Victorian Rules For The End Of Life ~ A Victorian Celebration of Death ~ Mourning Cards and Funeral Cards by Studio Burke Ltd

Victorian Rules For The End Of Life ~ A Victorian Celebration of Death ~ Mourning Cards and Funeral Cards by Studio Burke Ltd

Studio Burke, makers of Fine Mourning Stationery, Memorial Cards, Funereal Stationery

Queen Victoria Mourning | Victorian Mourning Customs | A Celebration of Death
Queen Victoria, in a mourning head-dress
Carl Rudolph Sohn (1845-1908)


The Victorian society of the late 1800s was obsessed with death. 

Queen Victoria set the tone for this after the death of her husband Prince Albert. She was devastated by his passing and mourned him for the rest of her life. It is rare that one sees a picture of the Queen when she was not dressed in full mourning apparel.  

There is an unending list of rules and regulations regarding death, burials, and mourning in this era. Not to follow the rules meant that the offender was somehow immoral or dishonoring the deceased. This was so important that it did not matter if it presented a financial hardship for the poor. Many would begin saving early in life and foregoing other things to ensure that they had a good burial.

Death was a frequent visitor during the Victorian era and people began planning for it while they were young. Dying was an open and ongoing conversation.

As death approached, there was no question in regard to what the person wanted or what was expected of the family. The family knew in advance what type of coffin the dying wanted, where they wanted to be buried, and what they wanted to wear. Women frequently made their own shrouds and would even include them in their wedding dowry.

The Victorians also had a fear of being buried alive as this was not an uncommon occurrence at the time. The dying could even choose to have their coffin equipped with a bell that could be rung if they revived in the grave or poison that could be taken to ensure a quick and certain death. 

It was during this time that there was a flourishing of funeral-related businesses including coffin makers, embalmers, and gravediggers. It was also during this time that burials were moved to large parks in the country as the cities no longer had room to continue burying the dead near their homes.

Etiquette rules related to the mourning period were many and complicated. They encompassed how long one should mourn, for whom, as well as what should be worn in each phase of mourning. There were also rules about what those attending the funeral should wear and how to behave.

There were three distinct mourning periods: deep mourning or full mourning, second mourning, and half-mourning. The length of time for each period would depend on the relationship with the deceased. For example, women were to be in deep mourning for two years after their husband’s death, essentially keeping them from being comforted by others. 

Victorian Mourning Jewelry, containing a lock of hair from the deceased

There were rules of what men and women should wear in each period of mourning. Men merely had to wear black gloves, a dark suit, and a black band around their hat. There were no specific rules for children to wear black but sometimes little girls would wear white.

Gold Tooth Ring for Funeral

The rules of what one could wear in each period of mourning were much more austere for women. The dress dictated for women was uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Women were to be dressed completely in black covered in crepe, a stiff, scratchy fabric. In addition to the uncomfortable crepe, women wore crinoline petticoats also made of stiff fabric which often caught fire when they cooked. Crepe fabric was used extensively during the mourning period. It was draped across the door and hung on the doorknob. Stationery and cards were to have a black border representing the crepe.

In the Victorian era, no one would ever think of telling a mourner that they had grieved long enough or that they should hurry up and get over it. Indeed it would have been a most egregious breach of protocol to do so. But this is often what is told to mourners today. We are less tolerant of peoples’ grief. 

Many of our customs today would certainly be shocking to someone from the Victorian era, as we are generally much less formal. The Victorians would have been aghast at a funeral that was a celebration of life or a homegoing. A green funeral where the focus of the burial is on protecting the environment would have been an outrage. We still wear mourning jewelry but today it is more likely to contain the ashes of the deceased.

Over the years, we have become a society that does not want to think or talk about death. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Victorians is their openness in talking about and planning for death. It does not need to be the focus of our lives as it was then, but we do need to have more of these important conversations.

There are comparatively few of the Victorian mourning and death rituals that we still follow today. While we still wear dark colors to funerals, gone are the days when a widow would spend years dressed in black.
The Victorians had a lot of ideas on how to show respect for the dearly departed, from covering mirrors and clocks with fabric to make sure that the best possible funeral was purchased, they had the notion that a funeral was the last chance to show someone that you cared. It was during the Victorian era that mourning cards caught on in a big way, one of the few little things we still do today to honor the dead in the same ways they did.
 There was a time when the upper classes showed their status through paper products. Fine stationery, calling cards, and later cabinet cards were the realm of the wealthy for many years. The Industrial Revolution caused a sharp increase in commercial processes, but they were still expensive in the 1800s. Calling cards would announce when a person was in town, how long they planned to stay, and if they were entertaining guests (and when)- all extremely useful things to know in the days before the telephone.
The finer the card the higher your social status and these cards could be used to prove that you knew someone – useful in all kinds of situations. The process of using cards to memorialize a deceased person stems from the practice of using calling cards, both of which can be traced back to the 18th century.  When someone died their mourning card served some of these same purposes.
In death, status was still quite important. Mourning cards (also called funeral or memorial cards) were printed in elaborate designs, and later even had the departed’s photograph on the back. Cards could be embossed in gold, or they could be elegantly cut out in shapes similar to a Valentine’s Day card. The variation on mourning cards was huge and typically were quite beautiful.
A mourning card functioned as a ticket for entrance to a high profile funeral. It was proof that you were invited and were close to the family of the recently dead.
For large funerals of high status, the general public would certainly not have been allowed to attend. For highly publicized and tragic deaths like that of President Abraham Lincoln, the mourning cards were made up long after the funeral train had ceased its tour because the nation was still in such a great shock.
For those of much more average social stature, the cards were printed as part of the funerary arrangements. 
Today, funeral cards are still handed out, often as a sort of favor of the funeral instead of as a ticket. Funeral cards today are often much more personal than those in the 19th century were. Sayings, poems, scripture verses, or other anecdotes relevant to the life of the deceased can all be included.
Memorial cards are usually multi-colored and usually feature not only a photo of the departed but also a rendition of their saint or that of the namesake of their congregation. Today they are mainly used as a way to remember the dead, and their purpose as a ticket of sorts, or as a status symbol is largely gone.
Mourning Cards cards themselves were made as early as the 1700s.
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