It is a wistful image. A woman, sitting peacefully in a rocking chair, gazes reflectively into the foreground. Behind her is the obligatory wallpaper that graced the parlors of many a Victorian home. Her head rests upon lace, possibly her own handiwork, and behind is a shelf of small vials, the home-maker’s apothecary. Graceful, quiet, restive. There is only one problem—
This woman is dead.
The Victorians inherited a great deal from the Age of Enlightenment that preceded them, including a focus on rationality, a love of science, and a salon culture of politesse. However, unlike their eighteenth-century counterparts, Victorians had a horror of showing off and a sense of restraint that was nearly a religion. Nonetheless, they created a deeply complex series of mourning rituals that were anything but subtle. Mourning might last for two years, and mourning wear included elaborate gowns and hats and gloves. Ornate jewelry, woven from the hairs of the dead, became an unusual art form—and perhaps strangest of all, momento-mori photography (or taking photos of the dead) was all the rage.
Why go through all this trouble? Only decades before, the body would be wrapped and laid in a churchyard, dirt scattered directly on top of the remains. In the nineteenth century, however, a sudden vigorous interest in coffins and in public cemeteries arises, and with it a peculiarly popular craze: permanently memorializing and displaying the dead (or parts of them). From the clothing and jewelry to the new technology of photography, the Victorians turned death into a community event—not only among mourners, but among the clothiers, tailors, artisans, and curious viewers of the funeral parade.
I am presently working on a book called Death’s Summer Coat. Chapter 4 takes a long look at the Victorians and their versions of momento-mori. Interested in more? There are fabulous websites available, including Thanatos Archive and the Burns Archive. There is also a fascinating article on the Huffington Post UK, and many, many wonderful articles and books. I am pleased to be exploring a good proportion of them as we speak.
There are many approaches to death–it is often instructive not only to look at the mourning rituals of other cultures, but of our own, past and present.