Queen Victoria and her grandchildren by her daughter Princess Alice, mourning their mother and sister Princess Marie.

Yes, this is another Victorian England post. Don’t worry, it’s going to be relevant to horror and to the stories I write, believe me.

During my research into the era, I found that the Victorians really had a thing for mourning. In fact, they made ritualized mourning into something of a fine art or a pseudo-religious practice (hence why I call it a cult). You know how during a funeral, it’s tradition to wear black? Victorians took that to extremes: when someone you know died, you were required to mix black into your clothing, how much depending on your level of closeness to the deceased. A widow would have to wear full black clothes, usually made from crepe fabric; a child would wear black with white cuffs and frills; and servants would wear black bands around their arms (maids could also wear one around their caps or bonnets, or fully black caps and bonnets).

Also depending on the closeness to the deceased would determine the length of the initial mourning period. Yeah, you read that right: initial mourning period. For the Victorians, there were stages of mourning, particularly for close relatives. For widows, for example, the initial mourning stage could last up to two years, during which time they could only wear black clothes and black jewelry; black clothes was hung on mirrors and windows; and they were to refuse all socializing. Any letters they sent out had black borders, and it was encouraged for them to forget the outside world to focus on the deaths of their husband.

Of course, this was slanted very much towards women: men were allowed to wear only a black armband and go out because they were typically breadwinners. They could also remarry or enter the social scene sooner, because men were expected to have wives to take care of them and a mother for any children.

Furthermore, only women from the middle or upper classes took part in the full mourning ritual. Women from the lower classes, while still wearing black, would have to go out to earn a living. If one could be earned, of course; I’m not entirely sure, but I think I read that women could have difficulty finding work during mourning, if they previously weren’t working. In fact, many women and families went into debt or became homeless by observing mourning rituals.

Why did they do all this? Part of the reason may have been Queen Victoria herself: when her husband Albert, Prince Consort, died, she went into lifelong mourning for him, wearing black for the rest of her life and refusing to remarry. For a time, she even retreated from her royal duties. This inspired the cult of mourning and its associated rituals.

Part of it may have also been (and this is just my hypothesis, but I could be onto something) the resurrection men, grave robbers who stole bodies and sold them to medical schools for anatomy lessons. Back then, there was a huge demand for bodies at medical schools, but never enough supply, so resurrection men would step in to meet the demand (as well as be paid handsomely for it).* And because not everyone could afford safeguards to keep their coffins from being raided and stealing a body technically wasn’t a crime yet, all resurrection men had to worry about was getting caught by an angry mob.

Ad for Black Peter Robinson’s Mourning Warehouse, and the image that inspired my current story.

Regardless of what caused it, the cult of mourning existed, and everyone was expected to obey, especially married women. To fail or to opt out was to be accused of never having truly loved or been family with the deceased, or to be cold and cruel.

And where there is devotion, there is money to make off it: while poorer families would dye their clothes black or got them secondhand, those who could bought them from specialized “mourning warehouses,” department stores that sold mourning wear, as well as coffins and items associated with mourning. Some even rented out hearses and horses for their clients! Some of the biggest were the London General Mourning Warehouse, or Jay’s, and the Black Peter Robinson Mourning Warehouse.

But wait, there’s more! Post-mortem photography was also popular during this period. Photography was a lengthy and expensive process, so many families would only get photographs of their loved ones when they’d just passed. They would then be posed and prepared to look like they were sleeping, often next to living family members. Rather than morbid, this was seen as a good way to remember the dead and help with grief.

A post-mortem photograph. Because of course I would include one.

Of course, a lot of this fell out of fashion in the early twentieth century, first among the upper classes and then trickling down to the lower. Cheaper funeral practices became preferred, and post-mortem photography became unnecessary as getting a photograph became easier and more affordable. Today, only characters in books and neo-Victorians still practice any of these (yes, that’s a thing, but for another post).

And yes, resurrection men are largely a thing of the past.

Why do I bring this up? Well, besides being interesting, the story I’m writing now focuses on Victorian mourning to an extent, and doing some further research into Victorian mourning practices made me want to blog about them. So thank you for coming to my TED talk (I love making that joke).

 

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’m sure I’ll be back soon with more to rant or gush about. In the meantime, thanks for enabling my love of the Victorian era. And until next time, stay safe and pleasant nightmares!

*H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first recorded serial killers, did this with his victims, which leads me to think he was more interested in making easy money than in killing.

Comments
  1. This is interesting stuff! I feel sorry for widows being shut away for so long (and going broke!), and the post-mortem photos are morbid. To be fair, the photos probably weren’t morbid back then. We’re awfully sanitized when it comes to post-mortem practices nowadays.

    The resurrection men, they could be featured in a whole slew of stories. I wonder if they were desperate for work, if they were fearful and curious about death, if they were ne’er-do-wells who wanted to see their own handiwork dug up . . .

  2. Great blog! Being a fan of all things Victorian gothic, I’d heard of all of these before, but still find it fascinating. I think it’s more likely they were popular practices because a)they made money as you said and so advertisers pushed them and people could use them as proof they were “better” than other people. If you want to make a fortune, convince people that the “better” people are buying whatever you’re selling and it will be snatched up. Twilight was a good example f this in the book world. So many people at the time would say, “Well, I’m reading it because everyone else is”, but everyone else wasn’t reading it until all the MySpace and Yahoo banner advertisements SAID everyone was reading it… I almost read it because of that, ha ha! (I did end up reading it later because a friend of mine talked me into it and gifted me the first two books in the series)

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