Jan 14, 2016

Posted by in Popular Culture, Rituals, Taboos | 0 Comments

Macabre Mourning Customs of the Victorian Era


While death and the customs associated with it have become a hushed topic that is rarely discussed openly in modern culture, there was a time period in Western society when confronting loss was just a part of everyday life. During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), popular culture was saturated with the presence of death and reminders to accept one’s mortality (memento mori) were prominent in art, theater, and literature. As a result of this social preoccupation with dying, this age would come to be referred to as a “cult of death” and remembered for having some of the most elaborate funerary and mourning practices in the history of Western culture.

After the sudden passing of Prince Albert in 1861, the widowed Queen Victoria set the standard for mourning etiquette that would spread throughout the United Kingdom and the United States. As the grieving Queen plummeted into a state of “deep mourning” for multiple years, Victorians began to adhere to new rigid rules related to death and dying. Elaborate funerals, regulated mourning clothing, embellished memorial sites, and specific superstitious rituals became part of routine life during the remainder of the 1800s. However, some of the customs practiced by people of this era might be considered unusual, or even gruesome, by modern standards. I would like to take a closer look at three of the more bizarre traditions carried out during the 19th century.

Mourning Jewelry

Similar to today, the color black has long been linked to mourning in Western culture. Not only was it customary to wear black clothing during times of mourning, wearing matching black jewelry known as mourning jewelry became fashionable, as well. A fossilized coal called jet was commonly used in nicer pieces, but less expensive options were also available. Carved cameos and necklaces featuring silhouettes of the deceased person were also popular. However, the most remarkable examples of mourning jewelry were made with the woven hair of the late family member. Hair was often incorporated into bracelets, rings, and necklaces, or kept inside lockets. Although it may seem a little eerie now, this was once seen as a way to establish a connection with the departed loved one.

Post-Mortem Photography

Although commissioning the painting of  recently deceased individuals’ portraits had been a common practice for centuries, in 1839, the invention of the daguerreotype photographic process gave way to a new, more affordable way of memorializing the dead. Post-mortem photographs served as mementos of lost loved ones and many times were the only photos ever taken of the individuals. In some cases the deceased were made to look as though they were sleeping, however, in other situations great effort was made by the photographer to make the person appear as though they were still alive. The late subjects were often posed with personal belongings, flowers, or alongside family members. Although viewing these photos now might seem a little unsettling, the mourning portraits (as they were sometimes called) were a very popular trend that lasted well into the 20th century and photos were usually considered to be treasured family keepsakes.

Mourning Dolls

Due to the high infant and child mortality rates during the Victorian Period, a coping mechanism that became common for families dealing with the loss of a child was the commissioning of a mourning doll. These dolls were typically designed to be a life-sized effigy of the deceased child. They were often dressed in clothes belonging to the late child and hair taken from the corpse was used to make the doll more lifelike. These grave dolls were displayed during the wake and meant to be left at the grave of the child after the funeral. However, in some cases, the dolls were kept by grieving parents. Perhaps the most surprising practice was the continued care for the doll as if it were a real child that occurred in some instances. This included changing its clothes, placing it in the crib, and sometimes even adding sand to the body to give it a more realistic weight. Although this practice would likely be considered morbid today, this behavior was considered acceptable to the death-obsessed society of the late 19th century Victorian Era.

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