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Etiquette In A Polite Society….Funerals

by Letha Berry (10/09/08).

When one thinks of Victorian Funerals we draw a picture of a polished black hearse, fine horses adorned with black ostrich plumes on their heads and ladies dressed completely in dull black with long black crape mourning veils. It is a fact that many funerals during the Victorian Era were very elaborate and were a means of showing ones status. Victorians did not fear death but rather viewed it as an integral part of life, the most important part of life as it was the passageway to reunification with loved ones that had already passed through the veil of death and were patiently waiting for them. This sentiment is echoed on many tombstones from the Victorian Era with the following inscription: “Our darling one hath gone before. To greet us on the blissful shore.”

The Victorian Era had strict rules of conduct that mandated how one was to act in a polite society. These rules also dictated the proper manner and actions that were to occur during Funerals. Having the funeral in a funeral home was something that the majority of Victorians never even considered. It was still common for the families to keep the deceased at home until the time of burial. The Funeral service maybe held either in the home or occasionally the body would be removed just prior to the service to the church they had attended during life. In the 1882 edition of “The American Etiquette And Rules Of Politeness” Chapter 32 which concentrates on Funerals begins with the following admonishment: “The saddest of all duties to perform is our duty to the dead. It becomes us to show in every possible way our sympathies for the bereaved and the deepest respect for the solemn occasion”.

For people living in the city the notification of a death and a brief statement on the departed ones life might appear in the newspaper with the inclusion of “Friends Invited” with specifics on funeral arrangements. This was considered by the Victorians as a proper invitation. As travel to the city was often a long trip for those living in rural areas it was done on a purely necessary basis and these trips usually were very infrequent. For those living in rural areas necessary notification of a death was provided in a very different means, this was accomplished by sending invitations to family and close personal friends of the deceased. If you received a personal invitation to attend a funeral it was understood that your presence was expected and failure to comply with this request was viewed as a terrible breach of etiquette. Funeral invitations were generally printed on a small fine note paper with a heavy border of black. Funeral invitations contained all necessary information as to where the funeral would take place and the place of interment. The funeral invitation at the right is from my copy of the 1882 edition of “The American Etiquette And Rules Of Politeness”.

Funeral arrangements were generally handled by either the family or a very close friend of the deceased. Funeral arrangements also included those persons who would be invited to the interment. Victorian families saved for funerals and planned for the time that a funeral would be necessary. To be assigned a pauper’s grave was viewed by Victorians as the ultimate disgrace, they also considered not being mourned properly a disgrace.

The house would be prepared; all curtains were drawn closed, all mirrors were covered with black cloth, all clocks were stopped at the time of death and a wreath of black crape was hung on the door. Also, the bell or door knob was draped in black crape and a black ribbon tied on, if however, the deceased was a child the ribbon was white. All furniture was removed usually from the parlor except for a couch. Once the deceased was washed and clothed they would be laid out in the parlor on a table or door. Many Victorians had special sheets that were only used when a death occurred. One sheet was placed on the table or door and one laid over the deceased to chest level and the hands were placed with the right hand on top. I was told by my Grandmother that this was done to signify Christ who sits at the right side of God. These funeral sheets was usually make of fine Irish linen and many times had been passed down through the family. Only close friends and family should make calls of condolence while the deceased remained at home. It was proper for the family to determine whether to accept the call and was not considered inappropriate should they decline to receive the caller. Should the call be accepted all hats were to be removed when entering the house and quite dignity was to be maintained.

Just prior to the funeral service the family and close relatives would take their final view of the lost loved one. According to Victorian custom they would not make an appearance until shortly before the funeral was to begin. If the funeral was to take place in the home either a relative or close personal friend would receive guest. Prior to seating themselves they would take their last view of the deceased. While he clergyman wanted all present to hear his words his main responsibility was to address the family and to be sure that they could hear his words. At the conclusion of the service the coffin would be closed and taken by hearse to the cemetery for burial. Pall-Bearers were intimate acquaintances of the deceased and were
chosen from those closest to the deceased age. The number of Pall-Bearers were either six or eight and took their position on either side of the hearse if walking to the cemetery. If carriages were used the order of the procession was in the following manner; carriages containing the clergyman and pall-bearers precede the hearse, nearest relatives were next, followed by more distant relatives and friends. In this aspect the Victorian funerals resemble those of today. When mourners came out to enter carriages, guest stood with uncovered heads and no words were spoken either to them or by them. Once the procession arrived at the final destination the person who officiates the burial would assist the mourners to alight from the carriages and either enter the chapel or in the instances of a grave side service to go directly to the place of interment. The Clergyman proceeded the coffin. After the interment of the deceased it was the custom to serve a lavish meal. It is interesting to note that this custom remains intact in many areas, family and friends either go to the deceased home
or if the funeral is held in a church frequently family and friends are served a meal prepared by members of the congregation.

It was also necessary for the remaining family to ensure that a proper ornate monument was erected for the deceased denoting their social status. Victorian monuments were typically made of either marble or sandstone. During the Victorian Era families frequently spent Sunday afternoons picnicking in cemeteries. This kept them close to the lost loved one and today would be viewed as morbid. If you visit an cemetery that contains Victorian monuments much can be learned from the type of monument that was chosen. Some examples are those that show clasped hands mean farewell and the hand that is holding the other was the first one to die and is holding the other person’s hand to guide the one left behind to heaven. A hand with the index finger pointing upward shows they were righteous and indicates their ascension to heaven. A broken column or tree trunk means a life cut short. Monuments with any type of draping indicate sorrow or mourning. The photo at the right is a partial picture of my husbands Great Grandmother Margaret Ann (Miller) Berry who died in 1872. It is an example of a Victorian tombstone with index finger pointing upwards.

The use of flowers were a very important element of the Victorian funeral. They would be beautifully arranged into wreaths or crosses. As many Victorian funerals were held at the deceased home and they were not embalmed the scent of the flowers were also important because they covered the smell associated with the decaying process.

It was proper for friends to call upon the bereaved family within 10 days and close acquaintances within a month. However, when making a call of condolence clothing of bright color was not to be worn, Formal notes of condolences were also sent as an expression of sympathy.

We must make a brief reference to deep mourning attire as this was also a part of the Victorian funeral. It was a outward display of their inner feelings of loss. Mourning attire centered mainly on women and widows in particular. The time a woman would remain in mourning and the type of attire she wore depended on the relationship to the deceased. For women the loss of a spouse demanded the longest deep mourning period which lasted one year or longer if chosen by the widow. During deep mourning widows wore dull black clothing which could have no luster or shine to it. Black crape was used to cover collars and cuffs. Bonnets and long veils made mainly of crape were worn. The use of crape was due to the fabric being lightweight and also because of its flat, lifeless quality with a crinkled surface. Gloves were either made of cotton or silk but crocheted gloves were also acceptable. Mourning handkerchiefs were made of a plain soft linen called cambric and were an essential accessory. They also had a black border, the border width varied the more recent the death the wider the border. They also served as a means of communicating to others unknown to them the stage of mourning they were in to ensure proper etiquette would occur. Rules of social behavior was also dictated and many social situations were curtailed for a set period of time. During deep mourning women could not attend weddings, any type of party nor any other type of social affair. For widows during the deep mourning period it was expected that they were not to leave the home, except to attend church or venture out to the yard, these required they be dress in full mourning including the wearing of a crape bonnet and heavy crape veil. While indoors many widows wore “a widows cap” made of white crape. During this period widows could not receive visitors and all correspondence was done on Mourning stationery, which had a black border on both the stationary and envelope. Once the deep mourning stage was completed it was proper for her to send out black edged cards advising friends and family that her period of heavy mourning was completed and she could now receive visitors. The photographs at the right are of a Circa 1870 Crape mourning bonnet. The mourning handkerchiefs show two different stages in the mourning ritual. Note how the border on the right is much broader which would indicate a more recent death as opposed to the very narrow border on the other. The mourning stationery is from Circa 1890. All items picture are from my personal collection of mourning items.

Children and infants up to age seventeen were not exempt from showing the loss of a loved one and would be dressed in white with black trim during the summer or gray with black trim in winter. Since a girl of seventeen was considered a woman it was expected that she would dress in full mourning upon a loved ones death.

With regards to the male they simply wore their usual dark suits along with black hat bands, gloves and cravats. Should there be any household servants they were frequently dressed in mourning attire when the head of the household passed away and occasionally for any family member of the household in which they resided.

The following is found in the 1901 edition of the “Collier’s Cyclopedia”: “We sincerely trust the old custom of wearing decent mourning for those taken away from us, will never be really discontinued in America, for it is one of those proofs of our home affections which can never be done away with without a loss of national respect.” As I attend funerals today I find that this custom is rapidly declining even among widows and close family members. I was taught as a child, and have taught my children, that the only proper clothing to be worn to a funeral is black. I find for myself that wearing anything other that black to a funeral to be unacceptable. The austere black “funeral dress” in my closet will continue to remain a part of my wardrobe.

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