Fascinating Death Customs In The Victorian Era

Fascinating Death Customs In The Victorian Era

People in Victorian England respected the significance of mourning and grief; Queen Victoria famously mourned her husband, Prince Albert, for forty years. Victorian funeral customs were fascinating and varied. They offer a glimpse into the lives of people during that period. This blog post will discuss the origin and meaning behind some Victorian mourning and burial practices. What were mourning cards? Why would you need a mortsafe? What is death photography? Why was a bell on a coffin important? Could Victorians communicate with the dead? 
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People in Victorian times respected the significance of mourning and grief; Queen Victoria famously mourned her husband, Prince Albert, for forty years. Victorian funeral customs were fascinating and varied. They offer a glimpse into the lives of people during that period. This blog post will discuss the origin and meaning behind some Victorian mourning and burial practices. What were mourning cards? Why would you need a mortsafe? What is death photography? Why was a bell on a coffin important? Could Victorians communicate with the dead?
Read on to find out.

What Is A Mourning Card?

Mourning cards were mementoes given to family and friends to remember a person who died. They were highly detailed and featured funereal themes, such as cherubs and flowers. Larger mourning cards may have a photograph of the person who died. In keeping with the theme of mourning stationery, mourning cards had a black edge. They became widely popular throughout society in the 1860s. We've included a description and image of a mourning card for Prince Albert, both from the Victoria and Albert Museum. 
'' This memorial card contains the symbols of mourning in the figures of angels and symbolic plants. The later 19th century books of 'The Language of Flowers' were widely used for cards. In this case, however, the symbolism was particularly pertinent to the feelings of the widow Queen. Here ivy symbolises fidelity and mourning while the dog rose symbolises love, in particular the pleasure and pain that love brings, as well as the more general patriotic significance of the Rose of England, the Queen.'' V&A Museum

Why Would You Need A Mortsafe?

Grave robbing was lucrative work - demand for cadavers from medical schools was high (see our post about early anatomy studies), and worries about human remains stolen for dissection by medical students were not unfounded. One tactic to discourage grave robbers was the mortsafe, invented around 1816. A mortsafe is a lockable cage made of metal plates and heavy wire mesh or iron grating. It was secured around the burial site by padlocks and remained in place for approximately six weeks. By this time, the body had decayed and was unsuitable for studying. You can visit graveyards in Scotland to see mortsafes in person, including Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Cluny Kirkyard, Cluny Castle, Aberdeenshire and Aberfoyle Church, Stirling.

 Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, ScotlandMortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. By Kim Traynor

What is Death Photography?

Photography was affordable by the mid-1800s, and families would photograph their loved ones to remember their likeness (previously only available through expensive portraits or daguerreotypes). The photograph could include other family members, perhaps a deceased child's brothers and sisters or parents. The deceased could be propped up on a stand or furniture or posed in a family member's lap. The photographer may paint open eyes on top of the photograph to create a more lifelike appearance. Due to the slow exposure required to take the picture, the deceased image would be sharper and clearer than the living (and moving!) subjects.
 Example of death photography; a group of three people, two elder, a man and a woman with soft, slightly blurred features. They are positioned either side the body of a younger, dark haired woman with open eyes. She is the main feature of the portrait and her features are in focus.Example of death photography, subjects unknown 

Why Were Bells Fitted to Coffins?

One of the most enduring legends of Victorian England is that people would fit bells to their coffins to prevent themselves from being buried alive. Being buried alive was a widespread fear at the time and covered in newspaper articles and literature, including; Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of AmontilladoBerenice and The Premature Burial. Safety coffins with measures such as bells, feeding tubes, transparent screens and flags were invented to combat this fear. The idea was that the person inside the coffin could signal to the outside world if they were alive, or the graveyard attendant or priest could monitor the grave for signs of life. However, there are no documented cases of safety coffins successfully helping an accidentally buried person escape.

 Antoine Wiertz: The Premature Burial; a painting depicting a man crawling out of a coffin. He is sick with cholera and was mistakenly identified as dead The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz: a cholera patient reaching out from a coffin. He was misidentified as dead

Spiritualism: Communicating
With The Dead

Spiritualism began in the 1840s and remained popular for the next 70 years. The central tenet of spiritualism is that communication with the dead is possible through trances, automatic writing and seances with spirit mediums. Victorian England was a very religious and superstitious place where many people were grieving; the child mortality rate was extremely high, with 25% of children dying before the age of five. Queen Victoria was interested in spiritualism, even hosting seances at Buckingham Palace. Other notable fans of spiritualism include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Edison. Spiritualism offered a way for people to cope with their loss and find comfort. While the movement has declined, it remains an interesting part of Victorian history.

Interested In Learning More?

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Monsters and Beasts

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