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Mourning Rituals and Customs

Mourning Rituals and Customs in the Victorian Era*

Death is a subject most of us don’t like to think about or even talk about, but Victorians openly accepted it. This is evidenced by the extensive mourning rituals and the social acceptance of being in mourning.

My hometown boasts one of the country’s first Victorian municipal cemeteries (http://www.fomh.org/). Notables from the Victorian era buried there include Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony. While it might seem strange to you and I today to ever conceive of having a picnic lunch at the site of a loved one’s grave, in the Victorian era, it was quite common. In truth, the Victorians kept their loved ones close by keeping their death and the world beyond a part of their daily lives. Mourning practices were, quite simply, a part of daily living.

All communities had mourning rules that dictated how long a family would be in mourning according to their relation to the deceased. A woman might mourn her parents for months or even years, but a cousin or distant in law might dictate a much shorter mourning period. A husband’s death, on the other hand, would dictate full mourning for six to twenty four months, with the tradition being one year and one day. This period of deep mourning might be followed by a period of lighter mourning that allowed the woman to slowly return to society. (Many women chose to remain in full mourning the rest of their lives, returning to society, but retaining their “widows weeds”.)

The recommended guide for length of the mourning period (according to author Lou Taylor)
Widow for Husband 2 1/2 years
Widower for wife 3 months (ya gotta love the irony there)
Mother for Child one year
Child for parent one year

In an affluent home, windows and mirrors were covered with crepe and black wreaths of silk and wax flowers were hung on the front door and mantles. The hanging of crepe (an expression we’ve all heard used before) was an announcement to the community of a death in the family and neighbors were quick to respond with offers of food, help and consolation.

If the deceased were an immediate family member from the household, they would be laid out in the parlor, or on occasion, in the bedroom. Vigil was kept on the body for 24 hours a day by family members and servants alike and vigil candles would be kept lit around the room. Flowers were brought in, not just as a gift of remembrance but as an aid in masking the odor of decay. The vigil continued for a period of one to four days, followed by the funeral or burial in a public or private cemetery. (The first public cemetery was designed in Boston in 1832 and other cities quickly followed suit.)

Next time we’ll take a look at a lady’s life in mourning, including dress and decorum.

* information compiled from “The After Life” by Karen Rae Mehaffey.

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1 Comment

  1. Susan Macatee says:

    The Victorians were very aware of death in their everyday lives. Because the dead were cleaned and laid out at home, and disease often claimed family members, especially children, death was all around them. Many people were buried in plots on their own property. And the Civil War just added to the body count.

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