How about a pop quiz about death? Light your creepy candles, turn on your favorite spooky playlist, and grab your Crimson Peak-themed cocktail! Here we go:Someone you love has died. Do you…
- Pose with your dead relative to get some last-minute pics
- Create a hyper-realistic wax effigy of your loved one (and pose for some more pictures)
- Create a “death kit” for your children filled with “death dolls,” black clothing, and etiquette books about appropriate mourning practices
- Put a bell in the deceased person’s hand so they can ring for help if you accidentally buried them alive
- Make jewelry out of the dead person’s hair
If you answered “no” to every single one of these questions, you might… need a brush up on Victorian mourning practices. That’s right—this quiz might have been written in the spirit of humor, but every single item on that list was a very real and very popular mourning practice during the Victorian Era. Intrigued? Let’s take a closer look at the customs that characterized the Victorians’ relationship with death and dying.
The Era of The Beautiful Death
Victorian death scholars (yes, that’s a real job!) will tell you that the Victorian era has come to be known as the “era of the beautiful death.” This label characterizes the most fundamental difference between our modern view of death and our Victorian ancestors’ conceptualization. Thanks to advances in modern science, medicine, and technology, we have an almost unnatural relationship with death, characterized by the expectation that we should always be able to save anyone who is dying. Likewise, because our experiences with death most often occur in the sterile, impersonal theatre of a hospital, we tend to view death as something squeamish and unsettling, something too icky to touch or discuss.
The Victorian relationship with death could not be more different. During the 1800s, everybody was dying. That might sound like an oversimplification, but it’s true. Infant mortality rates were high, life expectancy was low, and diseases like tuberculosis were running rampant. As a result, Victorian people simply accepted that death is an inescapable aspect of the human existence; it touches us all, no matter how unprepared we are. And although we commonly think of the Victorians as being repressed, this is nothing but a misconception. In fact, when it comes to death, the Victorians were much more open and authentic about their feelings than we are today.
Rather than viewing death as creepy and unsanitary, the Victorians were very comfortable with the concepts of death and dying. Most people passed away at home instead of in a hospital, so family members were very familiar with the ickiest parts of death and illness. However, this familiarity with death did not diminish the pain of losing loved ones. Today, we often try to smother our sadness, but the Victorians allowed themselves to feel their grief for as long as necessary. Complex mourning practices and rigid mourning etiquette were considered signs of respect for the dead—proof that you cared enough about their life to memorialize their death.
This time is often called the era of the beautiful death because dying was regularly romanticized in Victorian culture. Tuberculosis, “the wasting disease,” created the mysterious and alluring impression that sufferers were slowly fading into the grave. In an era that defined beautiful women as those who were very pale and thin, tuberculosis was actually considered a very attractive disease! Victorian scholar Brenna Mulhall asserts that death also came to be romanticized partly because “representations of dead female bodies exemplify the (Victorian) feminine ideal: passive, visionless, and voiceless.”
Victorian Mourning Practices
Today, we often attempt to sanitize death. We try to inject cheer into funerals by calling them “celebrations of life.” We adhere to strictly defined periods of socially acceptable mourning. We try not to talk too much about the person we’ve lost. We try not to take too much time off work. All of these efforts combine to create a culture of repressed and suffocated mourning that differs wildly from the Victorian relationship with grief.
Although the Victorians would never dream of holding a “celebration of life,” celebrating the lives of their loved ones was a cherished tradition. They simply went about it in different ways. In fact, the seemingly creepy mourning practices on the above list were ways of keeping lost loved ones close. Let’s take a closer look at each one of them and what they meant to Victorian mourners.
To the modern reader, this sounds nothing short of creepy. But for Victorian mourners, the concept of photography was still very new. It was also very expensive; most families couldn’t afford even a single picture, so a family portrait that included a dead family member might be the only photograph a family ever had. When we think about the practice in that context, we can understand why capturing a picture with your loved one would have been a special and deeply personal experience.
Similar to death photography, this was another way of preserving a loved one’s memory after their death. But wax effigies were typically only created for parents who had lost babies. Because the infant mortality rate was so high during the 1800s, it was very common to lose your infant child. Lifelike dolls helped grieving parents cope with the loss.
Death Kits For Children
The Victorians were very well acquainted with the death and they did not believe in sugarcoating the reality of death for their children. “Death kits” were designed for dolls and included such accessories as coffins and mourning clothes. The idea behind this concept was that children would regularly be confronted with funerals and that playing funeral with their dolls would help them understand death and mourning etiquette.
Fear of Being Buried Alive
Putting a bell in a dead person’s hand sounds a little over the top, but remember that we’re living in the era of Edgar Allan Poe. (Spoiler alert: his stories were very spot-on for his time!) The fear of being buried alive wasn’t just a plot device for a gothic novel; it was a very real fear in an age where people regularly fell into vegetative states and were presumed dead. Many people actually knew families who had experienced the horror of beginning funeral proceedings for a loved one only for them to miraculously “come back to life!”
Making Jewelry Out of a Dead Person’s Hair
This practice sounds nothing short of macabre, but for the Victorians, it was a very sincere and genuine way of cherishing your relationship with someone who had passed away. By creating jewelry from someone’s hair, you were preserving their memory and your relationship in a meaningful and fashionable way. In addition to jewelry such as rings and necklaces, many families also created hair wreaths which intertwined the shorn locks of dead family members with lockets of hair from the living.
Today, the Victorians’ mourning practices might seem bizarre and downright creepy. But when we take a deeper look at these traditions and the meaning behind them, we arrive at the conclusion that maybe these are simply different ways of navigating death and grief. No matter how we remember our loved ones, one impulse has remained timeless and universal: the desire to honor their memories and cherish the time we had with them.