Public Displays of Mourning — the Victorians and Edwardians

A dead boy in his bed surrounded by flowers

Public Displays of Mourning — the Victorians and Edwardians

We live in a day and age where sex tapes make people celebrities, and the thought of our mortality makes people uncomfortable. There was once a time when the opposite was true. People were aware of the shadow of death, and mourning was a public activity. Their sex lives, on the other hand, were never spoken about in public or private.

“Rules and regulations of what was proper were decided in every aspect of life, including that of proper death procedures and funeral rites,” Victorian Era says. “It was considered quite a scandal if any of the rituals were broken.”

Victorian Traditions

A woman in mourning dress beside a tombstone
Woman in mourning dress

Funeral parlors were not yet common, although the profession of funeral director was in existence.  It wasn’t until the 1890s that “people began to see the importance of what many viewed as the ‘modern funeral,’ and more people accepted the practice of moving a funeral from the home ‘funeral parlour’ to a professional setting,” the Funeral Source says.

Dead were kept at home until they were buried, and embalming also took place in the home.  It wasn’t until after 1890 when embalming was performed offsite.

Family and close friends kept the body company and attended to the needs of the bereaved.  Bodies were dressed in the clothing the person wore in life and were made to look as peaceful as possible.

Crepe was used to decorate doors or door knobs. This crepe served a purpose. It told visitors that the household was in mourning and that the doorbell should not be rung nor should anyone knock. Visitors were to remain quiet and respectful at all times.

Also as a sign of respect, lighting was dimmed, and mirrors and windows were covered.

The Funeral

Before the funeral, only close friends and family members were to call, but others could send notes or flowers. Close family and friends were the people responsible for arranging the funeral.

Invitations were needed, and it was a breach of etiquette to be invited to a funeral and not attend. Interment, however, was private if the immediate family requested it.

Funeral services began in the home and then moved to the church. The casket was closed at home and never again opened. Women were thought too emotional to attend church services and remained at home.

Victorian pall bearers were always close in age to the deceased, even if the deceased was a child.

Victorians Followed a Dress Code

An ad for Jay's dressmakes and milliners, mourning clothing
“Reasonable estimates are also given for household mourning, as a great savings to large or small families.”

Victorians had a specific dress code for mourning. The rules dictated not only wardrobe, but what hats, gloves and jewelry could be worn.

The amount of time a person spent in mourning was determined by her relationship to the departed. Wives, for example, were expected to wear mourning dress for two years, but a husband only needed to mourn for a year.

Mourning dress was black, and people gradually returned color back into their wardrobes.

Why black? It was symbolic of sorrow and told the world the wearer was sorrowful without her saying a word. Also, brightness was seen as disrespectful to the dead.

Part of the economy centered on mourning with businesses specializing in clothing and black crepe. Articles in fashion magazines instructed women on how they could dress stylishly and still abide by the rules.

Rules for Behavior

There also were rules for how the bereaved could and could not behave in society. How many or how few rules depended on the family’s stage of mourning. Deep-mourning was followed by half-mourning. In the early days of deep-mourning, many people remained in seclusion and didn’t leave home for any reason.

Deaths in your spouse’s family were mourned as if they were in your own. Servants wore mourning dress for their employer’s family.

During the mourning period, all cards or stationary sent by mourners was decorated with a black border. It also was common to send memorial cards to friends and relatives who did not hear about the loss through a newspaper death notice.

Edwardian Modifications

Mourning rituals during the Edwardian period were similar to those of the Victorian era, but by the 20th century, some rules had laxed.

  • Bereaved women were allowed to attend funerals.
  • The rules for mourning dress relaxed somewhat, especially for women. A wife could now enter half-mourning after 21 months, and during deep-mourning clothing wasn’t as heavy.
  • Wives could enter society again after three months, but were not to dance until after 12 months.
  • Mourning cards were no longer sent.
  • Port-mortem photos fell out of fashion.

World War I Changed Mourning

A family in mourning during World War One
A family in mourning during World War One

World War I brought a quick end to the elaborate rituals.

Circumstances often prevented the old rituals from continuing.  They were no longer practical, and some people felt they were inappropriate during wartime.

Rules for women’s clothing were once again simplified. The mourning period for a husband shortened to 18 months, but the period for brothers, sons and nephews was extended.

As the rules relaxed, people were able to decide according to their individual preference how intensely they wanted to mourn. Still, into the 1920s, it was customary to wear black.


Updated: 14 October 2020
Melina Druga
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Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

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