Victorian Mourning Customs

Victorian mourning customs are of great interest. From jewelry, clothing, to mementos made of hair, Victorians extended their bereavement into almost every aspect of their lives.

Death shadowed every day of life in the nineteenth century. Three of every twenty babies died before their first birthday, and those who survived infancy had a life expectancy of only forty-two years. Death was a daily possibility, lurking in every drop of untreated water, disguised in bottles of popular patent medicines, hovering over every scene of childbirth.

Death shadowed nineteenth-century life in visible ways as well. Victorian society was bound and structured by elaborate rules of etiquette. These rules gave order to a society that changed rapidly as the Industrial Revolution created the middle class. Etiquette books instructed the newly wealthy in the details of socially acceptable behavior. One of the areas of life that had a very strict social code was, ironically, death. Anyone who flouted the established rituals and rules of mourning risked scandal and ostracism.

Mourning had two stages: deep, or full, mourning and half-mourning. Each stage had its own rules and customs of decorum. When someone died, all the members of the household (including the servants) would adopt deep mourning. Curtains were drawn and clocks were stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered because of a lingering superstition that the spirit of the deceased could become trapped in the reflective glass. The body was watched over every moment until burial. Indeed, the prevalence of grave robbers prompted many to hire guards to watch over the grave.

Funerals could not be too elaborate. Coffins were intricately carved and decorated with gilding. Hearses and the horses that pulled them were adorned with black ostrich plumes. Sometimes the horses were actually dyed black and fitted with black and silver trappings. Professional mourners (called "mutes") would be hired to walk in the funeral procession, looking suitably melancholy. Lavish refreshments were served after interment. Funerals for children featured white accents: white gloves on the mourners, white ostrich plumes on the horses, a white coffin for the child.

The rules of mourning were strictest in matters of fashion. Deep mourning demanded that women adopt a wardrobe made entirely of black crepe, a dull fabric without any sheen to reflect light. Even parasols and handkerchiefs were trimmed in black, without lace or other decoration. Men wore plain black suits with black armbands. Children also wore black, and even babies were dressed in white garments trimmed with black ribbons.

Specific periods of time were considered appropriate for mourning. A widow was expected to mourn her husband for at least two years. Deep mourning lasted one year, and required not only an all-black wardrobe, but also an extremely circumscribed social life. Jewelry was generally not worn the first year. After one year of deep mourning, a widow progressed to half-mourning, and could trade her black crepe dress for a silk one. Half-mourning allowed for jewelry made of pearls, amethysts, black cut glass, and jet. A popular trend was to incorporate a lock of the deceased's hair into mourning jewelry. After a year of half-mourning, a widow could freely wear any color, although many followed the lead of Queen Victoria and remained in black for the rest of their lives.

No other relation was mourned quite so long as a spouse. Parents who lost a child wore deep mourning for nine months and half-mourning for three. Children mourned deceased parents for a similar length of time. The death of a sibling required three months of deep and three months of half-mourning. The deaths of in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other relatives each demanded some degree of public mourning, ranging from six weeks to three months. It was not unusual for an individual to spend the better part of a year dressed in mourning for one departed relative after another.

Death infiltrated many objects in the nineteenth century, quite apart from clothing. Throughout the period, certain images were used again and again to represent the frailty and the brevity of human life. Draped urns, broken columns, weeping willows, and extinguished torches can be spotted in articles as diverse as tombstones, portraits, children's books, and embroidered samplers. The same imagery even recurs in the literature and poetry of the day. Bereavement touched virtually every aspect of Victorian life, lending a somber hue to even the brightest day.

Additional information about Victorian life (and death) can be found in Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, by Kenneth Ames; The Victorians at Home and at Work, by Hilary and Mary Evans; Victorian Jewellery, by Margaret Flower; Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, by Kristine Hughes; Leisure and Pleasure in the Nineteenth Century, by Stella Margetson; Victorians at Home and Away, by Janet and Peter Phillips; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool; and Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, by Lou Taylor.

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