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Victorian Death and Mourning

Posted by Sara on May 6, 2009

angelBank Holiday Monday. While most of Brighton was busy rioting away on the seafront we  were peacefully ensconced up in the blissfully tranquil Woodvale cemetery and crematorium for an illustrated talk on Death and Mourning in the Victorian era.The venue was the Extra-Mural Gothic Chapel, built in the 1850’s and our speaker was the wonderfully informative Sarah Tobias.

windowthumbnailUnlike today, death was very much a matter of fact part of every day life in Victorian England and with big families and high mortality rates, many people were often in constant mourning. Mourning itself was an intricate and symbolic affair filled with ritual and lasting for up to two years (Queen Victoria herself was in mourning for forty years). As such it spawned a whole industry dedicated to remembering the dead – including clothing, photos, jewellery, death masks and casts of limbs. The talk was illustrated with slides featuring all aspects of Victorian undertaking, including dress fashions, accessories and memento mori. For added atmosphere we were joined half way through by two mysterious figures kitted out for the occasion in full Victorian mourning dress.

We were told about some of the fascinating aspects of this part of  Victorian life, as well as some of the more unsavoury – like the rise of the resurrectionists who made their living robbing graves to supply the medical industry (That dastardly duo Burke and Hare being a famous example) .Particular reference was also made to local history and Extra Mural cemetery itself. In the mid 19th century the dead were buried in local churchyards but disease and overcrowding led to the creation of large rural cemeteries. These new cemeteries, of which Brighton’s is one of the most beautiful, were called Necropolis – City of the Dead and were laid out as cities complete with avenues and streets.

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We learnt about the two stages of mourning, and the etiquette involved in visiting the dead -including the importance of the Victorian death bed and why the use of narcotics was discouraged so as to keep the dying more lucid – in the hope their last dying words would contain something revealing and enlightening. Bodies could be laid out in the home parlour for up to 12 days (though this practice was frowned on for health reasons and 5 days deemed more sanitary) and during this time, straw would be strewn on the road outside to muffle the noise of the horses. The correct etiquette in dress was very important; though men  need only worry about the correct width of hat band, women were required to be cloaked top to toe in dull black fabric for at least a year and a day, with nothing allowed to shine lest the souls of the departed catch their reflection and become confused.

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This was a fascinating talk full of interesting and revealing insights into Victorian life. There is another date scheduled for this talk on 16th May. Coming up in July, Sarah will be conducting a guided walk through the Victorian part of the Extra Mural cemetery. This cemetery is a beautiful place steeped in history and the grounds are vast and enchanting – full of grand mausoleums, beautiful stone statues and some nice examples of 19th century Egyptian-style funerary monuments  – all surrounded by ancient trees and wonderful wildlife. The Great Cemetery tour will be taking place on July 5th at 11am from the Bear Road entrance.

If you can’t wait tilll then there’s the Original Brighton Cemetery Tour Special taking place Surndays 10th, 17th and 24th May as part of the Fringe Festival. Starts at 1.30pm at Woodvale Lodge, off Lewes road.

For more information about what’s going on at a cemetery near you – click here.

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2 Responses to “Victorian Death and Mourning”

  1. […] was snapped on Friday whilst at the Brompton Cemetery in London. Thee Nook’s excellent post on Victorian burials inspired me to dig through the photos that I took. When I was studying urban planning, I used to […]

  2. […] while back, I was lucky to attend a fascinating talk on Death and Mourning in the Victorian era, hosted by Sarah Tobias at the beautiful Extra-Mural Gothic Chapel in Woodvale […]

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