QUEBEC-RESEARCH-L ArchivesArchiver > QUEBEC-RESEARCH > 2005-01 > 1106091483
Subject: Excerpt Of History
Date: Tue, 18 Jan 2005 18:38:03 EST
Funerary Practices in the Victorian Era
Grandiose is not too strong a word to use to describe the manner in which a
Victorian funeral was conducted. Today’s society has moved away from that sort
of pomp. Part of the reason for this is that most people have an aversion to
discussing death, cemeteries and corpses, when in fact, funerals and
mourning occur every day. Cremations are becoming more popular today due to the lack
of burial space. However, during the Victorian Era (characterized as the
period of Queen Victoria’s reign over Great Britain and Ireland from 1837 to
1901) no expense was spared when arranging a proper burial.
Many lower class persons planned ahead and saved money for their children’s
funerals because the mortality rate was so high. They wanted to ensure that
if their children did not survive, they would still be able to have a grand f
uneral for them. By saving money for funerals, they often deprived their
families of the necessary comforts of living.
A Victorian funeral procession was an extraordinary sight. It was led by
various foot attendants: pall bearers who carried batons, feathermen, pages and
mutes who dressed in gowns and carried wands. Because these men often had to
stand out in the cold, they were given lots of gin to drink. This often
resulted in disorderly conduct. As you can imagine, this would greatly upset the
family of the deceased because these men had been hired to conduct themselves
in a solemn manner.
The first coach in the procession was the hearse. It was black, with glass
sides, and had lots of silver and gold decoration. A huge canopy of black
ostrich feathers covered the hearse. Inside lay the coffin. It was shiny and
polished, and had moldings, expensive metal handles and inscribed plates.
Sometimes the coffin was covered with black, purple or dark green cloth that was
attached to it with brass, silver or gilt-headed nails. The hearse was also
filled with flowers. Six black horses pulled the hearse, and the horses had black
ostrich feather plumes on their heads.
The rest of the coaches followed behind the hearse. Each contained mourners,
and usually the blinds were drawn. The men wore full mourning suits with
crape bands around their top hats. The women wore black gowns made of crape,
with black veils and black gloves. They held black-edged handkerchiefs to their
eyes. Mourning fans made of black ostrich feathers were carried by their
tortoiseshell handles. Jewelry made of jet was worn.
The procession made its way at walking pace from the house of the deceased
along main roads leading out of town to the cemetery. Sometimes a detour was
made through important areas in order to achieve a maximum display. Once the
procession was out of town, everyone on foot climbed on to the coaches, and
the procession was led at a brisk trot. Upon arrival at the cemetery gates, the
foot attendants climbed down from the coaches, and the procession once again
continued at walking pace.
The procession stopped at a chapel in the center of the cemetery. The
mourners remained dignified and calm as they entered the chapel. The coffin was
carried in and laid on a bier. At the end of the funeral service, the coffin was
either lowered through the floor into catacombs, or the ceremony ended
outside at the place of burial. If indeed the ceremony did end up at the actual
burial site, the women would leave and only the men would remain to witness the
A feast was held at the home of the deceased; sometimes after the funeral,
but sometimes before the funeral with the body being present. Ham, cider, ale,
pies and cakes were the usual fare. Not only the immediate family would be
present, but all the distant relatives too. Cards were sent out to friends,
business associates and acquaintances inviting them to the funeral.
Mourning cards were another tradition. These were supplied by the
undertaker. They were printed in black and silver on white, and were embossed with
traditional symbols of grief such as an inverted torch, a weeping willow, a
shrouded urn or kneeling female mourners. These cards were mounted on ornamental
memorial-card mounts. They were intended as reminders of the dead so that the
recipient would be sure to offer prayers for the deceased. The card contained
the name and age of the dead person as well as the date and place of burial.
Here are examples of what was included when arranging either a cheap or an
expensive funeral with an undertaker:
Funeral costing £5 – 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; b
earers; attendant with silk hat-band.
Funeral costing £53 – 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 paneled
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.
Many of Britain’s nineteenth century cemeteries were modeled after the
famous Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris. Until this time, Britain had only small
churchyards. The population was increasing, and these churchyards became so
full that partially-rotted corpses were disinterred to make way for new ones.
It was common to visit a graveyard and see graves that had been dug up with
bones strewn about. The Victorians wanted large, new cemeteries established
outside the cities to provide more hygienic and dignified resting places for
their deceased. These cemeteries were designed to be beautiful places where
visitors could stroll down long, shaded walks.
There were quite a wide variety of grave monuments to be found in Victorian
cemeteries. Traditional urns, broken columns, busts of the deceased and
angels could be found alongside Egyptian-style obelisks and pyramids. Chaste
classical tombstones lay among wild Gothic fantasies. Catacombs were laid out
below cemetery chapels, while large, family mausoleums rose above them. The poor,
however, were consigned to common graves that usually lay four deep.
After burial, the period of mourning depended upon a person’s relation to
the deceased. Mourning for a spouse, parent or child was to last 12 months. For
grandparents, brothers or sisters six months was sufficient, and for uncles
and aunts it was only two months. During this period a widow was required to
dress completely in black crape for the entire year, and in most other
instances, the relative wore black crape for approximately 2/3 of the mourning
period. After the allotted time, black silk was allowed to be worn in place of
crape for the remainder of the mourning period. Mourning dress is actually
associated with a deeply rooted fear of the dead returning. When veiled and
cloaked in black, it was thought that the living were invisible to the dead.
The Victorians were the last society to truly celebrate death, as did the
ancient Egyptians and other cultures before them. Many Victorian cemeteries
have now been destroyed to make way for parks or public housing projects. Grave
monuments are not usually as large or as ornate as they once were. A growing
number of people today have little or no contact with actual corpses due to
the prevalence of cremation. Unfortunately, in trying to play down the role of
death in today’s society, less value is placed upon life.