The Grim Reaper: he was a busy guy during the Victorian era. (That’s absurd, of course: death is a constant.) But it does seem like that because of how enthusiastically the Victorians celebrated the end of life. They created strict rules and complicated rituals around funerals and mourning; following these rites was compulsory unless you wanted to cause a scandal and disgrace yourself.
The average Victorian was much more familiar with dead bodies than we are today. Each time there was a death in a family (remember, families were larger then, and infant mortality more common), the body would be bathed and dressed (either by the family or its servants) and laid out in a room, awaiting the day of the funeral.
The funeral itself was elaborate. There was a special carriage swathed in black mourning drapery, to transport the body. This funeral carriage was drawn by black horses with black tack (no shiny bits), and black feathered headdresses. A procession of carriages belonging to friends and family would follow the main carriage, but these would be empty; they were sent as a token of the mourners’ respect. As you can guess, the exact length of this parade of carriages counted a great deal, for some families. The funeral carriage might also be led by a set of men on foot, dressed in black and carrying black banners. These were professional actors, called mutes, whose solemn expressions set the tone for the funeral.
All of this was expensive, of course, and families sometimes bankrupted themselves in order to stage an impressive funeral – one sign of just how important the ceremony was considered to be. Some working men and women formed “funeral clubs” – an early kind of insurance policy. They paid a certain amount of money from their weekly wages, with the understanding that the club would later pay for their funerals.
Middle- and upper-class women typically did not attend funerals, even of close family members; they were considered too delicate (although they could still sleep in a house with a dead body in it!) Their role in mourning was to wear the right clothing. Black, matte materials were key, of course, and these were trimmed with a material called crape. Crape was scratchy and unwashable, which meant that mourning attire was uncomfortable and had to be replaced regularly. After a certain period of time (which varied, depending on how closely the mourner was related to the dead), women could switch to half, or light, mourning colours: grey, lavender and white. The only jewellery allowed during mourning was made of a black stone called jet, and this was often embellished with a lock or braid of hair from the dead person. There was even special mourning stationery: black-edged writing paper that announced your mourning status for you.
What becomes clear is that mourning was also big business, for the Victorians: all those funerals, all those clothes, all those extras that a person in mourning had to have. This is one way in which the Victorians suddenly seem quite a lot like us: passionate consumers. Gear freaks, if you will. Even if they had different obsessions.