Death and mourning in the Victorian era

The prevalence of death

High mortality rates

In Victorian times death was more of an integral part of the fabric of everyday life compared to modern western society. Deaths usually occurred at home and the mortality rate, especially amongst the poor, was much higher than it is nowadays. In London, for example, in 1830 the average male life span was:

  • Forty-four years for the better off
  • Twenty-five years for tradesmen
  • Twenty-two years for labourers
  • Out of every hundred working class children, fifty seven would be dead by the age of five.

The visibility of death

The deceased would usually stay in the home until burial. In poorer working class homes, this effectively meant the family sharing the room with their dead relative – sometimes for a week. It was the norm for everyone in the family to see the dead person in their coffin, both for reasons of identification and to help the living accept the reality of the death. To indicate a death in the household, or of a close relative, curtains would be drawn closed and mirrors covered. Displaying photographs of the deceased (in their coffin) also became popular.

Mourning rituals


Mourning advertisementAs death was more common and more visible, elaborate funerals and mourning customs developed to help people cope with bereavement and these provided some stability in an age of great change. A poor person's greatest fear – and perceived shame – was to have a pauper's funeral, paid for by the parish workhouse.

Funerals of the better off would be extravagant affairs, with horses decorated with black (white for children) ostrich plumes, professional mourners (called mutes) hired to take part in the procession, carved and gilded coffins and correct mourning clothes. Funerals became so elaborate and extravagant that reforms were brought in to curb their expense, from the 1870s.


What the relatives of the deceased wore was carefully regulated. Full mourning clothes meant dressing in black crepe: any reflective cloth, such as velvet or satin, was forbidden. All accessories, such as umbrellas and handkerchiefs - even underwear - had to be black trimmed also:

  • Widows had to remain in full or deep mourning for one to two years, although they could sometimes progress to ‘half mourning' for the last six months and wear grey or lavender instead
  • Men could get away with black hatbands or gloves
  • Even children had to adopt some form of mourning attire.

Customs also included the wearing of specially made jewellery, which often contained some of the deceased's hair. Black jet jewellery became very popular for the bereaved to wear.

Length of mourning

Behaviour during mourning was scrutinised and relatives were not expected to socialise normally. The duration of the mourning period was also laid down by custom. For example:

  • Loss of a child led to nine months' deep mourning, followed by three months' half mourning
  • Even the deaths of uncles and cousins led to prescribed mourning periods.

Failure to adhere to such customs could lead to accusations of callousness or immorality. Lower social classes tried to follow as many of these customs as they could, even if the rest of the family suffered as a result.

The example of Queen Victoria

Victoria in mourningThe British monarch provided the most extreme example of formal mourning. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the Queen wore black mourning clothes for forty years. She had Albert's room preserved as a sort of shrine, ordering hot shaving water and fresh bed linen for it every day. Most of the family photographs and paintings of her family during these years would include a painting or bust of the late Prince. A huge mausoleum was also built for him at Frogmore, in the grounds of Windsor Castle.

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