Hello, Fellow History Lovers!
Most of us have experienced mourning the loss of someone near and dear to our hearts. Have you ever wondered what mourning a loved one would have looked like during the Victorian era? Let’s start with the difference between mourning and grief. Mourning pertains to the very public display of grief after a loss. Grief, as we all know, never goes away, we learn to live with it.
Mourning traditions have changed significantly from the Victorian era to 2023. Many of those differences result from changes of culture, technology, and society as a whole. In the 1800’s, there were strict etiquette rules to follow during mourning such as the type of clothing to wear, accessories that must be worn and some that should be avoided, and an acceptable period to mark the death of a loved one. Mourning periods were prolonged and strictly observed, often lasting for several years, especially for widows. Deceased parents and children were honored for one year; grandparents, siblings and friends (if there was an inheritance) for six months; and three months for aunts and uncles.
The depth of mourning was indicated by the color of clothing, with black being predominant. Grey, white, and purple were acceptable in “lesser” mourning periods. Black veils, gloves, and bonnets, also known as “widow’s caps,” all signified mourning status. Bright jewelry had to be put away, but women commonly wore pieces made of jet, a coal-like black stone.
In The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette written by Mrs. E.B. Duffey in 1877, she dedicated a chapter to mourning and advised “The deepest mourning is that worn by a widow for her husband. It is worn for two years, sometimes longer. Widow’s mourning for the first year consists of solid black woolen goods, collar and cuffs of folded untrimmed crepe, a simple crepe bonnet and a long, thick, black crepe veil. The second year, silk trimmed with crepe, black lace collar and cuffs, a shorter veil may be worn, and in the last six months gray, violet, and white are permitted. A widow should wear the hair perfectly plain if she does not wear a cap, and should always wear a bonnet, never a hat.”
The bereaved were expected to completely withdraw from social life. Any sign of joy was frowned upon, which in today’s world seems extreme considering that sometimes small moments of joy can get us through the day.
Since news traveled a lot more slowly in the late 1800’s, newspaper announcements were common to announce the death of a person. Obituaries included the person’s name, age, cause of death, and funeral details. A personal invitation to a funeral was also customary. Today, obituaries are still common, but thanks to the power of technology we can easily share and find information in an instant. We also tend to “celebrate” the person’s life and accomplishments instead of observing “deep mourning.”
Thankfully, in 2023 we are more forgiving of social appearances after loss. Dress codes are often included in the obituary. I have worn sports jerseys and colorful outfits to a wake since that is what the person would have wanted. Whatever the customary practices might be in life after death, one thing will remain the same, heartbreak.