Death in the Victorian Era

Welcome to #WEIRDWEDNESDAY! As much as we love true crime over here at The Hex Files, we started to feel as though we were neglecting the other stuff we love too — hauntings, aliens, urban legends, strange history, etc. And so, #WeirdWednesday was born. Without further adieu, here’s the first installment of our new weekly series!

A few weekends ago, I attended the Bloodmilk Night Market and had the opportunity to chat a little with the artist behind Handsome Devil Puppets. In addition to the bewitching finger puppets she was selling at the Market, she also showed me some work that was inspired by Victorian mourning dolls. As soon as I got home, I hit the Internet because I just had to know more. I soon found out mourning dolls are just the tip of the iceberg for Victorian funeral customs. They had a strange yet alluring fascination with death that I felt compelled to explore further and of course, compile some of my favorite examples for your reading pleasure.

Mourning Clothing

It is honestly not surprising that the Victorians had such a fascination with death. Due to the lack of modern medicine, death was extremely prolific in their lives. It was everywhere. It seems, though, most of the dramatic traditions surrounding death began when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. He was a victim of typhoid fever, and poor Victoria was so heartbroken by the loss she mourned him for the rest of her life. In fact, Victoria (and her entire court) dressed in mourning clothes for the first three years after Albert’s death.

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Photo courtesy of ranker.com

The tradition of wearing mourning clothes for an extended period of time actually carried over outside of the Queen’s court to the common people. When mourning the death of a loved one, people would wear black and other muted colors  for one to two years after the death to represent their grieving period. Due to the high mortality rates of the time period, it was not uncommon for people to wear these colors for the majority of their lives as they mourned the deaths of multiple family members.

Women were particularly subjected to these traditions. They wore black for the first one to two years after a death, depending on their relation to the decedent, and also had to isolate themselves from their community. As the years went on, women could transition slowly from black to purple to gray as they became reintegrated with society.

Mourning Dolls

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Photo courtesy of ranker.com

Just as they do now, little girls and dolls went hand-in-hand in the Victorian era. They served many purposes: they helped young girls exercise their maternal instincts, served as a toy, and even prepared them to execute a wake and funeral. Wait… what?

Young girls were given all the necessary supplies to host a wake and funeral in what was called a “death kit.” The kits included black mourning clothes and a small coffin for the doll. The girls would practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, staging funeral and even comforting the doll’s mourners. This is perhaps something I may have enjoyed during my own childhood, but is definitely too morbid for the average modern child. However, putting on fake funerals served the same purpose as preparing a girl for motherhood: it was just what women did, and therefore, they needed to be prepared.

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Victorian wax doll, photo courtesy of listverse.com

In addition to preparing girls for various aspects of life, dolls served another morbid purpose for the Victorians. If a family experienced the death of an infant or child and had some wealth to their names, they could have a wax doll created in the likeness of their deceased loved one to aid in their grieving process. To make the wax doll seem as legitimate as possible, it was dressed in the deceased child’s clothing and wore a wig of the deceased child’s hair.

Over-the-Top Funeral Services

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Photo courtesy of kathleenmaca.com

In general, Victorian funerals were extremely ostentatious events. They involved funeral directors, invitations, hearses drawn by black horses, large floral arrangements, etc. People became competitive with one another for who could host the most showy services for their deceased loved one. As you can guess, this could get pretty expensive. People, especially those of lower classes, often had to begin saving for their family member’s funeral while the person was still alive and healthy in order to afford the elaborate event that came to be expected of the time. Sometimes hey would pass on everyday necessities like food and heat in order to put money aside for their eventual funeral.

People would even hire professional mourners to attend the service to build-up the grief. The mourners, often called “mutes,” would hover around the casket, looking desolate and dismal. Charles Dickens’ fictional character Oliver Twist was a mute hired to “perform” at children’s funerals.

“Saved by the Bell”

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Photo courtesy of unc.edu

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “saved by the bell” (and we’ve probably all watched the television show at some point in our lives). However, you probably don’t realize that this commonly used phrase is said to have been inspired by a Victorian funeral custom.

In Victorian England, the dead were occasionally buried with a rope in their hand that was tied to a bell outside their grave. If the person was pronounced dead incorrectly and regained consciousness after burial, they could ring the bell for help. This particular style of burial was known as a “safety coffin.” Although there is no evidence to show that a life was ever saved by one of these devices, I can appreciate their extra (and I mean extra) precautions.

Protection from the “Resurrection Men”

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Photo courtesy of cvltnation.com

For those who were actually dead, the Victorians took precautions to ensure they remained in their graves. During the Victorian era, grave robbing was a big problem. Grave robbers were known as “resurrection men,” and their theft was driven by the high demand for cadavers for medical training and research. During this time, it was against the law to leave your donate your body to science after your death.

The resurrection men would typically dig into the end of the grave where the head was, tie a rope around the corpse’s neck and then drag it from its grave. Often, the grave robbers would leave behind the shroud and any other items accompanying the body in the grave. This was because, should one be caught stealing the deceased, sentencing was lighter if only the body was taken.

However, protection against body snatchers was reserved for the wealthy, as such protection could be expensive. For those who were able to afford it, mausoleums, vaults and iron-encased grave sites were built to protect their loved one’s body from being stolen.

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William Burke and William Hare, photo courtesy of irishcentral.com

However, sometimes there was very little that could protect you from being a victim of the body-snatchers, as some eventually decided to skip the exhumation process entirely and resorted to murder as a means to obtain bodies to sell. William Burke and William Hare, often referred to as simply Burke and Hare, sought out those who were ill, homeless or prostitutes — essentially, those who would not be missed — to be their victims.

As outlandish  and morbid as some of the Victorians’ funeral traditions may seem, you can also probably tell that many of them have carried over to modern-day funeral customs in some shape or form. Personally, I’m glad murder for the sake of medical research has not been one of them. See you guys next week.

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

The Phrase Finder

Ranker

SleuthSayers

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