, , , , ,

It seems no other period in Western history is obsessed with death than 19th century. The British elevated it to an art form all on their own; with Queen Victoria leading the way. While there have always been death rituals, the Victorians expressed it on a grand scale. The usual rule of a widow wearing her “weeds” the most rough and unglamorous was appropriate for one year, gradually introducing other luxurious fabrics, cuts, and colors to her wardrobe. However, because the mortality rate was high and death often unexpected, and the rules dictating how one was to dress and behave given the relationship to the deceased, some women never wore color again after their husbands died; even if they desired otherwise.


Queen Victoria’s Funeral 1901

There are etiquette books from this era devoted entirely to the proper behavior after the death of a loved on. Widows were not allowed to attend any felicitous social function unless held by intimate relatives or attending church services. Stationary and calling cards were trimmed in a thick black border that became thinner as the grieving period wore on. Guests who called during this period were required to view the body where it was laid out in the parlor, no matter how intimate the acquaintance was with the deceased. It was advised visitors not to discuss the deceased nor should the host give into tears least she depress the her guests.

The funeral procession included black equine which were sometimes dyed for the occasion sporting black plumes between their ears and black rosettes on their foreheads. They were draped with velvet and their manes and tails properly styled. Gloomy faced men were hired to flank the front door of the house to symbolic announce the death with their presence. Hay was strewn in front of the home upon the street to muffle the noise as not to disturb the residents or the dead. Mirrors were covered, blinds shuttered, clocks stopped at the hour of death and under no circumstances was the body to be left alone until the burial. Candles were left burning, a platter of salt was left on the chest to delay the decay and to ward off the spirit, and dimes were placed on the eyes; stemming from an ancient tradition to pay the ferryman, Charon on the River Styx who will lead the spirit safely to the underworld. Often times a man’s riderless horse would follow the hearse to the cemetery where in the last great show of pomp the body was deliberately buried under the grandest tombstone the family could afford.