which was called a “memento mori.” Sometimes pupils were painted over the closed eyelids so that the eyes looked open.

9. Another type of memento mori was a lock of the deceased’s hair, which was arranged artfully and preserved in a locket.

10. Funerals became grand, expensive affairs, and many lower-class people saved up money so that if their children, in those times of high child mortality, did not survive, they could provide an appropriate funeral.

11. Victorian England is when funeral directors first came into the picture. They arranged huge processions in which black horses pulled a hearse with a glass viewing coffin (again with the yikes!). Mourners were hired to follow the hearse looking despondent, and there were ostrich feathers.

12. Many elaborate headstones and mausoleums that we still see in older cemeteries date from this period. Middle-class families often took outings to these graveyards on weekends.

13. There were even coffins set up with tubes and mirrors so that gravediggers could peer into the coffin and look for movement.

Times and traditions have evolved since Victorian times, but our culture still retains bits of traditions from earlier times. For instance, we still use the expression “saved by the bell.” In Victorian England, the deceased were sometimes buried with a rope in their hand, which was attached to a bell outside of the grave. If the person in the coffin found him or herself alive, he or she could ring the bell for help!

—Leslie Lang

Discover your family story. Start free trial.

Past Articles

A (Long) Day in the Life of Your Grandparents

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 25, 2014 in Family History

Family life in the 1950s is the stuff of myth: rolling suburban lawns, practical housewives, Cadillacs, and tuna casserole. A lot of that is based in fact. Flush with postwar freedom and cash, life looked pretty good to most Americans. They got married earlier than at any other time in the century (women at 21… Read more

What’s Trending

Posted by wexon on July 22, 2014 in Family History

What Can Your Last Name Tell You In Western Europe, surnames first came about in Medieval times as civilizations grew larger and it became necessary to distinguish between people. Sometimes, names were based on occupation: a blacksmith may have been “John le Smith” (John the Smith) which became, over the generations, “Smith,” and a person… Read more

8 Celebrities With Asian Ancestry

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 21, 2014 in Celebrity

For decades, Asian characters in Hollywood films and television shows were commonly played by non-Asian actors, and then for a few more decades, the only Asians portrayed were martial artists in action flicks. Even in today’s increasingly multicultural America (according to the 2010 census, 5.6 percent of the population is Asian, and it’s the fastest-growing… Read more

12 Bizarre Dining Customs That Are Now Extinct

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 20, 2014 in Family History

[Photo credit: Shutterstock] It’s no secret that humans spend an inordinate amount of time on food, whether it’s procuring it, preparing it, serving it, or, of course, eating it. Here are 12 dining customs we’re glad are no longer in vogue. 1. Vegetarians that were, well, not. In Medieval Britain, chickens, pigeons and fish were… Read more

Hot Summer Nights: The 1890 Ice Famine

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 20, 2014 in Family History

In the summer, it’s hard to imagine going without ice. But until the early 20th century, ice was a luxury and could be hard to come by. In the 1800s, it was “harvested” from ponds and streams, the frozen surface broken into huge chunks and shipped to cities to the south. This system could be… Read more

Phoenix NBC News Anchor Kim Covington Uncovers Her Slave Roots—and a Surprising Celebrity Connection

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 11, 2014 in Family History

Phoenix NBC news anchor Kim Covington knew nothing about her Covington name or heritage, and like many African-Americans, she believed it was impossible to find out more. But when family history experts from Ancestry.com began a search into her past, what they discovered not only answered questions about Kim’s family tree, but also, she says,… Read more

What Was It Like to Live in 18th-Century England?

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 10, 2014 in Family History

The Dashwood sisters, characters from Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, lived rather elegantly in 1700s England. Is that what your 18th-century ancestors’ day-to-day lives were like? There were two very different lifestyles in 18th-century England: that of the rich and that of the poor. With the Industrial Revolution, which started in the middle of… Read more

1934: A Bad Year for America’s Most Wanted

Posted by Ancestry.com on July 10, 2014 in Family History

It was 1934, the height of the Depression. FDR was president, the Apollo Theater had just opened in Harlem, and all year long, newspapers were full of articles about the “Dillinger Gang” and America’s Most Wanted criminals. It was a busy year for bad guys, and ultimately a bad one for them, too, as many… Read more