The Victorians and their obsession with death

  • August 11, 2022

I simply love the Victorian Era: I love the houses, the ghost stories and the obsession Victorians seem to have with death. Perhaps it was the harsh conditions that made them embrace death the way they did in order to cope with it. I mean, back in the days the average life span was 44, laborers weren’t even expected to reach the age of 25, and many children died before their fifth birthday. Let’s take a look at the Victorian obsession with the death. 

Queen Victoria

The Victorian Era is the period in which Queen Victoria reigned England from 1837 until 1901. The chances that Victoria would take the throne were quite small considering she was fifth in succession to the throne. But, all her predecessors passed away and Victoria was to be prepared for the task. She took over the crown when she was 18 years old. Victoria knew the importance of producing an heir, so two years after her coronation she married her cousin Albert Saxe-Coburg. According to the Queen’s diary passages, she was madly in love with the prince, and he loved her very much, too.

Daughters of Prince Albert mourning their father - Ann Longmore-Etheridge via flickr CC By 2.0
Daughters of Prince Albert mourning their father – Ann Longmore-Etheridge via flickr CC By 2.0

Albert and Victoria had nine children together and led a rather conservative life, but were a powerful couple together. Even though Victoria was Britain’s Queen, Albert made sure she knew her place in the household. She truely leaned on him, so when he suddenly died of typhoid 21 years after they got married, the Queen was devastated.

The Victorians learned from the best

Queen Victoria - Alexander Bassano via wikipedia Public Domain
Queen Victoria – Alexander Bassano via wikipedia Public Domain

For the remaining 40 years of her life, Queen Victoria only wore black. Many were inspired by her way of mourning. There were even manuals dedicated to how one should be mourning and how long. There was a real Victorian mourning etiquette, whether you were rich or poor. And there were many superstitions surrounding death as well. You can find some of these here.

High death rates

As I said in the introduction, the average lifespan of a common Victorian person wasn’t long. The Victorian Era was the upcoming of the Industrial Revolution and many Victorians moved to the big cities from the countryside to work there. Life was very tough and the labor was hard. The hygiene standards weren’t good at the time. Water, for instance, was of bad quality. Young children drank home made beer and other alcoholic beverages instead. The housing conditions were very poor and many died of illness and murder.

Annie Chapman - 29 Hanbury Street - unknown artist wikipedia public domain
Annie Chapman, one of Jack the Ripper’s victims – unknown artist wikipedia public domain

Yes, murder. The big cities weren’t safe at night, especially for prostitutes. If a husband had passed away, the woman was expected to stay at home. But, money was needed. So, many widows started to sell their own bodies in order to get some money for food or alcohol. Many people were addicted to alcohol in the Victorian times. These women were easy targets. You can read a little more about this in my story about Jack the Ripper.

Mourning periods

One of the Victorian household manuals nearly every Victorian woman had was that of Cassells. The Cassells’ Household guide not only gave direction when someone died, but for every aspect in the Victorian household. You can read the contents of the manual right here. Widows were expected to wear full mourning dress for two years, children mourning parents and vice versa one year, the mourning period for grandparents and siblings was 6 months and aunts and uncles were to be mourned for two months.

Victorian Mourning clothes

Victorian mourning dress - Robert Lawton via commons.wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0
Victorian mourning dress – Robert Lawton via commons.wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Wearing mourning clothes was a family’s way to show their inner feelings. The deepest mourning clothes were black symbolizing spiritual darkness. Mourning clothes were made of non-reflective parramatta silk. If one couldn’t afford silk the less expensive bombazine was used. Most people in Charles Dickens’ books wore bombazine, because he wrote about the poorer Victorians. The dresses are trimmed with crape which was heated so it would get a peculiar shape. After a period of time, the crape could be removed and the color of the dress lightened. Mourning goes from black to gray, mauve and eventually to white.

Men had it easy as they mourned their loved-ones. They simply wore their dark suits along with black gloves, hat bands and cravats. Children weren’t expected to wear mourning clothes. If a family did choose for the children to wear mourning clothes, the girls would wear a white dress. Many shops provided Victorian mourning clothes. Death occurred quite often so it was a lucrative business.

Waking over the dead

Found on Twitter
Grave bell – Found on Twitter

If someone in the family had passed, the body would be laid out in his or her former home. This is when the “dead watch” began. The body was watched over every minute until the funeral, which mostly ocurred four days after death. The wake served to make sure the deceased was really dead and not just in a coma. The deceased would either be displayed in the parlor or in his or her own bed, as if the person in question was simply sleeping. The clock in the room in which the dead person was laid out, had to be put still. Back in the Victorian days, there were no cooling systems to preserve the body. Especially in the Summer, the dead body started to smell rapidly. The scent was masked with loads of flowers and candles that would be burned in the room.

Victorian homes and death

Memphis CVB via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Memphis CVB via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When somebody died in a house, a wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood was hung on the front door. The wreath was tied with crape or black ribbons. This way, everybody in the neighbourhood was aware of the fact that somebody had passed away inside. Mirrors were covered with crape or a veil to make sure the deceased’s soul wouldn’t get trapped inside the window. Family photographs were turned face down to prevent family members and close friends from being possessed by the spirit of the deceased. And if the deceased was carried out of the house to be buried, they made sure the feet came out of the house first. This was to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him.

Victorian burials

My own picture - taken at Cemetery Eijk en Duinen in The Hague, The Netherlands
My own picture – taken at Cemetery Oud Eik en Duinen in The Hague, The Netherlands

There was always the fear of being buried alive. Sometimes, the “Dead Watch” wasn’t long enough, and someone would wake in the coffin. Coffin makers designed warning systems inside the coffin so the “dead” could warn the living they were still alive. A bell connected to a chain inside the coffin was a good solution. This is where the expression “saved by the bell” comes from. Small cakes known as “funeral biscuits” were given to the guests after the burial had taken place. The cake was wrapped in a white paper and sealed with black sealing wax. Lavish meals were often served after the burial ceremony. If a child had passed away, white was the popular color. The coffin would be white and white gloves would and ostrich plumes were the standard. Oh and, the graves were usually very big and detailed. If one could afford it, that is.

Pegan ritual?

In many Victorian cemeteries, the majority of the graves were oriented in such a manner that the feet of the deceased faced East. This very old custom originates from the Pegan sun worshippers, but it could also be attributed to Christian beliefs.The final summons of Judgement namely came from the East.

Grave robbery

Mortsafes - Judy Wilson via wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Mortsafes – Judy Wilson via wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Grave robbery was a huge problem during the Victorian Era. People feared their loved-ones were dug up in the dead of the night to be used at medical schools. The bodies were used for dissection classes. Often, doctors themselves would dig up the cadavers, but sometimes they left the dirty work to others. These people were paid for each fresh corpse they would deliver at the medical school. This is how the serial killers Burke and Hare started at first. Later they lured traveling people into their Scottish home and murdered them. People who robbed graves were called “Resurrectionist Men”. A way to prevent grave robbing was to put an iron cage over the grave. These Mortsafes are often mistaken for cages to keep vampires inside. But, they were to keep grave robbers out.

Post-mortem photography

Post-mortum photography of a young girl - picryl.com
Post-mortem photography of a young girl – picryl.com

A family photograph was very expensive during the Victorian Era. It was also a very time-consuming thing. Taking a picture back in the days took forever. Sometimes, there weren’t any photographs of a person when he or she was alive. This is where post-mortem photography came in. People would often want a picture of their loved-ones, even if this person was deceased. Sometimes a deceased person would be in the picture alone, sometimes the entire family posed along with the deceased. Photographers tried to make the deceased look as alive as possible. They would be placed standing up (supported by a standard) or they would paint eyes on the deceased eyelids as if the eyes were open. Just Google post-mortem photography and be amazed.

Victorian hair lockets and hair art

Victorian Hair Art - Leo Reynolds via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Victorian Hair Art – Leo Reynolds via flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When a person had died, it was fairly common to keep something that had belonged to that person close. The hair of the deceased was often used in jewellery, like in lockets and in art to put on the wall. Artists that worked with hair often did an amazing job.

Victorian mourning dolls

Victorian mourning doll - Kirstinharris231 via wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0
Victorian mourning doll – Kirstinharris231 via wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

When a child died, the hair of the child would be cut off so it could be pinned on a mourning doll. The doll was placed in the grave of the child. These mourning dolls were meant for remembering the deceased. They were life-sized, made out of wax and resembled the dead child in question. Usually, the clothes on the doll had once belonged to the child.

Victorian children and death

Wicker paradise via flickr CC BY-2.0
Victorian child – Wicker paradise via flickr CC BY-2.0

All Victorian children were raised with death. They were told about death at a very young age. Death was a common thing, so why keep it away from the children? There were even funeral kits on the market for children to play with! The kits contained a coffin, a doll and some funeral attributes to make it real. That’s kind of amazing, don’t you think?

Do you want to continue reading about, for instance, stories about haunted places? Click here!

Cover photo: My own picture – Cemetery Oud Eik en Duinen, The Hague, The Netherlands
Sources: Victorianlondon.org, mollybrown.org, sofoakgrovecemetery.org and tchevalier.com
Period: The Victorian Era (1837 – 1901)

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