Why Victorians Were Obsessed with Death

This post was so very popular that I took the topic and expanded it into two different guest posts about the lesser known history of Victorian Mourning Etiquette:  Little Known Reasons Why the Victorians Had Mourning Etiquette. & Why the Victorians Developed Specific Mourning Etiquette Practices.

photo credit: deflam via photopin cc

A lot of the creepiness associated with the Victorians is due to their obsession with death so much so that Victorians had their own death culture. They had dramatic displays and etiquette for coping with death and rituals to prevent people from being buried alive. Much of this culture is described in detail all over the internet, so I want to focus more about why the Victorians developed this culture.

There are multiple reasons why Victorians were obsessed with death. To start, they were surrounded by it. Without modern medicine the average lifespan was half of what it is today, and hospitals were still disease invested holes where people were sent to be forgotten. Thus people died regularly and they died in the home where everyone could witness each horrific moment. Today, we have removed death from our homes and from our minds in many ways. For the Victorians, death was right in their faces.

To pile on the miseries, the monarch of the Victorian Age, Queen Victoria, was obsessed with death after her beloved husband Prince Albert died at the young age of 42. 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. Just as fashion from Paris is in vogue in America, so too was a Queen’s mourning practices, which become the proper etiquette all over the world.

Post-Mordem Photogrphay
Add photo credit: brizzle born and bred via photopin cc

Women were expected to wear black mourning attire for up to two years or longer depending on the relation of the dead. They were expected to isolate themselves and not participate in entertainment or festivities. After a set period of time, they could decrease their mourning by transitioning into shades of purple, grey, and white and begin to reenter society. They covered the mirrors in their houses and locked the piano so no music could be played. The doorbell was snuffed out and the doorknobs covered in black crape. The servants and carriages and pretty much everything would also be draped in the mourning color. These practices were mostly for women because men needed to continue to do everyday things because they provided for the household.

Victorians also tried to keep as much as they could from the deceased to remember them by, even going to the extent of taking photos of dead propped up to look like they are alive as seen in the photo to the upper left. In addition to black, mourners wore locks of the deceased hair in lockets, broaches, and bracelets. 

In addition to the elaborate mourning etiquette, the funerals were elaborate and massive. The larger the funeral, the more it showed the family loved the deceased. This lead Victorians to have heavily attended processions with glass viewing coffins and the intricate headstones and mausoleums that we see still see in our cemeteries. 

The Victorian era was also a major time of transition with new knowledge being discovered in every realm, including evolution and technology, which meant new ideas were challenging religion. Additionally, increased immigration also introduced a variety of new ideas to religion. A lot of people reacted by clinging to old ways and beliefs. Even architecture and furniture reflected this desire to hold onto the past. They exaggerated and dramatized their dedication to their belief in order not to lose them.

photo credit: Elephi Pelephi via photopin cc
In addition to new discoveries effecting electricity and motorized vehicles, Victorians were making new discoveries about death and had come to question when an individual actually had died. There were documented cases of people coming back to life even after their heart’s had stopped beating and they had they had stopped breathing. Being buried alive became a huge fear among the public so Victorians increased the time prior to burial making sure the corpse did in fact begin to decay. 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. Accounts show that no bell ever rang.

Much of Victorian death culture developed out of subconscious reactions to wide-spread death, new scientific discoveries, and popular culture and these fears and anxieties were reflected in much of the Victorian era, which makes the time a perfect setting for a dark and creepy story.

To learn more and get some details about Victorian Mourning practices, check out these websites:     

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