By Donna Langford
The Victorian middle class changed the attitudes regarding death. Earlier burial customs were romanticized, absorbing them into the more sentimental Victorian culture. Heaven was now views as a wonderful place, and mourning was for those left behind. The body became regarded as something precious. the coffin was renamed “casket”, which refers to a container for precious objects.
During the 19th century, the majority of deaths still occurred in the home. If not, the deceased was quickly taken there. A close family friend or local undertaker would be notified to attend to the body and the family. Early in the century, furniture stores often included undertaking in their available services and provided coffins, as did the Rockford Furniture and Undertaking Company. By the 1880s, embalming techniques made it possible to preserve the body for several days and “undertaking” began to develop into a separate profession. By 1900 the profession of funeral directing was increasingly established, and funerals began to take place more frequently in a funeral home or church, although many still occurred in the home. this custom varied according to the wishes of the family. It was a popular custom for friends close to the family to write elegies for the deceased. these elegies were attached to the hearse, and printed copies were given as souvenirs during the funeral service, read at the funeral or published in the newspaper.
To publicly announce that a death had occurred in a particular household, a crepe and ribbon badge was placed on the front door, usually covering the doorbell or knocker. Crepe, a lightweight silk fabric that was processed to remove any sheen and crimped into three-dimensional patterns, was used to trim dresses, cloaks and bonnets: to construct door badges and to cover mirrors in the home. the color of the door badge indicated the age of the deceased person. A black crepe and white ribbon arrangement indicated a middle-aged person, all black identified a person of mature years and white creep with white ribbon indicated a child. The age of the deceased also determined the color and size of the hearse. A small white vehicle was used for children, and a full-sized black carriage for adults. From the time of the death until after the funeral service, the family would have window blinds drawn, the clocks stopped at the house of death and all mirrors covered with crepe to avoid seeing a reflection in the shiny surface.
It would be improper to attend a funeral without an invitation. a personal invitation engraved onto notepaper and edged with black was sent to family and friends to attend the funeral service. Once such an invitation was received, it would be improper not to attend the service.
Close friends of the family would make funeral arrangements and receive callers on behalf of the family. a caller should never ring the doorbell of the home, as it was a noisy disruption of the household in mourning. the front door could be ajar for friends to enter quietly, and visitors were expected to speak softly.
Using clothing as a symbol of mourning was not a new idea to the Victorians. However, they did follow strict rules regarding fashion, especially for women. A woman was expected to mourn her husband for two years with one year spent in deep mourning, withdrawing from all social activities, especially weddings. Deep mourning also required dressing entirely in black, completely covered with a lusterless fabric that would not reflect light, such as crepe. Dulled black jet was used for buttons and was the only type of jewelry permitted at this time. Fashion accessories such as parasols and handkerchiefs were edged in black, and all items were without lace or any other decoration. Hairstyles were simple and fancy hats were not permitted. A simple crepe bonnet or a long, thick, black crepe veil were worn instead. During the later stages of mourning, dresses could be grey or shades of violet with black decorative designs and trim. Men wore plain black suits and were identified as being in mourning by a black armband. A husband was expected to mourn a wife for three months. children under age 12 wore black mourning clothing for nine months, and babies wore white garments trimmed with black.
Seating at the funeral service was determined by a person’s relationship to the deceased. A spouse would sit at the head of the casket with other family members nearby. family members, especially women, could choose to remain sequestered (isolation) during the service. the placement of flower arrangements in relation to the casket and the carriage’s location in the procession to the cemetery also depended on a person’s relationship to the deceased. these customs still are evident at many of today’s funeral services.
The appearance of the cemetery also had changed by the late 19th century. the Victorian cemetery was park-like, a restful place. Many Victorian families went there on Sunday for a picnic lunch.
Memorials of the deceased were very popular and took the form of cross-stitch samplers, dried flower arrangements made from the funeral bouquet, and displayed under glass domes, photographs or paintings of the deceased, wreaths made from human hair, and most commonly jewelry, which could be worn long after the mourning period had ended. The Victorians often saved human hair in receptacles and used this to weave into flowers which formed wreaths, necklaces, bracelets and even rings. Jewelry made from hair was referred to as friendship jewelry, if given to a close friend, or mourning jewelry if it was made from the deceased’s hair. Other types of mourning jewelry included ivory rings, gold lockets, pendants and bracelets with mourning scenes, such as willow trees or clasped hands. Gold lockets were worn by both men and women and often included a portrait of the deceased.