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The Victorians’ Morbid Obsession with Death

In our modern times, the rituals surrounding death and dying in Victorian society seem chillingly strange, but context is important. Today, most people die in hospitals, distancing us from the relationship between death and the home. That wasn’t the case in Victorian Britain, and with people often dying at home, families were far closer throughout the process. In an age gripped by scientific progress and challenges to religion, death became ritualistic, and mourning was almost a way of life.

Death did, of course, also tend to come earlier than it does today. According to the University of California Berkeley, the average life expectancy of labourers was 22 years. Tradesmen were slightly better off at 25 years, while 57 out of every 100 children born to working-class families died before they reached their fifth birthday.

Death was everywhere, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a series of rituals enveloped the process of dying. The deathbed came to be almost revered, and drugs to dull the pain and the senses were typically not administered in a bid to allow the faithful departing to utter their last words. Those last words were incredibly important, marking the boundary between life and death.

Men had it relatively easy, but women who lost loved ones followed an incredibly complex code of mourning, depending on their relationship with the deceased. In some cases they were forbidden from socializing for 28 months, while society dictated they would wear only plain, drab black for a year and a day.

A black ribbon was even tied to their undergarments, and only after the first 12 months of the mourning period ended could they start reintroducing colours – and even then, it was only violet, lavender or mauve. Widows wore mourning clothes for no less than two years, and children would occasionally be included in the traditions, though they would typically wear white.

With death coming so frequently, mourning clothes were in high demand. In 1841, Jay’s of Regent Street was one of the premiere suppliers of such garments, enjoying a booming business fueled in part by high mortality rates coupled with the belief that keeping mourning clothes after the mourning period had ended was bad luck.

The Victorian mourning traditions were captured perhaps most famously by the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria herself. After the death of her husband Prince Albert, The Prince Consort, she had servants continue setting out his clothes for the day, changing his bed linens, and bringing hot water for his ablutions. The last glass he ever drank from sat on his bedside table for four decades after his death, and every photograph or portrait of the family from that day forward included a bust or portrait of him.

Meanwhile, homes of the period quickly filled up with mementos of the dead. Death masks and other memento mori were common, and wealthier families often commissioned post-mortem photography of the deceased, either positioned alone or alongside the living. The haunting grandeur of Victorian cemeteries, many of them now tumbledown and overgrown, also reflected the level of respect that was paid to deceased members of society.

At the time, it was an incredibly important way of honouring the dead, of remaining loyal to them, of keeping their memory alive. When life was so fleeting and many couples often had only a few years instead of a few decades, what seems like a morbid tradition today became a comforting way of holding on to the love of family.

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