Victorian death rituals and customs

Victorians may have been prudish and completely repressed in their behavious but interestinly they had an almost fanatical obsession with death. It seems that the victorian obsession with death rituals i have touch on already on this blog- keeping of hair and memento’s of lost one, the death portraits, the death masks, was a way that survivors could cope with the loss of their loved ones.

One of the most Famous Victorians   that we could talk about for her mourning practices would be Queen Victoria, ruler of England from 1837 to 1901. She elaborately mourned the death of her husband, Prince Albert, for 40 years — dressing in black every day and keeping their home exactly as it was the day he died. Each morning, servants set out Albert’s clothes, brought hot water for his shaving cup, scoured his chamber pot and changed the bed linens. The glass from which he took his last dose of medicine stayed by his bedside for nearly four decades. A bust or painting of the prince was also included in nearly every photographic portrait of the royal family, prominently displayed among the children and relatives posing for the picture. While modern sensibilities may deem this behavior odd and peculiar, it was considered de rigueur in the 19th century.

Because of high mortality rates in Victorian England, death and mourning became a way of life for survivors. These days we are removed from the process of death as almost 80% of deaths occur in hospitals no the family home. In London in the 1830’s the life space was shockingly short – the average life span for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age.” Death was a common domestic fact of life for Victorians, she said, so they developed elaborate rituals to deal with it. The deathbed became a focal point for families who were in the process of losing a loved one. Typically, one or more grieving relatives would surround the bed waiting to hear the last words, signifying the transition from this world to the next.  As the Victorian values the last words so much, the use of narcotics was discouraged, to keep the dying as lucid as possible in the hopes of hearing a climatic testimony to the meaning of life.

These scenes were highly dramatized in much of the literature and artwork of the time. For example, Dickens devoted numerous chapters from his novels to prolonged deathbed watches. Photographs, death masks and portraits of the recently deceased were also produced, as well as jewelry that utilized a locket of the dead person’s hair. Victorian houses at were filled with mementos,It was almost fetishistic. After the loved one had actually passed, women were expected to follow a complex code of mourning that lasted for two and a half years.  For 12 months and a day, they wore a plain, black dress made of a drab, blended fabric, which covered the entire body, including a cap. Black ribbon was tied to their underwear. After two months, two flounces could be added to the skirt. After one year, the women could switch their dress fabric to silk colored in lavender, mauve or violet. They were also forbidden from socializing during this 28-month period.

Not only was it easy to recognize who was in mourning, but you could also tell for how long, unlike today  where you could not recognize of someone has lost a loved one. The  Victorian culture recognized death as an integral part of life and they maintained an honest understanding of loss and grief. Modern society has a tendency to deal with death in more medical terms.  While death is no different now to what it was back then it is how death is represented has changed so much.  Victorian rituals provided stability and refuge in the face of sweeping changes. The era was characterized by scientific progress and challenges to religion during this time, including Darwin and the theory of evolution. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London lauded the technical and industrial advances of the age, and geological discoveries revealed the true age of the planet, much older than described in the bible. Mourning created a powerful sense of being bound to the loyalty of the past.

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