Victorian mourning customs

28th September 2018. Reading Time: 4 minutes General. 3456 page views. 4 comments.

During the Victorian period, there was a certain etiquette to be followed when someone passed away. From formal attire to post mortem photography, it is how the deceased were mourned and honoured during the 1800s.

During the reign of Queen Victoria in Great Britain, it was common practice that people would usually die in their homes surrounded by their family and friends. They would remain in their home until the day of their burial. This was before medical death certificates were introduced so a person would need to view a body to confirm the identity and to touch the body to confirm they were in fact dead. Children too had to share a house with a dead body, and in some cases share a bed with a deceased brother or sister as they were not moved until the day of burial.

Funeral processions through the streets were quite the sight and more elaborate for those with more money and social status. No matter what class a family was from, it was a wish of most families to secure a decent burial plot and hold a ceremony for the deceased even if it meant the family would have to live through financial stress. They did not want the disgrace of having to bury a family member in a 'pauper's grave'. This was a grave with no headstone and no ceremony (funeral).

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria went into a period of deep mourning for the rest of her life. Following this example, it became almost a custom for families to go through a formal mourning process. The period of mourning depended on your relationship to the deceased and what your sex was. Men mourned differently to women.

image: Hearthside House Museum

Superstitious customs

In the home of the deceased, people took certain precautions after the death of a family member so that 'they weren't next' so to speak. As a form of superstition, the following commonly took place:

  • Stopping the clocks in the house at the time of the death so that no further bad luck would be experienced
  • Mirrors were covered and curtains were drawn so that the deceased's image wasn't trapped in the glass
  • Family photos were turned to face the wall or face down so that the deceased could not possess any family members
  • The family would hang a wreath on the door with black crepe so that the neighbourhood would know that a death had occurred.

If several deaths within the family occurred in a short span of time, anyone who entered the house had to wear a ribbon of black crepe to stop the bad luck from spreading any further. This included animals including chickens.

When the body was removed from the house, it was taken out head first so that it would be unable to call for others to follow it.

There was also the concern of someone being unknowingly buried alive so safety coffins were made which were constructed with a string that led from the coffin to the headstone where the bell was. If someone 'awoke' buried alive, they could ring the bell hence the term 'saved by the bell'

Formal mourning attire

Formal attire was a way for a family to express their inner feelings. There were certain rules as to who wore what and for how long. It was outlined in popular manuals which were staple items of a Victorian housewife to refer to so that custom was properly followed. Clothes were generally black and expressed the deepest period of mourning. Women would wear black dresses trimmed with crepe. After a certain period, the crepe could be removed. They also had specific hair combs, headpieces, hats, veils, gloves, and purses. It was a whole ensemble. Jewellery was limited and often contained a lock of hair of the deceased. Men only had to wear dark suits with black gloves, hatbands, and cravats. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes.


A widow was expected to be in full mourning for at least 2 years. She was expected to isolate herself from society and express grief for the full period of mourning. The loss of children or parents was a period of 1 year, with grandparents and siblings 6 months, aunts and uncles 2 months, great aunts and uncles 6 weeks, and first cousins 4 weeks.

It was considered bad luck to recycle mourning clothes for another death. This meant a whole new wardrobe each time someone passed. It was a very costly process to mourn a loved one.

Post mortem photography

As a way to honour a loved one and have a physical memory of them, middle to upper-class families would have portraits painted of the deceased. Once photography was introduced, it became a more affordable option and post mortem photography became the norm. A lot of children sadly died of disease during these times and had never had a photograph taken, so this was a way the family could keep their memory alive. One of the problems with post mortem photography was the fact that you were dealing with a lifeless body. Head clamps and posing stands were created. People were put in positions and family members would pose with them in family portraits. Sometimes, the pupils of the eyes were painted black and rosy cheeks were painted on to give a more life-like appearance.


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  • Nadine 5 years ago

    I was introduced to post mortum photography a few years back. It was a fascinating custom.

  • Joseph Kapusta 5 years ago

    Related in a way to post mortem photos are portraits painted of the living and displayed after their death. I leave you with this story I found: This is from a friend who used to work as a security guard. My friend is a night person so he’s used to night shifts. Well, anyways, one night he’s working to guard a mansion and at 2:22 a door access alarm goes off from the gym room. By usual protocol, he calls 911 and has cops deal with it. The cops, two of them, meet with my friend and head to the gym room. A short while later, the cops started yelling at my friend how prank calls are a serious offense and he shouldn’t waste their time. My friend flabbergasted by the cops’ reaction, asks what’s wrong and one of the cops says that an old lady told them that she was in the house for a long time. My friend doesn’t understand what lady they’re talking about since there’s no one in that mansion. The owners left on a cruise for a month or so. They stop to stare at each other in silence and head inside the mansion. My friend swears to me it’s true. They go inside and right at the entry hall, you can see the painting of the old lady. The cops turn white and leave. My friend confused by what happened just "nopes" out of there the moment he finished his shift.
    Apparently, that was the painting of the current owner’s great-grandmother.

  • Peta Murphy 5 years ago

    Wow, very interesting

  • Peta Murphy 5 years ago

    Wow, very interesting