Monday, October 11, 2010

Tour of Deathly Repose: Part 2

As a follow up to my first blog post on death, regarding Highgate Cemetary in London, I'd like to take a step back and think about death through the Victorian frame of mind. The Victorians "reveled in the trappings of death," as A.N. Wilson eloquently describes in his book, The Victorians, which was best demonstrated by funerals and the habits of mourning.

Funerals were elaborate ceremonies whether they were for a head of state, a doctor, or a local businessman. Wilson paints a vivid description of a typical funeral: 
The hearse would be a glass coach groaning with flowers, but smothered in sable and crepe. Four or six horses nodding with black plumes would lead the cortege, preceded by paid mutes who, swathed in black shawls and with drapes over their tall silk hats...Behind the coffin in their carriages would follow the mourners, in new-bought black clothes, bombazine and crepe and tall silk hats and black gloves and bonnets.
An article published in Harper's Bazaar in April 1886 on "Mourning and Funeral Usages," described the rules, as it were, and answered many a pertinent question pertaining to the "correct" manner in which one was to go about their mourning habits. Funereal etiquette was to be strictly adhered to as funerals became a social status symbol and tribute to how far a family had climbed in the class-system. Rules were followed as to how to dress a house for mourning, the number of pall-bearers to have and who should be one, the fashion of mourning clothing, and the length of time in which to be in mourning. 

There were variations to these mourning practices depending on who had died: Widows should mourn for about eighteen months; a parent should be mourned for a year; a sibling also for a year; and a child for 9 months. And as to what one should wear when in mourning: 
For the first six months the dress should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow's cap of white crape if preferred.... After six months' mourning the crape can be removed, and grenadine, copeau fringe, and dead trimmings used, if the smell of crape is offensive, as it is to some people. After twelve months the widow's cap is left off, and the heavy veil is exchanged for a lighter one, and the dress can be of silk grenadine, plain black gros grain, or crape-trimmed cashmere with jet trimmings, and crepe lisse about the neck and sleeves.
As can be gathered from the length of this article and popularity of the magazine, it was important for Victorians to have a guide to follow in all manner of funereal topics to ensure that what was done was done so properly.

What is interesting is the purpose behind establishing uniformity and a mantle of etiquette around funerals and mourning, as if to manage the emotional experience of death into a systematic process of "dos" and "don'ts." Perhaps the need for conformity was to help cope with the death of a loved one? Perhaps it truly was to set a norm for what is to be done in the midst of chaos when a tragedy occurs? If we closely examine how these customs reflect Victorian society and culture, what does it say about the people who practiced them? And what about ourselves as the descendants of this culture and these funereal practices? ...Weighty questions to ponder and return to at another time...


"The House in Mourning" from Victoriana Magazine -
"Mourning and Funeral Usages," Harper's Bazaar: April 17, 1886; via Victoriana Magazine -