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A Victorian legacy

Traditions surrounding family celebrations, including weddings and baptisms and Christmas, echo the Victorian era, and the influence of that time is even clearer in funeral customs. With ITV drama series ‘Victoria’ back on TV screens, we look at the rich legacy the Victorians left the modern world.

The mortality rate was high for the Victorians, particularly for children, so funerals were a hugely significant part of life, and funeral traditions were extremely important.

For the middle to upper classes at least, life began to improve with the emergence of wealth that came from the Industrial Revolution. In these wealthier classes mortality rates began to drop and early deaths became to be seen as tragic events rather than the norm.

Consequently, funerals and mourning practices began to take on greater import and become much more elaborate.

Queen Victoria led the way. After the death of Prince Albert, she went into mourning for the rest of her life and wore black every day until her own death in the early 20th century.

Her subjects often adopted the same practices, and funerals and mourning became more ostentatious. Large scale funerals and substantial monuments were de rigueur for the better off as the death of a loved one offered the chance to show off wealth.

It wasn’t the same for the lower classes however.

Death rates among the poor classes remained high, especially for children, and families had to plan ahead to put a bit aside to meet the inevitable costs. People often went without to pay for the funeral of a loved one and this saving often contributed to the early deaths of children. 

Ultimately, clubs began to spring up so members could save weekly payments – the forerunners of today’s funeral plans.

Families who could not pay for funerals were forced to turn to the Poor Union for a ‘pauper’s funeral’, where the deceased would be buried – often in a communal grave – without ceremony or headstone.

Those who could afford a decent burial and gravestone often went to great lengths to protect the grave, as grave robbings were common. Graves were plundered for valuables and for the bodies themselves, which might be sold to doctors and medical students.
Iron railings around graves and heavy lid fastenings on coffins were common sights.

Superstition abounded and many would take precautions to ensure their loved one’s spirit passed onto the other world. Drawing curtains, stopping clocks at the time of death, covering mirrors with dark cloth, turning pictures face down, wearing black ribbons and draping black crepe on door handles were all part of these practices.

When the body was removed from the house, it was taken head first, so that it would be unable to call others to follow it.

Family and friends of the deceased looked after the body, washing and dressing it and placing flowers in the coffin, as well as preparing meals for visitors.

Most funerals required written invitations. These had a black border and were usually delivered by a private messenger.

The funeral was often held at the house of the bereaved – unless they were so prominent a figure that the house wasn’t big enough – and mourners would visit beforehand to pay their respects. 

The coffin usually stayed open, although it would be closed if the funeral were in a church.

The family would be seated in the order of relation to the deceased, with the closest relative at the head of the line. Whenever possible, they were seated in a separate room from the deceased, keeping any show of grief from the eyes of their guests.

After the service, the mourners stayed until the family were escorted from the building in preparation for the procession to the graveyard

The elaborateness of the funeral procession and the inclusion of carriages depended on wealth.

The first carriage would contain the clergyman and the pall bearers – usually six friends of the deceased. 

The next carriage would be the hearse, followed by one containing the nearest relatives, and others with more distant relatives and friends.

If the deceased was a mounted military officer however, his horse, draped in mourning colours, would follow the hearse. 

The hearse itself was usually a black carriage, or white if the deceased was a child. It had glass sides and was decorated in silver and gold. 

Decorations might include more black horses with ostrich plumes or velvet coverings for the coffin and flowers.

Mourners would almost always wear black, and widows wore black for at least a year. Other mourners would wear black armbands.

Mourning jewellery – particularly made of jet – was commonplace and Victorians often also kept a snippet of the deceased’s hair. These could be worn in a locket or woven into jewellery.

Victorians embraced the new technology of photography and, because it was not as expensive as a painted portrait, post-mortem pictures were often taken of the deceased.

Because children often died so young – and before a picture was ever taken of them –families often had them taken when they were dead. 

The body might be placed in a family portrait, or with favourite toys. The eyes of the departed would also be forced open or painted on the closed eyelids. 

Although some of these practices are reflected in today’s traditions, most of the most elaborate have dwindled. 

This shift started with the death of Queen Victoria herself in 1901, but WWI brought even more changes, as did improved childhood survival rates.

This is a preview of a feature article.

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