Victorian Death Photos and Other Strange Victorian Mourning Traditions

Memento Mori
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In 1861, the death of Queen Victoria's beloved husband Prince Albert stunned the world. Only 42 years old, Albert had been ill for two weeks before finally taking his last breath. His widow would remain on the throne for another fifty years, and his death pushed the queen into such an intense grief that it changed the course of the world. For the rest of her reign, until 1901, England and many other places adopted unusual death and funerary practices, all of which were influenced by Victoria's very public mourning of the late Prince Albert. Thanks to Queen Victoria, grief and mourning became quite fashionable.

Victorian Death Photos

Post Mortem Photo
Victorian couple with deceased daughter.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the years after the Civil War, photography became a popular and affordable trend. Families who couldn't afford the price of a daguerreotype a few decades before could now pay a reasonable sum to have a professional photographer visit their home and take a family portrait. Naturally, the people of the Victorian age found a way to tie this into their fascination with death.

Death photography soon became a very popular trend. For many families, it was the first and only opportunity to get a photograph with a loved one, particularly if the deceased was a child. Families often had photos taken of bodies lying in coffins, or in the beds in which the person had passed away. It wasn't uncommon to have photographs taken which included the dead person propped up among surviving family members. In the cases of infants, parents were often photographed holding their dead baby.

The trend became known as memento mori, a Latin phrase that means remember, you must die. As healthcare improved, however, and the childhood and postpartum mortality rates decreased, so did the demand for post-mortem photos.

Death Jewelry

A Victorian bracelet with a band of woven hair, c1865.
Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

The Victorians were big fans of memorializing their dead in ways that might seem a little bit off-putting to us today. In particular, death jewelry was a popular way to commemorate the recently deceased. Hair was clipped from a corpse and then turned into brooches and lockets. In some cases, it was used as an adornment on a photograph of the departed.

Sound weird? Well, keep in mind this was a society that made fans and hats out of taxidermied birds, and thought a collection of preserved cats in human poses was pretty cool.

Everyone wore hair jewelry—it was all the rage—and today, there's even a massive collection you can view at the Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri.

Funerary Dolls

Little Girl with Doll - Victorian Steel Engraving
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Unfortunately, the childhood mortality rate during the Victorian period was pretty high. It wasn't uncommon for families to lose multiple children; in some areas, more than 30% of children died before their fifth birthday. Many women died in childbirth as well, so Victorian children were exposed to the realities of death at a very young age.

Grave dolls were a popular way for parents and siblings to remember a lost child. If the family could afford it, a life-sized wax effigy of the child was made and dressed in the deceased's clothing, and then displayed at the funeral. Sometimes these were left at the grave site, but often they were brought home and kept in a place of honor in the family's home; wax dolls of deceased infants were kept in cribs and their clothes changed regularly. 

According to Deborah C. Stearns at the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood, kids were typically involved in mourning—they wore black clothing and hair jewelry just as their elders did. Stearns says,

Although funerals moved from the home to park-like cemeteries, which were often at a considerable distance, children were still in attendance. By the 1870s, death kits were available for dolls, complete with coffins and mourning clothes, as a means of helping to train girls for participating in, even guiding, death rituals and their attendant grief.

In addition, little girls prepared for their eventual roles as the family mourners by staging elaborate funerals for their dolls, and "playing" burial rites.

Professional Mourners

Cenetery Mourner
TonyBaggett / Getty Images

Professional mourners aren't really anything new in the funeral industry—they've been used by grief-stricken families for thousands of years—but the Victorians turned it into an art form. For people of the Victorian period, it was important that they publicly show their grief with lots of crying and mournful expressions. However, a great way to demonstrate one's grief was to hire even more people to be sad for the deceased—and that's where the paid mourners came in.

Victorian professional mourners were called mutes, and walked silently behind a hearse dressed in black and looking grim. Once motorized vehicles arrived on the scene, and hearses had engines instead of horses, the job of professional mourner mostly went by the wayside, although some cultures do retain the services of paid mourners today.

Covered Mirrors and Stopped Clocks

Checking the time
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During the Victorian era, when a family member died, the survivors stopped all of the clocks in the house at the death hour. A tradition that originated in Germany, it was believed that if the clocks weren't stopped, there would be bad luck for the rest of the family. There's also a theory that by stopping time, at least temporarily, it would allow the spirit of the deceased to move on, rather than sticking around to haunt his or her survivors. 

Stopping clocks also had a practical application; it allowed the family to provide a time of death for the coroner, in the event one was called to sign a death certificate.

In addition to stopping clocks, Victorian people covered mirrors in the home following a death. There is some speculation as to why this is done—it could be so mourners don't have to see how they look when they're crying and grieving. It may also be to allow the spirit of the newly departed to cross over into the next world; some people believe a mirror can trap a spirit and keep them on this plane. There's also a superstition that if you see yourself in a mirror after someone dies, you're the next to go; most Victorian families kept mirrors covered until after the funeral, and then uncovered them. 

Mourning Attire and Black Crepe

Mature woman in mourning clothes poses for tintype portrait, ca. 1880.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Although Queen Victoria wore black mourning dresses for the rest of her life after Albert's death, most people didn't don crepe for quite that long. However, there were certain protocols that had to be followed for mourning attire. 

The fabric used for mourning clothes was dull crêpe—a form of silk that wasn't shiny—and black piping was used to edge men's shirt cuffs and collars. Black top hats were worn by men as well, along with black buttons. Wealthy women could afford a very rich jet black silk that was used to sew the clothing known as widow's weedsthe word weed in this context comes from an Old English word that means garment

If you were rich enough to have servants, your entire household staff would wear mourning garb as well, although not of silk; female servants would wear dresses of black bombazine, cotton, or wool. Male servants typically had a full black suit to wear in the event of their employer's death. Most people wore a black armband, at the very least, when someone of note died; this was the case with Albert, for whom the entire country mourned. 

It wasn't just clothing that went black; houses were decorated with black crêpe wreaths, curtains were dyed black, and black-edged stationary used to convey the message of a loved one's passing.

Mourning Etiquette

Cemetery visit
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The Victorians had very strict social rules, and the guidelines surrounding mourning were no exception. Women were generally held to tighter standards than men. A widow was expected to not only don black garb for at least two years—and often much longer—but also had to perform their mourning properly. Women remained socially isolated for the first year after a husband's death, and rarely left the house other than to attend church; they wouldn't have dreamed of attending a social function during this period.

Once they finally emerged back into civilization, women were still expected to wear veils and mourning garb if they went out in public. However, they were permitted to add a bit of small, discreet ornamentation, such as jet or onyx beads, or memorial jewelry.

Mourning periods were a bit shorter for those who had lost a parent, child, or sibling. For men, the standards were a bit more relaxed; it was often expected that a man would need to remarry soon so he'd have someone to help raise his children.

Eventually, as Victorian standards waned, these etiquette guidelines waned, and black became a color of fashion.

Sources

  • “Antique Jewelry: Mourning Jewelry of the Victorian Era.” GIA 4Cs, 15 Mar. 2017, 4cs.gia.edu/en-us/blog/antique-victorian-era-mourning-jewelry/.
  • Bedikian, S A. “The Death of Mourning: from Victorian Crepe to the Little Black Dress.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18507326.
  • Bell, Bethan. “Taken from Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography.” BBC News, BBC, 5 June 2016, www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581.
  • “Post-Mortem Photos Were the Only Family Portrait for Some Families in Victorian England.” The Vintage News, The Vintage News, 16 Oct. 2018, www.thevintagenews.com/2018/07/03/post-mortem-photos/.
  • Sicardi, Arabelle. “Death Becomes Her: The Dark Arts of Crepe and Mourning.” Jezebel, Jezebel, 28 Oct. 2014, jezebel.com/death-becomes-her-the-dark-arts-of-crepe-and-mourning-1651482333.