Victorian Mourning Rituals
The Victorian Era, 1837 – 1901, brought us some of the most interesting rituals when it came to honoring the dead and ensuring the proper release of the spirit.
Due to tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other infections, death came often. Unfortunately a high number of children also passed, some before their first birthday.
When a death occurred, the mirrors in the home were covered to ensure the spirit of the deceased didn’t get trapped or confused upon leaving the body. If a mirror in the home fell and broke, it was considered a sign that another death was about to occur. The clocks were stopped at the exact time of death; it was believed to be bad luck if this ritual was not performed. The body was watched over every waking minute, hence the term “wake”. A wake lasted 3 – 4 days and served a couple of purposes, it allowed family appropriate travel time to visit the deceased and it ensured the person was actually dead and not just in a coma. Flowers and candles were used to hide any unpleasant odors since the practice of embalming had not yet caught on. A wreath of laurel tied with black ribbon was hung on the front door to alert passers by a death had occurred.
Post mortem photography was also a popular practice. The invention of the daguerreotype made it easier for families to have photographs of loved ones when they could not afford to have a portrait painted. The deceased were often posed to seem more life-like, propped up with their eyes opened. Children were represented as being in a deep sleep holding their favorite toy. Unfortunately, at times, this was the only photograph mothers would have of their children. Later photographs would depict a more honest image of the deceased in their coffin.
When the body was removed from the home, it was a common practice to carry the body out feet first. This was to ensure the spirit would not look back and beckon a living family member to join them. Family portraits were often turned face down to prevent possession from the deceased.
Those in mourning would wear all black and non reflective materials. Some women would wear mourning attire for up to two years and only wear jewelry for the first year. Many wore rings and lockets with a piece of hair that belonged to the deceased. The hair was the one part that didn’t change with time so it was the perfect way to remember a loved one.
Usually after four days it was time to bury the body. Grave robbing was common practice, especially by doctors who needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes, so the graves were often bricked over. There was still a huge fear of burying someone alive so many graves were built with a security system. A bell was placed above the grave with a chain extending down into the coffin. If a person was buried alive they could ring the bell and be removed from their grave. This is where the term “saved by the bell” originated. Someone was required to stay in the cemetery to listen for the bells and keep an eye open for grave robbers. Till this day anyone who has a job that takes them into the late hours is known to have “the graveyard shift”.
Many superstitions came along with this time period as well. Many believed it was bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on and it was recommended to turn around. If this was not an option they must bow their head and hold on to a button until the procession passed. Many today still honor this tradition. Another common belief was to never wear anything new to a funeral especially shoes. Tracking the dirt from a cemetery was considered bad luck, and an invitation of death and inviting the restless spirits into your home.