Given the high possibility of premature death during that era, this morbid fixation shouldn’t be that surprising. Dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases caused by unsanitary conditions were rampant. Explosions and toxic fumes from gas lighting and boilers were common. Children’s toys were decorated with lead paint; the infant mortality rate was high. Due to the arsenic used to create a popular shade of dark green, not even the wallpaper was safe.
Listed below are some of the interesting and unusual customs and superstitions concerning death during the Victorian era.
In the event of a death at home, the customs of the day dictated that all clocks were to be stopped and all curtains drawn. During that time, it was believed that the spirit of a dead person could become trapped inside a looking glass, so all mirrors were immediately covered with dark cloth. A wreath made of laurel leaves and tied with black ribbons was hung on the front door so the neighborhood would know that a death had occurred.
When it came time to remove the body, the casket was carried out feet first, so the dead person’s spirit could not look back into the house and possibly summon another family member to join him or her. Photographs of living family members were laid face down to prevent the spirit from possessing those still-living relatives.
After the invention of daguerreotype photography in 1839, some families opted to have their dead loved ones photographed. Often, this photo was the only one they had of their lost family member. Sometimes the deceased were posed in as lifelike a position as possible and photographed with living family members; other times the picture was taken with the body in repose on a sofa, or lying in a casket.
Some people believe that that the Victorians employed a kind of “posing stand” to prop up a body as though it was standing upright, while others claim that the stand was used to hold living people still during the long and complicated photography process. While the stand can clearly be seen in some of these old pictures, the subjects look very much alive to me.
Another controversial claim is that open eyes were painted over closed lids to make the dead look more lifelike. This is something else that may or may not be true, but it is known that light-colored eyes did not photograph well, and the pupils were retouched with varying degrees of skill. This was also done when a photo started to fade.
Check out some of the photos here, and draw your own conclusions.
Another way the Victorians honored and remembered their dead was to create beautiful works of art with locks of their loved one’s hair. After the lengthy mourning period women would create rings, bracelets, watch fobs, and brooches with the carefully preserved hair. Hair could also be sent out to artists who specialized in hair jewelry.
The Victorian era produced some of the most beautiful marble monument carvings, painstakingly worked by hand by highly skilled craftsmen. The images carved into the marble were not only pleasant to look at, they symbolized certain aspects of the deceased. Here are just a few of the hundreds of gravestone symbols and their meanings.
Daisy, Broken Flower, Tree Stump, or Rosebud: premature death
Pine Cone: regeneration
Lotus: renewal of life
Lily of the Valley: innocence, purity
Wheat: long life
Upside-down Torch: extinguished life
Clasped Hands: a farewell, matrimony
The mortsafe was a heavy iron cage-like construction that was fitted over the top of a fresh grave, and was mainly used in Scotland.
Contrary to popular belief, the mortsafe was not a means to prevent a supposed zombie or vampire from escaping its grave. It was used as an added measure of protection against grave-robbers, also known as Resurrection Men. At the time, medical schools had a great need for fresh corpses to use for dissection and study, and little attention was paid as to their source. For a man with a shovel and a strong constitution, grave robbing proved to be a lucrative industry.
The mortsafe was something only the rich could afford. Sometimes it was left in place as a permanent fixture of the grave, but it was most commonly removed after a few weeks, when the body would be in an advanced state of decay and no longer useful for medical research.