Victorian Era

Death and Mourning


Compared to modern attitudes, our forebears of the Victorian era could be accused of having had a morbid fascination and peculiar obsession with death and dying. The Victorian period from 1837-1901 was an age when customs and practices relating to death were enormously important. The Victorian treatment of death and dying has even been dubbed a "cult of death", evidenced by a profusion of icons and rituals that were contrived to express grief and to honour the recently departed.

Victorian society dictated strict rules for the observance of rituals related to death and dying. By the 1800's, a relatively affluent middle class had emerged and life expectancy, for most, had improved. The Victorians had reasonable expectations of living to a relatively old age, so death at a young age was generally considered tragic. Pervading gloom and grand-scale mourning epitomised death practices in the Victorian era, most particularly after 1861 in Great Britain when the widowed Queen Victoria took grieving to the extreme. After the loss of her husband the Prince Consort Albert, the Queen went into deep mourning. British subjects followed her lead and death practices became more elaborate.

Mourning periods were regulated, mourning dress was dictated, and funeral and burial arrangements became more extravagant. Contemporary literature and the arts romanticised death, particularly the "lingering death" that enabled a sufferer the time needed for spiritual readiness for the next life. As immigration to Australia began to steadily increase from the middle of the 19th century, many migrants who sought a new life in the colonies faced the dreadful prospect of burial at sea. For immigrants to colonial Australia in the 19th century, the terrifying prospect of death and burial at sea contradicted Christian ideals of the "good death". Death aboard ship assured a watery grave - the antithesis of the ideal of the Christian burial. Burial at sea meant that there would be no grave at which loved ones could grieve; no lasting memorial to a life lived. Excerpts from diaries of survivors reveal the mental anguish that resulted from this form of disposal of human remains, which contrasted sharply with deathbed scenes that dominated burial rituals in Victorian England. The sights of dead bodies floating in the ocean made voyagers fearful, with none wishing to share such a fate. For immigrants to Australia in the 19th century, such a vivid method of disposing of human remains must have made death seem ubiquitous. But in many ways, shipboard experiences were simply a prelude to the challenges of forging a new life in colonial Australia.

In the Victorian era, Australian responses to death and dying evolved from the personal experiences of immigrants in a new and unforgiving environment, and heralded a break from traditional European culture. Settlers adapted death rituals to suit an alien and often hostile bush environment that was unconducive to the death practices of their countries of origin. The influence of European cultures and the old world ideals about death and dying diminished rapidly in Australia, replaced by rites and traditions that were as much responses to the Australian environment as to death itself. Australian bush ballads and stories reveal that a new attitude to death emerged in Australia in the latter part of the 19th century. Sentimental poems reflected an acceptance of the inevitability of death. Like Henry Lawson's, "The Glass on the Bar and Talbragar," bush ballads help to explain attitudes to death from a unique Australian perspective and illustrate how the natural environment can influence cultural responses to death. In the later Victorian era, non-elaborate death rituals and customs evolved in reflection of the lonely and simple life of the Australian bushman, and forged a uniquely Australian culture of death that resonates in modern Australia.

Religious tradition was integral to the customs connected with dying and death in the 19th century. Burial and commemoration ceremonies were intimately linked to Christian doctrines and the concept of a "good death", which demanded spiritual readiness and yielding to God's will. With a majority of immigrants to Australia in the 1800's coming from Britain and Ireland, traditions associated with death reflected Irish and British culture and Catholic and Protestant doctrine. Although many of the traditions of the religious institutions of Europe and Great Britain were adopted in early colonial Australia, large numbers of immigrants of the 1800's did not practice religion, while others were influenced by new and challenging scientific debates and religious criticisms.

The old world Christian responses to death declined rapidly in Australia, particularly in sparsely populated rural areas and with few churches and clergy. A most visible response to death in the second half of the 1800's was the symbolism associated with the disposal of human remains and the grief of survivors. Victorian symbols of mourning and remembrance, which contributed to the idea of a "cult of death," included items of jewellery made of the deceased's hair, memorial cards, and photographs of the deceased called memento mori ('remember death'). These photographs were poignant reminders of the loss of a loved one, and the deceased was commonly shown as though they were peacefully sleeping rather than dead, or sometimes, the corpse was posed to look alive. In Australia, keepsakes were of particular importance for the grieving survivors. Vast distances could separate friends and relatives in life and at death, and could make visits to gravesites impractical or impossible. For the living, death mementoes provided a tangible link with the dearly departed.


The use of symbolism was also incredibly important in headstone and grave design in the Victorian period. By interpreting Victorian monumental symbolism, information about the life and times of deceased individuals may be established. For example, the depiction of the thistle, carved into a Victorian-era headstone, hints at a deceased's Scottish heritage; similarly, the shamrock for the Irish and the rose for the English. An anchor might denote maritime connections in life; a broken column, symbolising a life cut short, might decorate the grave of a young person or child. Symbols of death, such as a broken chain, weeping willow, ivy vine or laurel wreath, were favourite decorative elements for graves of the Victorian era and provide important clues about contemporary attitudes to death. Impressive funerals were a hallmark of British society in the Victorian era, although throughout British history the funerals of aristocrats have been steeped in pomp and ritual. At a time when affluence was on the rise, families were better able to afford elaborate funeral ceremonies for their deceased loved ones. However, from the 1870s, funeral reforms in both Britain and Australia resulted in a move toward more modest and cheaper funerals, and funerals became less extravagant and mourning rituals less strict than in Britain.

Compared to modern attitudes, our forebears of the Victorian eraConcerns for community health in Great Britain led to the closure of churchyards for most burials from 1855 and in response, landscaped public cemeteries were established. Such sites well illustrate Victorian responses to death. The elaborate headstones and wordy epitaphs erected as memorials to the deceased provided a mechanism by which family and friends might express their grief and love. In Australia, Victorian-era public cemeteries such as at Balmoral boast myriad elaborate memorials that date from the mid- to late-19th century. For some grief-stricken families, considerable time, money and effort were invested to memorialise loved ones in a manner deemed appropriate for the period. Such expressions of grief and devotion provide a rich source of material for modern historians and genealogists.

Women played a more active part than men in 19th century customs associated with death, particularly in Australia where women played a key role in caring for the sick and dying and were responsible for the preparation or 'laying out' of the corpse for burial. Women were particularly burdened by the rules governing mourning dress. Based on the traditions of the day, which reflected British society and the British royal court, widows were expected to wear various styles of mourning dress over a period of two years. Mourning attire included all manner of items such as clothing, hair clips, fans, parasols, and purses. The requirements for men were much simpler. Before 1850, male mourners wore black mourning cloaks; after 1850, black gloves and hatbands were worn with men's regular dark suits. Widows suffered the added anguish of loneliness and isolation during the mourning period and beyond. Where men might immerse themselves in professional pursuits, women were required to adhere to strict mourning practices, remaining for the most part within the home and minimising social interactions. By the 1870's, following the funeral reforms, mourning regulations were slightly relaxed and women were encouraged to reuse or adapt clothing for the mourning period rather than purchasing new attire.


In the Victorian era, grief was expressed in such a way so that gloom and darkness seem to have been the hallmarks of mourning in the latter part of the 19th century. Death was an acknowledged and public event, and responses to death were at the forefront of the social customs of the time. For immigrants, death at sea represented the opposite of the desired Christian burial and was considered a terrible fate. Women bore the bulk of responsibility of caring for the sick and dying in the Victorian era, and played a lead role in the customs associated with deaths and burials.

Etiquette Of The Funeral.

Conduct Which Is Appropriate SHOULD there be no competent, near friend of the family to take charge of the funeral, then its management should devolve upon the sexton of the church, the undertaker, or other suitable person.

It is the duty of the person having the funeral in charge to have one interview with the nearest relatives as to the management, after which they should be relieved of all care in the matter.

The expense of the funeral should be in accordance with the wealth and standing of the deceased, both ostentation and parade being avoided, as should also evidences of meanness and parsimony. It is well, in the interview between the manager and the relatives, to have a definite understanding as to the expense that should be incurred.

In the large city, where many friends and even relatives may not hear of the death, it is common to send invitations to such friends as might not otherwise hear of the fact.

It is customary to have these invitations printed according to "notes of invitation," and to send them by private messenger. The list of invited persons should be given to the manager, that he may provide a suitable number of carriages for the invited friends who may be likely to attend. It is a breach of etiquette for any who have been thus personally invited not to attend.

Persons attending a funeral are not expected to be present much before the hour appointed. Previous to this time it is well for the family of the deceased to take their last view of the remains, and thus avoid confusion.

In assembling at the house, it is customary for some near relative, but not of the immediate family, to act as usher in receiving and seating the people. The ladies of the family are not expected to notice the arrival of guests. With gentlemen it is optional whether they do so or not.

The clergyman, or person chosen to make remarks upon the funeral occasion, should be one whose religious views would be most nearly in accord with those entertained by the deceased. But even if the deceased had no religious convictions, and a clergyman of any denomination may be chosen, he should use the courtesy of saying nothing in his discourse which could in the least offend the mourners.

The remains should be so placed, either in the house or church, that when the discourse is finished, if the corpse is exposed to view, the assembled guests may see the same by passing in single file past the coffin, going from foot to head, up one aisle and down another.

While in the house of mourning, the hat should be removed from the head of the gentlemen, and not replaced again while in the house.

Loud talk or laughter in the chamber of death would be a great rudeness. All animosities among those who attend the funeral should be forgotten, and interviews with the family at the time should not be expected.

The exercises at the house or church being finished, the clergyman enters a carriage, which heads the procession. The coffin being placed in the hearse, the bearers, who are usually six in number, will go in threes, on each side of the hearse, or in a carriage immediately before, while the near relatives directly follow the hearse, succeeded by those more distantly connected. As the mourners pass from the house to the carriages, no salutations are expected to take place, the gentlemen among the guests in the meantime standing with uncovered heads, as they do also when the coffin is carried from the house to the hearse.

The master of ceremonies should precede the mourners to the carriages, see that the proper carriages are in attendance, assist the ladies to their place, and signal the drivers to pass forward as their carriages are filled. Should the attending physician be present, he will occupy the carriage immediately following the near relatives of the deceased.

The pall-bearers are selected from among the immediate friends of the deceased, and should be as near as possible of corresponding age, worth and intelligence.

It is common, upon the coffin of the infant or young person, to lay a wreath of white flowers, and upon that of a married person a cross of white blossoms. Upon the coffin of a navy or army officer, the hat, epaulets, sash, sword and the flag may be borne; while his horse, if a mounted officer, will, without a rider, be led behind the hearse. It is sometimes the case that the private carriage of the deceased, with no occupant save the driver, follows the hearse in the procession.

Arriving at the cemetery, the clergyman will precede the mourners to the grave; when gathered around, the bearers will place the coffin in its last resting place, and the final prayer will be said. This done, the guests will depart for their several homes, each informing the drivers where they desire to be left.



With the more hopeful view of death which comes with the Christian belief, there is less disposition to wear evidences of mourning. It is well, however, to drape the door-knob, especially of the residence, with crape, during the days between the death and the funeral; and the family should go out as little as possible during that time. The dress of all guests at the funeral should be of subdued and quiet colors, and, while for the young person it is customary to trim the hearse in white, it is common to drape it in dark, with black plumes, for the person of mature years.

Should the deceased have been a member of an organization that might desire to conduct the funeral, immediate notification of his death should be sent to the organization, that its members may have time to make arrangements for attending the funeral.

Following Victoria's example, it became customary for families to go through elaborate rituals to commemorate their dead. This included wearing mourning clothes, having a lavish (and expensive) funeral, curtailing social behavior for a set period of time, and erecting an ornate monument on the grave.

Mourning clothes were a family's outward display of their inner feelings. The rules for who wore what and for how long were complicated, and were outlined in popular journals or household manuals such as The Queen and Cassell's - both very popular among Victorian housewives. They gave copious instructions about appropriate mourning etiquette. If your second cousin died and you wanted to know what sort of mourning clothes you should wear and for how long, you consulted The Queen or Cassell's or other manuals.

For deepest mourning clothes were to be black, symbolic of spiritual darkness. Dresses for deepest mourning were usually made of non-reflective paramatta silk or the cheaper bombazine - many of the widows in Dickens' novels wore bombazine. Dresses were trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk with a peculiar crimped appearance produced by heat. Crape is particularly associated with mourning because it doesn't combine well with any other clothing - you can't wear velvet or satin or lace or embroidery with it. After a specified period the crape could be removed - this was called "slighting the mourning." The color of cloth lightened as mourning went on, to grey, mauve, and white - called half-mourning. Jewelry was limited to jet, a hard, black coal-like material sometimes combined with woven hair of the deceased.

Men had it easy - they simply wore their usual dark suits along with black gloves, hatbands and cravats. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes, though girls sometimes wore white dresses.

The length of mourning depended on your relationship to the deceased. The different periods of mourning dictated by society were expected to reflect your natural period of grief. Widows were expected to wear full mourning for two years. Everyone else presumably suffered less - for children mourning parents or vice versa the period of time was one year, for grandparents and siblings six months, for aunts and uncles two months, for great uncles and aunts six weeks, for first cousins four weeks.


Someone had to provide the clothes quickly to mourners. Many shops catered to the trade; the largest and best known of them in London was Jay's of Regent Street. Opened in 1841 as a kind of warehouse for mourners, Jay's provided every conceivable item of clothing you and your family could need. And you were bound to be repeat customers: it was considered bad luck to keep mourning clothes - particularly crape - in the house after mourning ended. That meant buying clothes all over again when the next loved one passed. Mourning was a lucrative business.

Mourning had two stages: deep, or full, mourning and half-mourning. Each stage had its own rules and customs of decorum. When someone died, all the members of the household (including the servants) would adopt deep mourning. Curtains were drawn and clocks were stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered because of a lingering superstition that the spirit of the deceased could become trapped in the reflective glass. The body was watched over every moment until burial. Indeed, the prevalence of grave robbers prompted many to hire guards to watch over the grave.

Funerals could not be too elaborate. Coffins were intricately carved and decorated with gilding. Hearses and the horses that pulled them were adorned with black ostrich plumes. Sometimes the horses were actually dyed black and fitted with black and silver trappings. Professional mourners (called "mutes") would be hired to walk in the funeral procession, looking suitably melancholy. Lavish refreshments were served after interment. Funerals for children featured white accents: white gloves on the mourners, white ostrich plumes on the horses, a white coffin for the child.

The rules of mourning were strictest in matters of fashion. Deep mourning demanded that women adopt a wardrobe made entirely of black crepe, a dull fabric without any sheen to reflect light. Even parasols and handkerchiefs were trimmed in black, without lace or other decoration. Men wore plain black suits with black armbands. Children also wore black, and even babies were dressed in white garments trimmed with black ribbons.

Specific periods of time were considered appropriate for mourning. A widow was expected to mourn her husband for at least two years. Deep mourning lasted one year, and required not only an all-black wardrobe, but also an extremely circumscribed social life. Jewelry was generally not worn the first year. After one year of deep mourning, a widow progressed to half-mourning, and could trade her black crepe dress for a silk one. Half-mourning allowed for jewelry made of pearls, amethysts, black cut glass, and jet. A popular trend was to incorporate a lock of the deceased's hair into mourning jewelry. After a year of half-mourning, a widow could freely wear any color, although many followed the lead of Queen Victoria and remained in black for the rest of their lives.

No other relation was mourned quite so long as a spouse. Parents who lost a child wore deep mourning for nine months and half-mourning for three. Children mourned deceased parents for a similar length of time. The death of a sibling required three months of deep and three months of half-mourning. The deaths of in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other relatives each demanded some degree of public mourning, ranging from six weeks to three months. It was not unusual for an individual to spend the better part of a year dressed in mourning for one departed relative after another.

Death infiltrated many objects in the nineteenth century, quite apart from clothing. Throughout the period, certain images were used again and again to represent the frailty and the brevity of human life. Draped urns, broken columns, weeping willows, and extinguished torches can be spotted in articles as diverse as tombstones, portraits, children's books, and embroidered samplers. The same imagery even recurs in the literature and poetry of the day. Bereavement touched virtually every aspect of Victorian life, lending a somber hue to even the brightest day.

Additional information about Victorian life (and death) can be found in Death in the Dining Room and Other Tales of Victorian Culture, by Kenneth Ames; The Victorians at Home and at Work, by Hilary and Mary Evans; Victorian Jewellery, by Margaret Flower; Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, by Kristine Hughes; Leisure and Pleasure in the Nineteenth Century, by Stella Margetson; Victorians at Home and Away, by Janet and Peter Phillips; What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool; and Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History, by Lou Taylor.

In Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria people usually died in their homes, surrounded by family and friends, and the corpse stayed in the home until burial. In the period before medical death certificates, viewing and touching the corpse was commonplace - to confirm identity and that the person was dead. Children were not spared from viewing the dead, and in poor homes would have shared the room and even the bed with a dying sister or brother.


Death surrounded the Victorians - at home and in the streets. Aristocratic funeral processions were major sights, often involving all the elements of a baronial funeral, including plumes, ushers, countless attendants and elaborate hearses. Extravagant funerals had become the norm well before the reign of Queen Victoria. The determination to secure a 'decent' burial for family members was characteristic of all classes in Victorian society, even if it meant hardship for the surviving family members. The ultimate disgrace was to be assigned a pauper's grave.


Courtesy Newcastle Regional Museum For women during the Victorian period, mourning attire included every conceivable article of clothing as well as hair accessories, stationery, umbrellas, fans, and purses. Men often added only a black hatband or gloves to their normal attire. The material most associated with mourning was black silk crepe, which was almost exclusively manufactured by one company, Courtauld's. Crepe had a flat, lifeless quality - lustrous materials like furs, satin and velvet were forbidden. Wearing colourful or flattering clothes was considered callous and even immoral. It was considered unlucky to have crepe in the house after the proscribed period had ended - making each subsequent bereavement an extravagant, expensive occasion.

Widows were expected to mourn for two years and were allowed to wear grey and lavender only in the last six months of 'half-mourning'. Children in middle-class Victorian families were required to wear full black mourning clothes for one year after the death of a parent or sibling. Girl's dresses were often modelled on their mother's mourning dress.

At the moment of death, clocks would be stopped, curtains drawn over windows, and mirrors covered. Black apparel was quickly donned or if black cloth was not available, the household would quickly dye their clothes to a darker hue.

Mourning widows were not allowed to leave their homes without full black attire and a weeping veil for one year and a day (called "full mourning") after her husband's death. During "second mourning," the next nine months, the widow was allowed some small ornamentation, like mourning jewelry and lacy embellishments to her black attire. The art of proper mourning was vital in demonstrating the wealth and class of a family. It was of the utmost importance to appear fashionable in these times of grief, and many wealthy woman dressed their servants in black as a grand show of a household in mourning.

As time went by, the stages of mourning gradually released their hold. Black material could be put aside for lilac or other soft shades. After approximately two years, wearing colour was no longer frowned upon.

Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms, Thomas E. Hill, 1887. Various sources in public domain. From original text, may contain OCR errors. #


Copyright © Angel.S 1997