Why the Victorians Developed Specific Mourning Etiquette Practices

The following post was originally featured on Chapter Break, a fantastic book review blog. If you like my book, you might like some of the others on this site.

If this topic interests you, make sure you check out: 

Why the Victorians were Obsessed with Death. 
Little Known Facts About Victorian Mourning Etiquette.
A post on the practices and mentalities often ignored in other articles.

Why the Victorians Developed Specific Mourning Practices
Queen Victoria with grandchildren in mourning 1879 US Public Domain Copyright ExpiredThe Victorian Gothic is a common theme during Halloween because 19th century society was obsessed with death. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people had dramatic displays and etiquette to respond to a death in what is often called the Victorian Cult of the Dead. This culture and etiquette included black clothing, photos of the deceased, hair jewelry, séances, and preventative measures in case someone was buried alive! Much of this etiquette is described in detail all over the internet, so today I want to focus more on why the Victorians developed this culture.

The United Kingdom monarch, Queen Victoria, sparked the creation of mourning culture after her beloved husband Prince Albert died at the age of 42 in 1861. For the next 40 years, the queen wore black and froze her house in time, having servants continue to lay out her husband’s clothing daily. Just as fashion from Paris is in vogue in America, so too was a queen’s mourning practices, which became the popular etiquette all over the world.

The more elaborate each step of the funeral and burial, the more it showed the family loved and adored the deceased, so people were encouraged to purchase the most expensive coffins, elaborate head stones, mausoleums, and family plots, in addition to flowers, special clothing, and memorabilia including post mortem photography known as Memento Mori and specially made hair jewelry with locks of hair from the dead.

The funeral business was a huge industry. Many historians believe much of the encouragement to mourn excessively came from the industry’s desire to make money off of the grieving. These historians believe the industry found ways to guilt people into the expensive practices. However, other historians argue that the crossover of mourning to different cultural signposts, such as literature, suggests the practice went deeper than an economic and fashionable trend.

Psychology: Coping with Death
Without modern medicine, the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today, and hospitals could be dangerous due to a lack of knowledge about infection. Thus, people died regularly and died in the home where loved ones witnessed each step. Today, we have removed death from our homes and from our minds in many ways. For the Victorians, death was right in front of them all the time.

Family members cared for the ill and experienced all the messy and disturbing aspects of a loved one’s deterioration. Further, the byproducts of the human body ceasing to function were then cleaned and removed by either family members or by servants in an upper class home. The elaborate mourning spectacles could be interpreted as a way for people to deal with and overcome the overwhelming realities of death.

Anxiety also developed because death was still misunderstood. It wasn’t clear if death occurred when the heart stopped beating or when the brain stopped functioning. There were documented cases of people coming back to life even after their hearts had stopped or after they had stopped breathing. Being buried or autopsied alive became a huge public fear.

In response, Victorians increased the time prior to burial making sure the corpse did in fact begin to decay, something confirmed by either family or friends of the family. They also buried the dead with a string attached to a bell above ground and assigned a death watch, so that if a person woke up in a coffin, he or she could ring the bell for help. Historical records show no bell having ever rung.

Progressive Era & Religious Angst
The Victorian Era was also a major time of industrialization and modernization with new knowledge being discovered in every realm challenging religion and philosophy.

The advancements in medicine not only created concern regarding live burial, but also created uncertainty regarding the existence of the soul. People believed the soul resided within the heart or chest cavity, so many took the idea that death occurred when the heart stopped as evidence of the soul. They feared brain death disproved the afterlife.

Additionally, Charles Darwin published his revolutionary On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, sparking a huge backlash from the church and Christian religions as it challenged the doctrine that God created all life in seven days. These ideas challenged the religious beliefs that supported the existence of the soul.

With the amount of death occurring in the Victorian Era, one can only imagine how difficult it was to consider that the soul and afterlife did not exist. For many people, the idea that they might never see their loved ones again was far too devastating. The popularity of Spiritualism may have been in response to the desire to prove life after death.

Spiritualism was a movement that lasted well into the 1920s. People would use séances, mediums, spirit writing, and photography in order to communicate with or capture proof of ghosts. It was used to communicate with relatives, friends, and lovers who had passed on. For some, it was simply a parlor trick, but for others, it was a very serious practice that has been compared to a religion. The idea of spirits remaining in the world of the living is in contrast to traditional religious beliefs, so it could be said this was an attempt to incorporate and accept scientific discovery while continuing to believe in the afterlife.

A Society Obsessed
The Victorian death culture and obsession with death goes much deeper than most realize when they learn about mourning etiquette. Although fashion and economics played a role, it seems far more likely that the Victorian people were trying to cope with a tremendous amount of trauma in their lives. Further, they were trying to cling to their religious beliefs as scientific discovery continued to challenge those doctrines. Their outward expressions of death were their only way to take back a sense of control and channel their anxiety through a dramatic outlet. 

If you like my research, you might also enjoy my historical novel A White Room.