Funerary Practices in the Victorian Era
Loretta M. Alirangues
Grandiose is not
too strong a word to use to describe the manner in which a Victorian funeral was conducted. Todays society has moved away from that sort of pomp. Part of the reason for this is that most people have an aversion to discussing death, cemeteries and corpses, when in fact, funerals and mourning occur every day. Cremations are becoming more popular today due to the lack of burial space. However, during the Victorian Era (characterized as the period of Queen Victorias reign over Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to 1901) no expense was spared when arranging a proper burial.
Many lower class persons planned ahead and saved money for their childrens funerals because the mortality rate was so high. They wanted to ensure that if their children did not survive, they would still be able to have a grand funeral for them. By saving money for funerals, they often deprived their families of the necessary comforts of living.
A Victorian funeral procession was an extraordinary sight. It was led by various foot attendants: pall bearers who carried batons, feathermen, pages and mutes who dressed in gowns and carried wands. Because these men often had to stand out in the cold, they were given lots of gin to drink. This often resulted in disorderly conduct. As you can imagine, this would greatly upset the family of the deceased because these men had been hired to conduct themselves in a solemn manner.
The first coach in the procession was the hearse. It was black, with glass sides, and had lots of silver and gold decoration. A huge canopy of black ostrich feathers covered the hearse. Inside lay the coffin. It was shiny and polished, and had moldings, expensive metal handles and inscribed plates. Sometimes the coffin was covered with black, purple or dark green cloth that was attached to it with brass, silver or gilt-headed nails. The hearse was also filled with flowers. Six black horses pulled the hearse, and the horses had black ostrich feather plumes on their heads.Ê
The rest of the coaches followed behind the hearse. Each contained mourners, and usually the blinds were drawn. The men wore full mourning suits with crape bands around their top hats. The women wore black gowns made of crape, with black veils and black gloves. They held black-edged handkerchiefs to their eyes. Mourning fans made of black ostrich feathers were carried by their tortoiseshell handles. Jewelry made of jet was worn.
The procession made its way at walking pace from the house of the deceased along main roads leading out of town to the cemetery. Sometimes a detour was made through important areas in order to achieve a maximum display. Once the procession was out of town, everyone on foot climbed on to the coaches, and the procession was led at a brisk trot. Upon arrival at the cemetery gates, the foot attendants climbed down from the coaches, and the procession once again continued at walking pace.
The procession stopped at a chapel in the center of the cemetery. The mourners remained dignified and calm as they entered the chapel. The coffin was carried in and laid on a bier. At the end of the funeral service, the coffin was either lowered through the floor into catacombs, or the ceremony ended outside at the place of burial. If indeed the ceremony did end up at the actual burial site, the women would leave and only the men would remain to witness the actual interment.
A feast was held at the home of the deceased; sometimes after the funeral, but sometimes before the funeral with the body being present. Ham, cider, ale, pies and cakes were the usual fare. Not only the immediate family would be present, but all the distant relatives too. Cards were sent out to friends, business associates and acquaintances inviting them to the funeral.
Mourning cards were another tradition. These were supplied by the undertaker. They were printed in black and silver on white, and were embossed with traditional symbols of grief such as an inverted torch, a weeping willow, a shrouded urn or kneeling female mourners. These cards were mounted on ornamental memorial-card mounts. They were intended as reminders of the dead so that the recipient would be sure to offer prayers for the deceased. The card contained the name and age of the dead person as well as the date and place of burial.
Here are examples of what was included when arranging either a cheap or an expensive funeral with an undertaker:
Funeral costing £5 Hearse, with one horse; mourning coach, with one horse; stout elm coffin, covered with fine black, plate of inscription, lid ornaments, and three pairs of handles, mattress, pillow, and a pair of side sheets; use of velvet pall, mourners fittings, coachmen with hat-bands and gloves; bearers; attendant with silk hat-band.
Funeral costing £53 Hearse and four horses, two mourning coaches with fours, twenty-three plumes of rich ostrich feathers, complete velvet covering for carriages and horses, and an esquires plume of best feathers; strong elm shell, with tufted mattress, lined and ruffled with superfine cambric, and pillow; full worked glazed cambric winding-sheet, stout outside lead coffin, with inscription plate and solder complete; one-and-a-half-inch oak case, covered with black or crimson velvet, set with three rows round, and lid paneled with best brass nails; stout brass plate of inscription, richly engraved; four pairs of best brass handles and grips, lid ornaments to correspond; use of silk velvet pall; two mutes with gowns, silk hat-bands and gloves; fourteen men as pages, feathermen, and coachmen, with truncheons and wands, silk hat-bands; use of mourners; fittings; and attendant with silk hat-band.
Many of Britains nineteenth century cemeteries were modeled after the famous Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris. Until this time, Britain had only small churchyards. The population was increasing, and these churchyards became so full that partially-rotted corpses were disinterred to make way for new ones. It was common to visit a graveyard and see graves that had been dug up with bones strewn about. The Victorians wanted large, new cemeteries established outside the cities to provide more hygienic and dignified resting places for their deceased. These cemeteries were designed to be beautiful places where visitors could stroll down long, shaded walks.
There were quite a wide variety of grave monuments to be found in Victorian cemeteries. Traditional urns, broken columns, busts of the deceased and angels could be found alongside Egyptian-style obelisks and pyramids. Chaste classical tombstones lay among wild Gothic fantasies. Catacombs were laid out below cemetery chapels, while large, family mausoleums rose above them. The poor, however, were consigned to common graves that usually lay four deep.
After burial, the period of mourning depended upon a persons relation to the deceased. Mourning for a spouse, parent or child was to last 12 months. For grandparents, brothers or sisters six months was sufficient, and for uncles and aunts it was only two months. During this period a widow was required to dress completely in black crape for the entire year, and in most other instances, the relative wore black crape for approximately 2/3 of the mourning period. After the allotted time, black silk was allowed to be worn in place of crape for the remainder of the mourning period. Mourning dress is actually associated with a deeply rooted fear of the dead returning. When veiled and cloaked in black, it was thought that the living were invisible to the dead.
The Victorians were the last society to truly celebrate death, as did the ancient Egyptians and other cultures before them. Many Victorian cemeteries have now been destroyed to make way for parks or public housing projects. Grave monuments are not usually as large or as ornate as they once were. A growing number of people today have little or no contact with actual corpses due to the prevalence of cremation. Unfortunately, in trying to play down the role of death in todays society, less value is placed upon life.