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  • Clare Tallier

Mourning cast long shadows in the Victorian era

Updated: Aug 19, 2020

Mourning was a big deal in Victorian times. Not only because death was omnipresent, but also because the queen lost her beloved Prince Albert to typhoid fever in 1861.

By 1882, the year of Lord Grey’s death in Slipper, mourning customs had become quite rigid. And if a mourner—especially a lady in one of upper classes—didn’t follow them, they could be chastised, or, even worse, ostracized.

Queen Victoria, who had nine children with Albert, wore full mourning for the remaining forty years of her life. She kept his rooms as they were when he died, even arranging for water and linens to be brought daily.

And the queen, known not-always-lovingly as the “Widow of Windsor” for her secluded lifestyle, set the trends for everyone else.

Death became an event, in which, for some, display was as important as grief:

  • To honor the living as well as the dead, funerals were lavish, processions were expensive, and wakes were feast-like.

  • Upper-class widows were expected to abide by a complex code of mourning for their late husbands that might last two years—or a lifetime. For the first year and a day, they could wear only a heavy, drab black dresses, in the latest fashions of course, and black veils. Many of their accessories were decorated with black, including black ribbons on their underwear.

  • Members of the middle and lower classes often emulated the upper, though many could not afford such luxuries. Still, the niceties must be observed. So some formed funeral clubs, into which they paid regularly, so they could have the funeral of their aspirations. And if a widow couldn’t afford a black dress, she might simply dye one she owned.

  • Men also were expected to take part in the mourning rituals, but because they had to take care of the business side of things, they were able to go back out in Society fairly soon after the funeral, their only signs of mourning might be a black armband and a black tie. Women, as keepers of the home and family, bore the brunt of mourning.

  • The mourning rituals for other family members were also set, requiring, for instance, a year of mourning for children and parents. The codes became so complex that many periodicals were inundated with letters requiring clarification on some point of mourning or other.

  • When someone in the household died, all the clocks were stopped at the time of death, curtains were drawn, and mirrors were covered or turned to the wall. The latter custom reportedly arose because people feared that if they were seen in a mirror, they would be the next to die, or they feared the deceased might get trapped in it.

  • Mourning jewelry included black jet, which comes from a type of lignite; pearls, which stood for tears; and brooches made out of the hair of the deceased.

  • Portraiture was another way to memorialize the dead. A living twin would be posed next to a dead one, wreathed in flowers. Or an entire family, including a cat, would gather around the deceased, lying on the floor of the best room. And a father would hold his deceased child in his hands.

In Memento mori: Remember, you must die.

Next up: Another complicated ritual: tea


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