How our Victorian ancestors dealt with death


23 September 2019
The-dance-of-death,-the-nursery.-T.-Rowlandson,-1816-©-Wellcome-Library-London-Creative-Commons-81277.jpg The dance of death, the nursery. T. Rowlandson, 1816 © Wellcome Collection, London, CC BY 4.0
Whereas today we tend to celebrate a life when a loved one dies, our Victorian ancestors are known for their 'celebrations of death'. Helen Frisby, an expert on the history of death, tells us more

When we think of 19th century funerals, most people envisage black-draped hearses, with matching plumed horses driven by a sombrely frock-coated, top-hatted undertaker. Or perhaps in our mind's eye we picture grand Victorian cemeteries, or widows swathed in black crape. These customs provoke a strange mixture of repulsion and fascination toward the so-called ‘Victorian celebration of death’. Helen Frisby, an expert on Victorian funerals and the history of death, tells us more...


Folklore surrounding death

Delve into contemporary folklore collections, meanwhile, and we discover an entire complex of beliefs and customs concerning the moribund. Indeed the social, emotional and spiritual process of dying began with death portents. Some of these were very old, such as the popular belief that owls crying signified a death in the offing; this particular belief was first recorded in the 13th century. By contrast the belief that a broken mirror portended a death cannot have been popularised before the 1830s, since this is when silver-glass was first manufactured en masse. Both beliefs however share the underlying assumption that death could be predicted and therefore managed. Like some other 19th century death-portent beliefs this one is still with us today, albeit in the softened form of ‘bad luck’.   


This idea of death as a manageable process also underpins many 19th-century deathbed customs. One instance of this is the belief that removing bird (especially pigeon) feathers from the bed helped the person ‘die easy’. Opening windows and doors allowed the soul out, and reversing or covering reflective surfaces prevented it becoming distracted or trapped on its way. Ringing the passing bell, another very old custom, also helped the soul depart.


Many considered it important to ’tell the bees’ (in folklore bees traditionally embody the souls of the dead) of a death in the family. It was also customary for family, friends and neighbours to come and view the deceased, touching the body as they did so in order to avoid bad dreams. Many of these same people would also be ‘bidden’ to the funeral with written invitations and a packet of specially baked funeral biscuits.


Funeral biscuits, together with wine or port, were also served before ‘lifting’ the coffin out of the house feet first. Gifts of gloves, scarves or rings were frequently given to guests, the quality of these items carefully matched to the guest’s social status. Dirges and hymns were sung as the procession wended its way to the funeral service. This was the time of the Enclosure Acts, cutting off many of the ‘corpse ways’ along which funeral processions traditionally had walked. In some places, pins were left in the gateposts by way of symbolic payment to the new landowners for passage of a funeral.


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The final stage of the proceedings was the funeral tea, which was as lavish as the host’s means permitted. Ham, beef, bread and puddings usually figured in the feast. Then as now alcohol frequently was an essential social lubricant, with even some teetotallers making an exception for funerals.


So why do these customs engender such mixed reactions on our part? It’s true that most are are very much of their time, when mortality rates in all age groups and social classes remained high and death thus an ever-present spectre. However they also evoke the timeless, profoundly human notion that the living have a part to play in seeing the dying and newly dead safely into the afterlife. Contrast this with the present-day ‘celebration of life’, in which the fact of mortality is conveniently, if not altogether effectively swerved. Perhaps, then, the Victorian ‘celebration of death’ has something useful to teach us – if only about honesty and courage in the face of the inevitable.  


• Helen Frisby's illustrated book, Traditions of Death and Burial, is published by Shire Publications in paperback, RRP £9.99 (ISBN: 9781784423773).


Illustration: Wellcome Collection, London, Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) terms and conditions


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