The Victorians and Their Beloved Dead

September 28, 2013 in Editorials

Death was a constant companion during the 1800s – misunderstood diseases and illness were universal, and the “grim reaper” was always hovering. Victorians chose to accept their plight by sharing their grief publicly, following society’s detailed mourning rituals. Family members were required to dress in mourning garments, with the length of mourning being determined by their relation to the deceased. Homes were draped in black crepe (white for a child), ribbons and wreaths to announce the death to the community. Mirrors in the home were masked with linens, so as to protect the souls of both the deceased and the living from being trapped within the looking glass. Clocks were stopped at the time of death and covered, as “time has no meaning for the dead”.

Memorials – wreaths, bouquets and jewelry – were fashioned from the deceased’s hair and often included the hair of several other lost loved ones. Photos were also made of the dead, especially children. Depicted in life-like poses as a special remembrance, they can often be unsettling to view, or perhaps merely seen as something rather foreign compared to current mourning customs. These post mortems were often the only existing photos of the deceased. Additional types of memorials were produced, including published mourning lithographs listing the family member’s name(s) and death date(s), as well as punch work motto samplers, which integrated the hair and photo of the deceased. Casket plaques, bearing the name and date of death, were cherished 19th century keepsakes. The plaques were removed from the coffin and presented to the family, just before the loved one’s body was lowered into the ground.

Many Victorian mourning accessories and memorial pieces still survive today and provide collectors with an extraordinary personal bridge and intimate connection to those of the past. A favorite of mourning enthusiasts is the blown glass “tear catcher” or “weeping bottle”. Women of the 1800s would save their tears of grief in this bottle, and on the one year anniversary of the death, the tears would be poured over the grave to signify the end of the first year of mourning. This custom originated from Psalms 56:8, when David returned from a battle loss and said to God, “Hast thou not saved my tears in thy bottle?”

19th century mourning items are continuously increasing in popularity with collectors, and the values of these unusual treasures are soaring. The traditions of this time period concerning the acknowledgment of death and mourning the loss of loved ones can be seen as rather peculiar or even bizarre. Yet, the people seemed to have an innate desire to maintain an ongoing connection to the deceased, and to fully embrace death. Perhaps people of today still do so, but the ways in which 19th century mourners expressed this desire is rather alluring and fascinating. Viewing items from this era can spark an all-encompassing human connection and emotion that never ceases as time and people pass.

By Margie Weatherford, Chester’s Trunk, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

victorian mourning