Sep 13 2011 2:30pm

Mourning in Victorian England

While the romance between Sebastian Madinger, the Earl of Wriothesly, and Mrs. Leah George is the main focus of my new book, Romancing the Countess, the death of their spouses and subsequent mourning customs of the Victorian era play an important role as well.

As an author who writes in the Victorian era, there are some things that I’ve learned over time in research, and some things that I have to research in detail depending upon the book I’m writing. In Romancing the Countess, the storyline led me to the necessity of researching funeral and mourning habits of the upper class in the mid-Victorian era (circa 1849).

Some of the information that I ran across was familiar: a black armband worn by men, black crepe or bombazine for the women, an estimated expected mourning period for the widow of one to two years—though this time period was not “required,” it was nonetheless a social expectation, and violation of this expectation could cause great scandal.

On the other hand, there were quite a few pieces of information that I learned as a result of my research. For example, in addition to the black armband, men also tied black bands around their hats and wore black gloves. Ladies of the house (which would include the widow or any immediate and sometimes extended relatives of the deceased) did not attend the funeral. In fact, women in general were not usually present.

Since the body would stay inside the home until time for burial, the windows were open and curtains drawn—most likely to relieve the stench.

However, the most interesting custom that I found in my research was the draping of black cloth over every mirror. The most common explanation for this that I found was the belief that mirrors—and indeed, all reflective surfaces—must be covered in order to prevent the souls of the dead from becoming trapped inside.

Finally, I ran across a few superstitions that you might find interesting:

It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on. If you see one approaching, turn around.  If this is unavoidable, hold on to a button until the procession passes.

If it rains on a funeral procession, the deceased will go to heaven.

If the deceased has lived a good life, flowers will bloom on his grave; but if he has been evil, only weeds will grow.

(Source for superstitions: friendsofoakgrovecemetery.org)

Which Victorian mourning customs or superstitions are you familiar with? Are there any not named above that you’d like to include?


Ashley March, www.ashleymarch.com

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Melinda Belle
1. Melinda Belle
Excellent piece and now I MUST buy the novel. Love stories with this.
Louise Partain
2. Louise321
Hm-m-m. Clocks were stopped at the time of death and think it was to stop everyone from going forward while the family grieved, or else the time honored "someone else would die."

Also opening the windows in the room where a person died allowing their spirit to depart or again, someone else would die.

Carrying the body out feet first or the spirit of the dead one would look back for someone to go too and yet again, someone else would die.

Of course, someone else would probably die anyway if the death was from illness, but I suppose keeping the proprieties helped make sure that everyone thought they'd done all they could (except really really clean the room.

Keepin a "wake" was interesting since 3 or 4 days of watching over the body not only meant family members could make it to the funeral but also that people who were in coma didn't get buried alive -- so that's what happened in Fall of the House of Usher -- they didn't wait long enough.
Melinda Belle
3. Ora
I knew about the black bands around the hat and arm for men along with black gloves. With the black cloth covering mirros, were they removed after the deceased was removed from the house? It would seem pointless in keeping it up after the body left the house, however some superstitions baffle me.
When the body was cleaned, was there anything applied to the deceased to slow the decaying process before the body was put to ground?
Melinda Belle
4. Johanna J
Interesting customs. I knew some of them but I did not know about the bands on hats or the black gloves. I think it was strange that they kept the deceased in the house for so long. BLEAH!!!! What about the custom of putting coins on the eyes for payment across the river styx. Is that right? My knowledge of superstitions and old customs is not very good! LOL! Anyway thanks for sharing today!
Melinda Belle
5. Sue K
I've heard of some of those customs, but not all of them. My great-grandmother died maybe back in the 1930's and she was laid out in the livingroom of my grandmother's house. My mother told me once that what she remembered most was that a handkerchief was kept on the face of the deceased to keep the flies away. Yech!
Donna Watson
6. Sookie65
I remember watching a programme on TV about this, and the one thing that has stayed with me was the fact that many Victorian families would dress and pose children who had died, for a final photograph. The programme actually showed one of these photo's of a little girl with a pretty dress and ringletted hair posed as if she were sleeping. It was so sad and slightly disturbing, and it has stayed with me for years.
Melinda Belle
7. Barb in Maryland
@Donna Watson--yes, the photographs of dead children were a speciality of photographers, especially on the American frontier. In a way, I can understand it--especially the babies--the need to remember that, yes, you had that child, s/he did exist, if only for a little while.

Re: the arm bands/hat bands for men--if you dig deep enough, you will find that those were funeral wear for the men of the family--sons, brothers, sons-in-law, brothers-in law , grandsons, etc, as needed. Afterwards, the men were NOT expected to maintain the outward signs of mourning--that was for the women-folk!
And let us NOT get into the whole mourning jewelry thing--with items made from the dead person's hair and so on and so forth!!!
Melinda Belle
8. Jen B
I have actually heard about the tradition of draping cloth over the mirrors to ward off spirits. I think it was in Upstair Downstairs but I can't be sure. My grandmother actually had some mourning jewelry that had been handed down in the family. I don't know what happened to it when she died.
Ashley March
9. AshleyMarch34
Hi Melinda! Glad you enjoyed the piece. =) If you get a chance to read ROMANCING THE COUNTESS, I hope you enjoy that, too!
Ashley March
10. AshleyMarch34
Thanks for these, Louisa321! I especially like your reasonable point about how cleaning the house really, really well would have helped avoid the spreading of illness. =) Ah, superstitions. ;)
Ashley March
11. AshleyMarch34
Hi Ora: From what I found, it appeared that the black cloth stayed up at least through the funeral. I think, just like other superstitions, at some point they evolve from being superstitions to just being the way things are done. A tradition, if you will. Unfortunately, I didn't do any research into the question of what was done with the body in terms of embalming.
Ashley March
12. AshleyMarch34
Hi Johanna! Lol--I have to admit I've never heard of the coins over the eyes. Maybe something for a different time period, if it was in England? As for keeping the body in the house for so long, I think they simply didn't have anywhere else to put it until the funeral. There's also the matter of the wake, where the relatives would have wanted to make sure the deceased wasn't actually in a coma.
Ashley March
13. AshleyMarch34
Hi Sue! Yeah...I think I might have shuddered a little at your story. I have to think that the opening of the windows was also a way to relieve the stench from the house. Can you imagine being a little kid and seeing that?
Ashley March
14. AshleyMarch34
Hi Donna! I don't know if you've heard of it, but there's a new trend (appropriate word?) where parents of babies who die at birth or in the womb have the baby's picture taken. Maybe it's a resurgence of this same tradition? It's to honor their life, short though it was. I understand this, that you want the memory of them since they're gone, but it does make me incredibly sad to think about.
Ashley March
15. AshleyMarch34
Hi Barb! Sorry, yes, neglected to define different standards between men and women, which I will try to refrain from grumbling about. =) And you're right...the jewelry from hair and the like is creepy, if understandably sentimental. But still creepy. =)
Ashley March
16. AshleyMarch34
Hi Jen B.! I haven't watched Upstairs Downstairs yet. I've been meaning to, though. =) Thanks for your comment--now I'll make sure to put it at the top of my queue.
Louise Partain
17. Louise321
Sadly, Ashley, I know of a family that went through the funeral and burial because the child had been carried to term knowing there was no chance of her survival when the mom was too far along to induce labor easily. She lived for a few minutes and that was enough for a coffin and a gravestone. I went to a graveyard in NJ from the late eighteenth early nineteenth century and the family plots had minature graves as well as the larger gravestones. There was only one year indicated on the minature graves. I guess mourning is mourning no matter what the century. But pictures? I don't know if pictures were taken of the baby I spoke about but somehow I hope not.
18. EvangelineHolland
Black-bordered stationary! I own a fascmile of an Army & Navy Stores catalogue from 1907 and two entire pages are devoted to the different types of mourning stationary required by etiquette--you were supposed to use the thickest border during the first months of mourning, slightly thinner borders after that, and so on, until the end of the mourning period (though some people continued to use the paper for the remainder of their lives). Even though all of the customs and superstitious seem freaky, I can't help but think the Victorians processed and accepted death much better than we do today.
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