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The following is a short article giving a little info on Victorian Funeral customs in England. In Canada and the United States, funerals were often less extravagant and mourning rituals less strict, especially in rural areas and among the poor. However England was considered to be a leader of style and good taste at that time and many of the English customs found their way to North America.
During the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 people had a attitude toward death that by the standards of today may seem a little grotesque. It is however important to keep in mind that the world at that time was a very different place and the customs and rituals of the times were a direct result of the environment. The Victorians were surrounded by death all the time. The mortality rate for the young was very high and most people died in their homes, surrounded by family and friends. Unlike today the corpse stayed in the home until burial. In cold climates like the Northern United States and Canada the corps may have had to be kept in a cold room (often the parlor) for weeks or even months until spring when the ground was no longer frozen.
In the early Victorian period before medical death certificates were required by law, viewing and handling the dead was commonplace. With no Doctor in attendance it was up to the family to confirm that the person was indeed dead. Also with no undertaker or embalming the family would have to prepare the body for burial. The dead would often have to be washed and dressed in preparation for burial. Even children were involved with the dying and dead, in poor homes they often shared the room and even the bed with a dying brother or sister. This close contact with the sick and the dead often lead to the spreading of the illness from one family member to another.
All this close contact with death plus the strong religious views of the time created a very different attitude toward death than we have today. From today's point of view the Victorians would seem to celebrate death. This is of course not to say they were happy about the situation, they simply had to find a way to cope with the reality of the world they lived in.
A Victorian funeral was often an extraordinary sight filled with pomp and ceremony. They often involved all the elements of a royal funeral, It was led by various foot attendants: pall bearers, feather men, pages and mutes. The determination to secure a 'decent' burial for family members was a characteristic of all classes in Victorian society, even if it meant hardship for the surviving family members. The ultimate disgrace was to be assigned a pauper's grave. Many lower class family's planned ahead and saved money for funerals. They wanted to ensure that if a death happened in the family they would be able to have a grand funeral.
Extravagant funerals had become popular well before the reign of Queen Victoria.
However the rise of what we today might call the middle class created the wealth necessary for the general population to indulge in such expensive rituals.
The first coach in the procession was the hearse pulled by one to six black horses with black ostrich feather plumes on their heads. The hearse was black, with glass sides, and it often had lots of silver and gold decoration. A canopy of black ostrich feathers covered the hearse. Inside the hearse lay the coffin surrounded with flowers. The flowers had the duel purpose of being decorative and hiding the smell of the dead body. It coffin was to be highly polished, and have expensive metal work and a inscribed Coffin plate (Casket Plaque). Sometimes the coffin was covered with cloth that was attached to it with brass, silver or gilt-headed nails, black, purple or dark green being the most common. The rest of the coaches contained mourners.
The procession made its way from the house of the deceased along main roads to the cemetery. Upon arrival at the cemetery the procession may have stopped at a chapel. The mourners entered the chapel and then the coffin was carried in and laid on a bier. After the funeral service, the coffin was lowered through the floor into the crypt, or the ceremony moved outside to the place of burial.
The First World War was the final nail in the coffin of the elaborate Victorian-style funeral. The elaborate funerals had started to decline slowly in popularity in the 1880s. This was most likely brought about by the ever declining mortality rates and the rise in public health laws regulating not only the funeral business but regulating death itself. Death was no longer something that ocured in a vacuum, the State had become involved by requiring things like Death Certificates from physicians. The registering of a death might not seem like a significant event to us today but it signaled the start of the process that would eventually see the family completely removed from the process of death. Most people today have little or no contact with death due to the modern governmental and industrial mechanisms that have taken over.
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Ancestors At Rest reminds you that when looking for death records for your family tree online to be careful when spelling interment. It's not intermet, internment, inturnment or internmet. Another common one is cemetery, not cemetary or cematary.
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Genealogy is the study of family pedigrees, the descent of a person or family from an ancestor, generation by generation.