A Culture Speaks Through Its Ritual of Death

The Victorians' Elaborate Mourning Customs Are Important to an Understanding of Their Society

by Fernando Quintero

Kneeling at the side of his dying wife's bed, the adoring husband clasps her cold, tiny hand and looks into her eyes one last time. She musters enough strength to rise and kiss his forehead before collapsing into death's eternal slumber.

He holds her limp body in a loving embrace, and in a final agonizing cry, utters, "My darling. Oh, my dear darling."

The melodramatic death scene is typical of the Victorian era as depicted in art and literature. In a March 21 lecture by The Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ--the second in a series of talks sponsored by the California Alumni Association--she compared how death during 19th century England was more of an event than it is today.

Partly because life expectancy was shorter then and most people died at home, Christ said death was a familiar domestic event for the Victorians, and elaborate rituals were developed as a way to cope.

"Death played an elaborate symbolic role. The Victorians sought to structure familial and civic life around it," Christ said.

Rituals and artifacts connected with death included mourning dress codes that dictated even the type of underwear worn. There were funeral teapots, death masks and jewelry made of hair from the deceased.

In fiction and in art, the deathbed scene is a prominent symbol of the survivors' attachment and grief. Last words are prized as testaments to loving relationships, and Victorians discouraged the use of pain-relieving narcotics so that the dying could be conscious enough to speak.

Reading several passages by Victorian authors such as Charles Dickens, Christ evoked the sense of drama the deathbed created.

Following the death of a loved one, Victorians had elaborate etiquette for mourning dress. Widows were to wear black for more than two years. For a year and a day, the body was to be covered in dull crepe fabric, and a black ribbon was sewn onto her underwear. After a year, black silk could be used to replace the crepe. After two years, widows were allowed to go into "half mourning," and could wear gray, lavender, mauve or violet in addition to black.

The width of a man's hat band signified mourning. For the loss of a wife, the band was to be seven inches wide; for the loss of a father or son, five inches.

"These dress codes created a social identification for the mourner. You could tell by the style of dress not only that he or she was in mourning, but the length of bereavement and relationship to the deceased," said Christ.

Queen Victoria, perhaps the most famous of Victorian mourners, never went out of mourning for Prince Albert. In addition to unveiling several statues and building elaborate memorials in his honor, she kept his belongings exactly where they were the moment he died.

"As much as she could, she sustained Albert's presence in her life," Christ said, "as if he might come back at any moment." After Prince Albert's death in 1861, Queen Victoria had his bust or a painting of him included in every photograph taken of her.

Until the mid 19th century, the dead were buried in churchyards. But the growth of England's population coupled with health concerns over crowded burial spaces brought on the large rural cemetery. Necropolis, City of the Dead, was the name given these new cemeteries, with avenues and streets as well as rich and poor neighborhoods.

For the Victorians, the corpse itself became a hallowed object--and something to fear. Two books that flank the period, Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," published in 1818, and Bram Stoker's "Dracula," published in 1897, both allude to corpses that do not remain in their graves.

"Lead and iron used for the fencing of burial plots seemed designed to protect the living and the dead," Christ said.


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