The Ritual of Mourning

Victorians treated death and mourning with the same serious attention they paid courting and marriage. There was a correct way to grieve, just as there was a correct way to pay an afternoon call. The elaboration of the funeral depended upon one's wealth, but rules governed all classes just the same.

Once a family member died, funeral arrangements began immediately. Death and funeral announcements were published in local papers. In the instance where a small village had no local paper, relatives and friends received personal invitations to the ceremony. The notepaper had a heavy black border to indicate mourning. It was considered poor manners not to accept an invitation to a funeral.

The deceased's family then set about preparing both house and humans for the ritual of mourning. The entire household went into "deep mourning." Drapes were drawn, clocks stopped and mirrors covered. The staff donned mourning attire. Female servants wore black work dresses and caps and male servants wore black gloves and cravats or ties. All correspondence was done on black-edged writing-paper and envelopes, with black seals. Even calling cards were reprinted with black edges. The width of the black band narrowed as mourning time passed.

It was in poor taste to pay calls of condolence while the deceased's body was still in the house. Family received only their most intimate friends at this time. Also, family did not leave their house in the interval between the death and the funeral. Servants or friends ran any necessary errands.

The funeral procession was draped in black also. Four black horses wearing tall black plumes led the mourning carriages. The carriages containing the clergyman and pall-bearers preceded the deceased in the funeral procession. Pall-bearers numbered six, or eight if the deceased was a prominent citizen. They were generally chosen from the closest acquaintances of the deceased, and were near the same age as the departed. After the deceased came closest relatives, more distant relatives and finally friends. The family provided all mourners with black gloves and scarves for the ceremony.


Once buried, the dead were not necessarily safe. Body snatchers roamed graveyards in search of fresh corpses to use in medical research. Many families hired guards to protect their loved ones from this fate.

About one week after the funeral, close friends could call upon the family and offer condolences. Within a month, acquaintances could visit the family, but only after receiving a note from the family that they were once again receiving visitors. Callers never wore bright colors while visiting the deceased's family.

A widow was most affected by mourning etiquette. Her grieving period went through several stages. First or Deep Mourning lasted a year and a day. During this time, she wore widow's weeds. This included black clothes of a dull cloth like bombazine draped with black crape. She also wore a black widow's cap and veil, but could not wear ornamentation of any kind. Second Mourning lasted for another twelve months. Her clothes were still wholly of black, but with less crape, and no cap or veil. She could, however, wear a quiet black hat and Jet ornaments. Half Mourning followed in the third year. The widow could now be relieved of her all-black clothing, but was restricted to gray or mauve as the accenting color. If a widow or other bereaved could not afford a mourning wardrobe, she dyed her current gowns black.

Some widows chose to remain in full mourning for the remainder of their lives, since it carried certain social advantages. They gained respect and admiration for showing devotion to the dearly departed, and they were accepted into the gracious social set who behaved properly. Queen Victoria remained in mourning for Prince Albert until her own death. Widowers had it easier. All they had to wear was a black armband.

Near relatives also followed a set of rules. The closeness of one's relation to the deceased determined the length of the mourning period. Parents and children mourned for one year, starting with deep mourning and discarding it by degrees. A brother, sister or grandparent was mourned for six months, an aunt or uncle for three months and a first cousin for six weeks. In-laws were mourned also, but for a lesser period of time.

The above would all be disregarded, however, if the deceased was a child or young unmarried girl. In that case, mourners wore white, and the procession was draped in white also. And if the person had committed suicide, until 1823, he was required by law to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through his heart (so as to prevent his ghost from walking.) Until 1832, a suicide victim had to be buried at night. And until 1870, all the deceased's property went to the Crown in the case of a suicide.

Mourning for Royalty was a national observance. Streets were hung with black and windows in shops were draped. It wasn't until 1901 when Edward VII decreed that mourning for Queen Victoria cease after four months that the rigid etiquette began to relax.

Yet despite all these ritual and rules, pomp and display were to be avoided. This was, after all, a solemn occasion and should be treated as such.


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