7 most morbid Victorian mourning traditions
Postmortem portrait of your beloved, anyone?
Wed, Oct 17 2012 at 5:59 PM
Parents pose with their deceased daughter. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Halloween’s ghouls, goblins, ghosts and skeletons — we may get dark and creepy about death one day a year, but we’ve got nothing on the Victorians. While people of the 19th century were wildly repressed about many things, their comfort with death was a far cry from modern sentiments.
Nowhere is this more evident than in British mourning etiquette during the time of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837 to 1901). The death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 ushered in a rigorous display of mourning that set the stage for the general culture to follow. What became customary mourning, by today’s standards, seems downright macabre and morose. So in honor of the upcoming All Hallows' Eve, when all things turn spooky and spine-chilling, here’s a look at what was once the ghoulish norm.
1. Postmortem portraits
Prior to 1839 portraits were painted, but with the invention of the daguerreotype photograph, portraiture become more affordable and accessible. This meant that the middle class could now afford to have pictures taken to memorialize their loved ones — their dead loved ones, that is, and particularly infants and children. With the invention of the carte de visite in the middle of the century came multiple prints so that families could share pictures of their dead children with other family members and friends. Since most children would not have had their images captured prior to their untimely deaths, it makes perfect sense; although the practice would seem utterly taboo in contemporary Western culture.
2. The living dead
Since the idea of postmortem portraits was to have something to remember the deceased by, there was often staging and post-photo work done to achieve the effect of life. Bodies were posed in lifelike positions, surrounded by family, children holding favorite toys, and eyes often propped open. Sometimes, pupils were painted on in the studio and rosy cheeks were added to the image of the corpse.
3. Coal for jewelry
The material most prized to show grief was lignite, also known as jet, a fossilized form of coal. Jet is deep, dark and somber. In the first phase of mourning, jet jewelry was the only ornamentation women were allowed to wear.
4. Wearing the hair of the dead
While women were only supposed to wear jet for the first stage, during the second stage of mourning one could wear a piece of jewelry if it contained, or was made of, hair. That would be human hair. That would be human hair taken from the deceased love one. Brooches, bracelets, rings, chains and buckles were all made of hair; sometimes there was just a bit enclosed in a hollow band or brooch, other times, the hair was crafted into a piece of its own.
5. Cloaked in heavy veils and bonnets
A widow was to wear a bonnet of heavy crepe and a veil to cover the face for the first three months. At the end of three months the veil was to be worn from the back of the bonnet for another nine months. Altogether, restrictive mourning dress, known as widow's weeds, was to be worn for a minimum of two years, although many widows chose to shun color forever.
6. Haunted houses
Once a member of the house died, all of the mirrors in the house were to be covered. If a mirror in the house fell and broke, it was thought that someone in the home would die soon. When someone died in the house, the clock was to be stopped at the hour of death or bad luck would ensue. When a body was removed from the house, it had to be taken head-first so that it could not beckon others to follow.
7. Saved by the bell
Calling Edgar Allen Poe. Not really a mourning tradition, but a good sign of the times: Coffin alarms. The fear of being buried alive was so severe that a device known as a coffin alarm was invented. The contraption was simply a bell attached to the headstone with a chain that connected to a ring placed on the finger of the corpse. (Gives the term "dead ringer" a whole new meaning.)
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