Why were the Victorians obsessed with death?

Posted: 16/03/2018

When you consider the Victorian era, it seems to be associated with death, torment and straight up creepiness. Victorian society was so obsessed with death that it is regarded to have had its own death culture, separate to what was just traditionally British in the years prior and the years following the era.

The Victorians are famed for glamorising death and murder. When it came to the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper, British newspapers chose to create a sense of fantasy around his terrible crimes which filled the air with a strange mix of fear and excitement. The way the papers reported on it made it appear like a weekly story which the public could follow.

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As a society, the Victorians had an outwards and dramatic way of displaying grief and a particular etiquette and rituals for coping with death. Some rituals were originally put in place to make sure people were no buried alive. The period of time which was waited out before burial was extended in the Victorian era because of this fear which meant that people spend more time with the corpse. It was tradition to bury a person with a string attached to a bell which was above the ground by which they could ring for help – an assigned person would watch the grave for an amount of time.

Exposure to Death

There are plenty of reasons which could be given to answer as to why Victorians appeared to be obsessed with death. Without modern medicine, it is safe to say they were surrounded by death much more than we are today. In fact, the average lifespan was half of what it is today in the UK.  With people dying regularly and usually dying in the home, people were more exposed to the horrors of death without medical aid.

Today, we tend to separate the home from death and most people die in a hospital or in a hospice. Back then, death looked them right in the face more often than we can imagine – especially with the larger families they had back then coupled with poor living conditions and lack of medical resources.

The Influence of Queen Victoria

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As you may be aware, Queen Victoria became obsessed with death following the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died at the young age of 42. Victoria dedicated the next 40 years of her life, until her own death, to wearing only black and remaining in a state of public mourning. Interestingly, she appeared to be in denial as she requested that her servants still lay out Alberts clothes just as they did during his lifetime.

The mourning rituals stemming from Victoria influenced the etiquette associated with death and funerals all across the world, not just only in Britain.

Gender

Victorian-mourning-garb

 

If we look back at the Victorian era, mourning and grief are mainly associated with women. Women were expected to wear black attire for a period of up to two years after the death of a family member – some women, like Victoria, chose to wear black until their own death if they were widows.

As well as dressing in black, women were to withdraw themselves from society and not participate in any kind of festivities. Their mirrors were covered and the piano was locked so that no music could be played or enjoyed. The door knocked was draped with black lace and many of the household items were also draped in black.

This all seems highly inconvenient, but the obsession with death could continue to manifest through the expectations placed on women. Whilst men did mourn, they were not expected to perform rituals or withdraw themselves from society because men needed to continue their everyday lives in order to provide for their family. Therefore, the patriarchy is a factor in how it was possible for the Victorians to find themselves so obsessed with death.

Keeping the dead alive

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It was not uncommon for Victorians to decorate their home with pictures of the deceased and have their possessions displayed around the family house.

In a desperate attempt to keep as much they could about the deceased alive, Victorians even went to the extent of having photos taken of the family with the dead body propped up to appear as if the person was still alive.

As well as wearing the traditional black dress, (female) mourners often wore lockets with the hair or even a tooth of the deceased inside it. It was also common to have bits of hair turned into jewellery.

In the actual funeral service, glass-top coffins became popular and the procession could view the corpse before it was buried.

In today’s world, the cost of a funeral is becoming very high and it is only increasing. The best way to avoid paying out of the nose is to opt for a prepaid funeral plan. It basically freezes today’s price, which is what you will end up paying regardless of the price of a funeral at the time.