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.
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!