The Victorian Funeral

Posted: December 13, 2011 in Cemetery, Medical, Morgue
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Victorian Era – 1937 to 1901 and death

I haven’t gone into the cemetery stuff here, simply because I could write so much on them that
they would need their own post. I will likely cover some of them at one point or another.

The period is known as the Victorian Era for England’s Queen Victoria, she took the throne in
1837 and died January 22nd 1901. Her husband died of typhoid in 1861 and for the remainder
of her life the queen was left in mourning. She wore her black attire for three years and dressed
the entire court that way. It was a reflection of her prudish and mournful period and for myself is a
very interesting time.

The Funeral

The funeral was very important in this era, lower classes would plan ahead, and before a child
was even born they would be saving up for the funeral because mortality rates were so high. And
it’s not surprising given the cholera outbreak, previous near wipe-outs such as Black Death and
the great fire meant London had a pretty good reason to suspect a need for forward planning!

The funeral procession would have been a pretty impressive sight, led by various attendants.
Pall Bearers carried batons, feathermen, pages and mutes would be dressed in gowns and carry
wands. There were reports of disorderly conduct at times, often these men would be in the cold
for long hours and were fed gin to stay warm.

The first coach would be the hearse, a black affair with glass sides. It would be highly decorative
with silver and gold. A huge canopy of black ostrich feathers covered the hearse, inside the coffin
was polished, moulded and had expensive handles with inscribed plates. It was also possible for
the coffin to have black, purple or dark green cloth attached with brass, silver or gilt-headed nails.
The hearse was filled with flowers and six black horses with more black ostrich feather plumes on
their heads pulled the entire ensemble.

The rest of the coaches came behind the hearse, mourners were inside and it was usual for the
blinds to be drawn. Men wore full suits with crape bands around the top hat. Women wore gowns
of black crape, veils and gloves. They would have black handkerchiefs; the fans they carried were
made of black ostrich feathers and tortoiseshell handles. Jewellery would also contain jet stones.

A procession was made at walking pace from the house to the main roads leading to the
cemetery. If necessary they might take a detour to significant areas for maximum display. Once
they got out of the town they would be able to take up coaches until the cemetery gates and a
brisk trot would be employed. Once at the gates the walking pace would continue once more.

Thanks to Loudon and other architects/garden landscapers of the time, it was customary for a
chapel to be built in the centre of the cemetery. The coffin was carried in and laid on a bier, then
at the end it would be lowered to the catacombs, or to the burial site. If they were buried in the
grounds the women would leave and the men would remain to witness the internment.

A feast would be held at the deceased’s home. There might also be one with the body present
before the funeral. There would be ham, cider, ale, pies and cakes. The immediate family
and distant relatives would attend. Cards were sent to friends, business colleagues and other
acquaintances to invite them to the funeral.

Funeral Cards

These were another tradition, traditionally supplied by the undertaker. They were printed in black
and silver on white and would be embossed with traditional symbols of grief. They were mounted
on ornamental card mounts so that they could be used as reminders for the recipient to offer their
prayers. The card would contain the name and age of the deceased alongside the date and place

of burial.

Funeral Costs

Five pounds – 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.

Fifty three pounds – 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
esquire’s 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 panelled 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.

Mourning Periods and Fashions

After burial the mourning period would depend on the person’s relation to the deceased.

Directly the widow would enter the period for up to two years.
For mourning a spouse, parent or a child the period was 12 months.
For grandparents, brothers or sisters a six month period was considered acceptable.
For Uncles and Aunts it would be a two month period.

During this a widow was required to dress in black crape for the entire year, in most other
instances the relative wore black crape for approximately two thirds of the period, after the
allotted time black silk would be allowed for the remaining mourning period.

The fashion mainly applied to women, this made her an isolated figure, and socially her activities
were restricted. Initially the widow would only be expected to go to church services. Also the
mourning attire would be a display of wealth and respectability; some would also dress their
servants during this period if the head of the household was the one that had passed away.

Middle and Lower Class woman would go to great lengths to appear fashionable in their clothes,
dying them black and bleaching them out again after was a common practise. There were
rumours spread that gave the tailors greater revenue that to recycle funeral attire was very bad
luck. Hair art also developed to allow family members to keep mementos of their loved ones.

Again the fashion for mourning is very extensive and so would deserve in all honesty a post
dedicated to itself, the fabric used are either no longer in use or simply very expensive. Black
was used as a symbol of the lack of light and in turn, life. It was instantly possible to spot
someone in mourning and to recognise the loss of their loved one.

Mourning attire is associated with a deeply rooted fear of the dead, when veiled and cloaked in
black it was believed that the living were invisible to the dead. It was a Roman idea that it would
prevent the mourner from being haunted. There were other colours that could be brought into the
outfit but the trend in England was most definitely to remain in black.

Jewellery

Although produced for around 2000 years it reached a peak in Victorian England, it was also at
it’s height in the American Civil War. The most popular material associated with this is jet. Queen

Victoria called it “Black Amber” and is a fossilized coal, a modern substitute is glass.

By the second half of mourning other additions such as gutta-percha, gold, pinchbeck and human
hair were brought into the wardrobe. Hair art took on a life of its own, with a lock of the deceased
woven into such things as rings, bracelets, earrings, watch fobs and necklaces as an example.

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