4 Elaborate Mourning Rituals From the Victorian Era
1. Mourning Dress
For Victorians, dressing for mourning didn’t stop after the funeral. It was an elaborate process that could go on for years, particularly for women. A widow, for example, had to wear a bonnet of heavy crepe and a veil covering the face for the first three months after the death of her husband. Then she was to wear the veil on the back of the bonnet for another nine months. As if that wasn’t enough, a mourning dress in a dark color had to be worn for at least two years before the widow could start adding purple and grey back into her wardrobe (abruptly switching to bright colors was considered disrespectful). Even relatives—not just spouses—of the deceased could be in mourning dress for up to two and a half years … and considering that mortality rates were so high, it was not uncommon for people to be in mourning wear for a large portion of their lives.
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2. Mourning Jewelry
Even today, it’s quite common to hold onto a piece of jewelry from a dearly departed relative. But during the Victorian era, mourners didn’t just wear Grandma’s favorite earrings: they actually wore a bit of Grandma, herself. Before post-mortem photos, there was memorial jewelry, a way to keep the dead person close—literally. Pieces of the deceased’s hair were often included in mourning jewelry, either coiled under a piece of crystal in a ring, braided into a necklace, or placed into a locket. Gems and metals in mourning jewelry also had special meaning: a pearl symbolized the death of a child, while white enamel meant that the deceased was an unmarried, virginal woman.
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Victorians were superstitious about everything, but they were especially superstitious when it came to death. If someone died in the house, the clocks were stopped to ward off more death and bad luck. The dead had to be carried out of the house feet-first to prevent death from taking another family member. Mirrors and windows were draped in cloth to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped in the glass.
Painted portraits were popular in the 1800s, but such a memento was quite expensive. So when the daguerreotype was invented in 1839, it became a cost-effective alternative to portraiture. Photography also became a popular way for Victorians to immortalize their dead loved ones -- especially children, who died at alarming rates throughout the Victorian era. In some post-mortem photos, the deceased look to be in a deep sleep; in others, their eyes are propped open, or painted directly onto the photograph. Sometimes, living relatives even posed with their dead loved ones.