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In the period before medical death certificates, viewing and touching the corpse was commonplace - to confirm identity and that the person was dead. Children were not spared from viewing the dead, and in poor homes would have shared the room and even the bed with a dying sister or brother.

Death surrounded the Victorians - at home and in the streets. Aristocratic funeral processions were major sights, often involving all the elements of a baronial funeral, including plumes, ushers, countless attendants and elaborate hearses. Extravagant funerals had become the norm well before the reign of Queen Victoria. The determination to secure a 'decent' burial for family members was 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.

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria went into deep mourning, increasing the public's demand for formal mourning attire such as black crepe clothing and jet jewellery. Mourners, including children and servants, were expected to adhere to heavily regulated mourning periods.

In Australia, funerals were less extravagant and mourning rituals less strict - especially in rural areas. From the 1870s, funeral reforms in both Britain and Australia resulted in a move toward more modest and cheaper funerals, and encouraged recycling or adapting old clothing for the mourning period rather than purchasing new outfits.

The First World War brought an end to elaborate Victorian-style funeral and Christian mourning rituals in the British Commonwealth. The huge numbers of soldiers who died and were buried overseas as well as the resultant collective grief made grand funerals and individual displays of mourning at home seem inappropriate and self-indulgent.

Victorian mourning attire

The people of Australia have settled upon no prescribed periods for the wearing of mourning. Some wear them long after their hearts have ceased to mourn. Where there is profound grief, no rules are needed, but where the sorrow is not so great, there is need of observance of fixed periods for wearing mourning. Australian etiquette Melbourne: People's Publishing Co., 1886.

For women during the Victorian period, mourning attire included every conceivable article of clothing as well as hair accessories, stationery, umbrellas, fans, and purses. Men often added only a black hatband or gloves to their normal attire. The material most associated with mourning was black silk crepe, which was almost exclusively manufactured by one company, Courtauld's. Crepe had a flat, lifeless quality - lustrous materials like furs, satin and velvet were forbidden. Wearing colourful or flattering clothes was considered callous and even immoral. It was considered unlucky to have crepe in the house after the proscribed period had ended - making each subsequent bereavement an extravagant, expensive occasion.

Widows were expected to mourn for two years and were allowed to wear grey and lavender only in the last six months of 'half-mourning'. Children in middle-class Victorian families were required to wear full black mourning clothes for one year after the death of a parent or sibling. Girl's dresses were often modelled on their mother's mourning dress.

Memento mori ('remember death')

...it was some time before we grasped the fact that father was dead. Snivelling a little, we crept out and found mother and auntie in the laundry where they were poling with long sticks at a copperful of black dye into which every garment mother possessed, with the possible exception of her corsets, had just been thrown. Eugenie McNeil, in E Crawford, A Bunyip close behind me: Recollections of the Nineties, (Melbourne, Hawthorn Press, 1972, p 4)

Mementos such as lockets, brooches and rings, usually containing a lock of hair and photograph, functioned as tangible reminders of the deceased. They were particularly effective memorials in Australia, where loved ones may have died and been buried far away. Locks of hair were also sentimental gifts from the living, becoming powerful keepsakes after their death.

Photograph of a deceased loved one
Photographs of a deceased loved one served as substitutes and reminders of the loss. The deceased was commonly represented as though they were peacefully sleeping rather than dead, although at other times the body was posed to look alive. Image: Bill Blanton
© Bill Blanton

Post-mortem photography

What a comfort it is to possess the image of those who are removed from our sight. We may raise an image of them in our minds but that has not the tangibility of one we can see with our bodily eyes. Flora A Windeyer, in a letter to Rev. John Blomfield, November 1870

Photographs of a deceased loved one served as substitutes and reminders of the loss. Families who could not afford to commission painted portraits could arrange for a photograph to be taken cheaply and quickly after a death. This was especially important where no photograph already existed. The invention of the Carte de Visite, which enabled multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that images could be sent to distant relatives. The deceased was commonly represented as though they were peacefully sleeping rather than dead, although at other times the body was posed to look alive.