Sunday, November 22, 2015

Victorian Death Customs and Superstitions, Part l

During the 19th century into the early 20th century, both Americans and Europeans had similar, sometimes odd, customs that were practiced after a loved one died.

One custom many today find “creepy” was Postmortem Photography, also known as memorial portraiture. This practice involved taking a photograph of the recently deceased.

Postmortem Photo.
This practice was common for the middle class, for it was a way for families to remember their deceased loved ones. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, these photos became an affordable alternative to the more expensive painted portraits that the wealthy commissioned.

Many also felt they helped with the grieving process. By far, most of these photos were of infants or children. These portraits sometimes were the only photograph the family had of their deceased loved one.

Another common practice was wakes or waking. This custom was to keep a close watch over the deceased until they were buried. Most wakes lasted three to four days, to provide out of town relatives time to travel in for the funeral.

Victorian wake.
Wakes originated from a practice that was considered a safeguard. Time was allowed to pass before the deceased was buried to make sure they were really dead, and not just in a coma.

One practice related to the one above was “the fear of being buried alive.”

Safety coffin with air supplied.
Coffin makers in this era addressed this issue by designing warning systems. One of these was a bell on the grave that was attached by a chain inside the coffin. The expression, “saved by the bell” evolved out of this practice. Another post that focuses on this topic is located here.

Grave Robbery was common in this period—mostly because the medical profession needed fresh corpses for their dissecting classes. Young doctors often robbed graves.

Grave robbers.
The fear that a loved one's corpse might be robbed led to many family’s “bricking-over” graves to ensure their security.

Other often practiced customs that surrounded death and burial in the Victorian age included:

Curtains were drawn and clocks were stopped at the time of death.

Mirrors were covered in crape or a veil to prevent the deceased spirit from becoming trapped, in these looking glasses.

A wreath of laurel, with black ribbons, was hung on doors, to announce to those who passed by, that there had been a death in the home. This was to ensure the proper respect was shown.

The use of candles and flowers were used to mask any unpleasant odors in the room where the body was displayed—this was before the practice of embalming became common.

During this era the dead where carried out of a home foot first to prevent the deceased from looking back—which might lure other family members to follow them into death.

Flowers to disguise smells.
Family photos were placed face down, to prevent close relatives or friends of the deceased, from being possessed by the dead person’s spirit.

Lavish meals were often served after internments.

The color black was used to denote someone was in mourning. While the color white was used for the funeral of a child—including white gloves, white ostrich plumes, and white coffins.

In cemeteries, the majority of the graves had the deceased laid out with their heads to the west and their feet to the east. This custom can be traced back to Pagan Sun Worshippers, but now is more often associated with the Christian belief that the final summons to Judgment comes from the east.

In Part ll of Victorian Death Customs and Superstitions, several superstitions connected to death are shared.

No comments: