E.E. Burke's BEST OF THE WEST: Death, Victorian Style

Grieving Victorians
October seems a fitting month to share a post on mourning customs in the 19th century. 


Victorians had a morbid fascination--some might call it an obsession--with death and dying. Many books were written on the subject of how to mourn, what to wear, when to wear it, and many other customs--some of which we might find downright bizarre.

The queen started it, so we can blame her. When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria went into mourning, and she continued to wear black for the rest of her life. Her prolonged and highly visible grieving influenced society on both sides of the ocean. 

Queen Victoria in mourning
That same year, the American Civil War began. Death on a massive scale affected families and communities. Mourning became a central fact of wartime. After the war, death continued to be ritualized. 


Hair Jewelry
During the Victorian era, customs dictated every aspect of life—and death. Social decorum dictated how family members dressed and behaved after the death of a close relative. Black was the “in” color, all the way down to underclothes and handkerchiefs. The mourning dress would be solid black, symbolic of spiritual darkness, made of non-reflective material like bombazine, and trimmed in crape (crepe), a scratchy silk with a crimped appearance produced by heat. Merchants weren’t about to miss out on the opportunity and mourning apparel became the first “off the rack” clothing. If one couldn’t afford a new outfit, they dyed existing clothes black.

Mourning Accessories 
Personal stationery and handkerchiefs carried a black border, with a wide border indicating a very recent death. Widows were expected to wear black two years, after that they could go into half-mourning, in gray, mauve, and white.

Mourning jewelry was popular, especially pieces made with the loved one’s hair. (Don’t even get me started on Victorian hair art, another peculiar custom.) Women in mourning carried or wore “tear catchers” made from glass vials or tiny urns.  Tears were captured, the vials capped. Supposedly, when the tears evaporated the mourning period would be over.

Women covered their faces with veils, which kept red-rimmed eyes hidden. But there was also a superstition that the spirits of the departed hovered around those they loved. If a passerby looked directly on the mourner's face, that spirit might attach itself to the person.
Widow in full mourning

In fact, superstitions and customs went hand-in-glove, you might say.

A wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood tied with crape or black ribbons hangs on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred. All over the house, black material covers windows, pictures and mirrors. Many rituals were based on superstitions.

*Stop the clock at the death hour to avoid bad luck.
*Turn down family photographs so the wandering soul could not take possession of the living
*When there was a corpse in the house you had to cover all the mirrors, so the soul would not be trapped behind the glass.
*Carry the corpse out feet first because if it’s carried out head first, it could look back and beckon others to follow it into death.

Mourners greeted guests coming to pay respects and, served “funeral biscuits” – small cakes wrapped in white paper and sealed with black sealing wax.

Death Room Photograph
In the parlor, called the “death room” when a coffin was on display, lilies and other fragrant flowers fill the room (or flowers made from human hair, often the deceased’s), and a portrait of the deceased taken after death stands near the coffin.
During this era, post-mortem portraits became very popular. 

The body would be watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of “waking”.  The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead but in a coma.  Wakes also lasted several days to allow relatives to arrive from far away. The use of flowers and candles helped to mask unpleasant odors in the room. Burial usually followed four days after death. Lavish meals would be served to guests after the internment.
Post Mortem (see stand behind her?)

Photography was still fairly new and expensive. In many cases, this would be the only picture families had of their loved ones. 

The photo shoots became quite elaborate. Corpses would be propped up with devices, sometimes eyes would be painted over closed lids, and if decomposition occurred before the photo could be made, death masks would be employed.

A widespread concern in the nineteenth century was the fear of being buried alive. Coffin alarms were developed. A bell was attached to the headstone with a chain that led down into the coffin to a ring that went around the finger of the deceased. 

Some expressions that came from this era: “Saved by the bell." Also, "dead ringer.”

Coffin Alarm
Another concern was grave robbery.  The culprit? Usually men hired by doctors (or the doctors themselves) who needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes.  They earned the name "Resurrection Men."

“Bricking-over” a grave was a way of guaranteeing some security after death.

Death Comes Calling

At the beginning of my latest novel, Fugitive Hearts, the heroine's husband is killed. She claims the shooting was accidental, but as gossip spreads, people begin to suspect her of murder. 
Available from Amazon and major retailers

“Sheriff…I just shot my husband.”

Hotel owner Claire Daines is a respected member of the community. Until she shocks the entire town by rushing into a saloon wearing only her nightclothes and confessing to very inebriated lawman.

Is she a killer? Is she crazy? Or is she covering up something worse?

For years, Claire hushed up her husband’s dangerous condition to guard his reputation. When tragedy strikes, she puts her own life at risk when she vows to keep another terrible secret.

Sheriff Frank Garrity must get to the truth, although the tough, hard-drinking lawman hides his own secrets and would rather walk a lonely path than face his demons. But as Frank unravels Claire’s subterfuge and unlocks her heart, he’s torn between his desire to save her and his duty to bring her to justice.

Here's an excerpt:

Observing proper protocol, Claire has stayed with her husband's body all night and remains beside the coffin the next day as guests--including the town's worst gossips--come by to pay their "respects."

“Make way, make way…” The mournful wail came as a surprise, but not nearly as surprising as who appeared in a parted sea of mourners. Gertrude Bond paraded across the room in a black silk gown trimmed sumptuously in velvet, with a matching bonnet, clutching a lace fan—never one to miss an opportunity to make a fashion statement.
On a gold chain around her neck hung a delicate glass vial. Why the lachrymatory? She wasn’t family, wasn’t even a close friend. She had as much need of a tear-catcher as a crocodile.
She paused in front of the coffin, flanked by her followers, which included the mayor’s wife. That was the bitterest pill for Claire to swallow, seeing former friends switch loyalties after her brother left town and another man took his place.
The new general manager’s flamboyant wife drew the fan to her shapeless breast with a loud sigh. “What a terrible, terrible loss. An honorable, respected man like Mr. Daines cut down in his prime.”
The room went silent. There were some sharp looks, but no one rebuked the harpy for her rudeness. Instead, they turned away and pretended not to notice, no doubt because of her influential position in the community.
In a brief fantasy, Claire stuffed her black handkerchief into the other woman’s mouth. But no, things were bad enough without creating a spectacle. She gave a cool, but polite, reply. “Thank you for coming by to pay your respects.”
Gertrude maintained a mournful expression, practiced enough to appear convincing. “Do allow me to convey our deepest condolences for your loss. I’m sure your heart must be broken. With your husband gone, what will you do?”
This wasn’t the time or place to be discussing her future, and she certainly wasn’t filling Mrs. Bond in on her plans. “I’m afraid I can’t think past the moment.”
“Of course. You’re beset with grief, a very great burden to bear alone. Family can be a comfort. Have you sent for your brother?”
Oh, Gertrude would love that. She took every opportunity to remind people that the former general manager had left under the shadow of scandal, and even went so far as to suggest Henry was guilty of defrauding the railroad instead of his assistant, Caldwell, the man who’d murdered the investigator and very nearly killed Henry.
Claire had written to advise her brother and sisters of Frederick’s death, but not the manner in which he had died. With the trouble she’d caused her siblings over the years, she didn’t want to add humiliation to the list. “My family has been informed,” she said simply.
“Then you’ll be going to live with them?”
Why did the wretched woman care?
“There’s no reason for me to burden them. My home is here.”
Gertrude looked strangely annoyed. “You wish to remain in Parsons?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“To avoid jail, I suppose.”

What odd customs surrounding death and mourning have you heard about? Comment and enter the drawing for your chance to win a copy of the first book in the series, Steam! Romance and Rails.

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  1. I don't have any customs to add. Super creepy, but still fascinating thank you.


  2. Elisabeth, I've always been fascinated with the rituals of mourning and everything. Some are really bizarre -- like taking photos of the corpse. I have a photo that my grandmother took of her three dead triplets.They only lived a few weeks.She dressed them in christening gowns and called in the photographer. My grandmother had 13 children in all. My dad was #3 and the first of the boys. Lots of kids.

    I can't imagine having to wearing black for such a long time. I love color too much. I'd probably have been like Claire Danes in your story. She was a great character and a good match for Frank Garrity. I LOVED Fugitive Hearts! A really good story.

    I have a superstitious heroine in my upcoming December book. Rayna Harper thought 6 black crows all together meant death. I had fun writing Forever His Texas Bride. Even have a blood moon scene in it.

    I was thrilled to meet you in Dallas on Sunday. To me, it felt like I'd known you forever. We quickly fell into comfortable conversation. Thank you so much for coming! That was the highlight of the weekend.

    1. Thanks for coming by, Linda! What a fascinating story about your grandmother and the triplets. Some customs carried on for quite a while. I love that you have a superstitious heroine! They are fun to write.

      We had so much fun Sunday, didn't we? I'm glad I got to meet you in person! It was the highlight of my weekend, too!

  3. You have to say "ashes to ashes" and throw dirt on the coffee.
    If it rains or even sprinkles, from the time of death until buried, the person is headed for heaven.

    Loved your post!

    Thanks for sharing!
    tarenn98 (at) yahoo (dot)com

    1. Oh, yes! Those are great! We still throw dirt on coffins whenever people are buried in the family cemetery. Long lasting tradition. Thanks for coming by!

  4. You have to say "ashes to ashes" and throw dirt on the coffee.
    If it rains or even sprinkles, from the time of death until buried, the person is headed for heaven.

    Loved your post!

    Thanks for sharing!
    tarenn98 (at) yahoo (dot)com

  5. Excellent post, Elisabeth! And it comes at a really good time for me because I have two new widows in the book I'm writing. Loved all your little details. In my latest book, I have my characters speaking about postmortem pictures being taken. Researching customs of the 1800s was the first I'd heard about them, and saw the old 'tingle inducing' pictures. :)
    Pretty creepy!

    Again, thank you for the excellent post!

    1. Caroline, thanks so much for coming by and commenting. Researching this was really fun...and fascinating. Morbidly so. I'll enjoy reading about your two widows!

  6. Funeral invitations in the eighteenth century. Worst. Parties. Ever. Or not, depending on who was pouring. ;-)

    Loved the post! The death photography thing has always creeped me out.

    cecilia (at) ceciliadominic (dot) com

    1. Ha! They even served funeral biscuits. Thanks for coming by!