Mourning Becomes Elective: Musings on mourning customs

1881 mourningI have been a church organist for many years and have played for many funerals. There has been a steady trend towards renaming funeral services “celebrations of life.” I have told my daughter that I do not wish my life to be celebrated: no “friends to dress in bright colors.” No playing pop music favorites of the deceased. Emphatically, no balloons.

“I wish to be mourned,” I told her, “relentlessly. Full mourning for a year; half mourning thereafter.”

It was this joking pronouncement that led me to the opening line of my neo-Edwardian story “Crape,” about mourning conventions gone horribly wrong:

“I wish,” said Miss Ashby-Phipps to the room in general, “to be mourned relentlessly.”

She ignored the murmured protests from her listeners that she would outlive them all, going on, “None of this modern crape-band-on-the-sleeve nonsense. I expect full black-glove mourning for a year and a day. Half- and quarter-mourning after that,” she added crisply, giving a meaning glance to her niece and heir, Margaret. Margaret smiled and nodded as she was accustomed to do with her Aunt Phipps, a lady as distinguished for her decisiveness as for her fortune.

“Perhaps you think such things are all nonsense,” said that lady. “However, without regulation, we should all be barbarians. Societal conventions are put there for a purpose and,” said Aunt Phipps, eyeing Margaret coldly, “one neglects them at one’s peril.”

The Victorian way of death was hedged about with rituals of Byzantine complexity. For example, widows were required to wear full mourning (crape, veils, no shiny fabrics or jewelry) for one year; some shiny fabrics and jet jewelry could be introduced in the second year. Eventually a widow could wear half-mourning of mauve or grey, with touches of white. The dead were followed to the grave by multiple coaches, horses, and attendants. These conventions did not come cheaply. This 1780 bill for a lady’s funeral illustrates some of the costs.

That font of helpful information, Cassell’s Household Guide for 1869, not only gave step-by-step instructions on procedures to be followed when a death occurred (“Death in the Household”), it gave tips on funeral costs. Sandwiched between useful articles on “Butter-Making and Preserving” and “Point Lace Work—a Parasol Cover” is a detailed list of eight funerals ranging in price from £3 5s to £53, enumerating the level of quality and numbers of services available in each price range.

£3 5s bought you a patent carriage, with one horse; smooth elm coffin, neatly finished, lined inside, with pillow, &c.; use of pall, mourners’ fittings, coachman with hat-band ; bearers; attendant with hat-band, &c.

£53 purchased the works unless you were the Duke of Wellington:Hearse and four horses, two mourning coaches with fours, twenty-three plumes of rich ostrich-feathers, complete velvet covering for carriages and horses, and an esquire’s plume of best feathers; strong elm shell, with tufted mattress, lined and ruffled with superfine cambric, and pillow; full worked glazed cambric winding-sheet, stout outside lead coffin, with inscription plate and solder complete; one and a half inch oak case, covered with black or crimson velvet, set with three rows round, and lid paneled with best brass nails; stout brass plate of inscription, richly engraved four pairs of best brass handles and grips, lid ornaments to correspond; use of silk velvet pall; two mutes with gowns, silk hat-bands and gloves; fourteen men as pages feathermen, and coachmen, with truncheons and wands silk hat-bands, &c.; use of mourners’ fittings; and attendant with silk hat-band, &c. [Mutes were attendants who looked sorrowful and never spoke. Feathermen carried trays of black-dyed ostrich plumes.]

These estimates are lower than those published in the 1843 Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Enquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns.  Titled corpses could not have a proper funeral for less than £800-1,500. A burial for the middle class cost about £100, while a working-class funeral cost £5; and a pauper’s might set the Parish back only 13 shillings.

A pauper’s funeral was considered a disgrace. Friendly and Burial Societies were one way to defray the expenses of a “proper” funeral. People paid a small sum into the fund, ensuring that they would at least have a few amenities such as a modest hearse instead of a handcart. But the poor could still rarely afford mourning clothes. I was fascinated to learn that The Dockers Union, London, purchased a simple black wool dress, shawl and bonnet, which they loaned out to widows from 1880 to 1914. (This was formerly owned by The Museum of Labour History which is now The People’s History Museum, Limehouse, London.) Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History, Lou Taylor, 1983

Social pressures to follow the mourning practices of the upper classes were often overwhelming:

Bertram Puckle tells of…a mere girl, married to a house-painter. Within a year of the event the husband fell from a ladder and was killed. The poor little widow bought a cheap black dress and a very simple black straw hat to wear at the funeral. Her former employee met the girl a few days later swathed in crape, her poor little face only half visible under the hideous widow’s bonnet, complete with streamers and a veil… She explained that her neighbours and relations had made her life unbearable because she did not want to wear widow’s weeds. “They said that if I would not wear a bonnet, it proved we were never married.” Funeral Customs, their Origin and Development, Bertram Puckle, 1990

Some objected, not only to the cost, but to the waste and feigned grief.

Real affliction, real grief and solemnity, have been outraged, and the funeral has been “performed.” The waste for which the funeral customs of many tribes of savages are conspicuous, has attended these civilised obsequies; and once, and twice, have I wished in my soul that if the waste must be, they would let the undertaker bury the money, and let me bury the friend.

This was written by Charles Dickens, who also wrote this immortal passage, in Martin Chuzzlewit:

 The whole of Mr Mould’s establishment were on duty within the house or without; feathers waved, horses snorted, silk and velvets fluttered; in a word, as Mr Mould emphatically said, ‘Everything that money could do was done.’  the laying out of money with a well-conducted establishment, where the thing is performed upon the very best scale, binds the broken heart, and sheds balm upon the wounded spirit. Hearts want binding, and spirits want balming when people die; not when people are born. Look at this gentleman to-day; look at him.’

‘An open-handed gentleman?’ cried Mrs Gamp, with enthusiasm.

‘No, no,’ said the undertaker; ‘not an open-handed gentleman in general, by any means. There you mistake him; but an afflicted gentleman, an affectionate gentleman, who knows what it is in the power of money to do, in giving him relief, and in testifying his love and veneration for the departed. It can give him,’ said Mr Mould, waving his watch-chain slowly round and round, so that he described one circle after every item; ‘it can give him four horses to each vehicle; it can give him velvet trappings; it can give him drivers in cloth cloaks and top-boots; it can give him the plumage of the ostrich, dyed black; it can give him any number of walking attendants, dressed in the first style of funeral fashion, and carrying batons tipped with brass; it can give him a handsome tomb; it can give him a place in Westminster Abbey itself, if he choose to invest it in such a purchase. Oh! do not let us say that gold is dross, when it can buy such things as these, Mrs Gamp.’

Periodically there were protests and calls for reform

 The Rev. Frederick Lawrence, the energetic Rector of S. Mary Castlegate, York, has been the mainspring of the [Funeral and Mourning Reform] Association, since its foundation, at his instance, a year or two ago. Mr. Lawrence felt, and rightly felt, that the funeral and mourning paraphernalia of the day was a disgrace to civilization and Christianity, to say nothing of common sense. The pen of Charles Dickens and the brush of George Cruikshank have with grim humour depicted the hideous mockeries which positively add a new terror to the grave, and their delineations have long since paved the way for a sweeping reform in the ceremonies attendant upon decease and sepulture. It is only with repugnance almost amounting to horror that one can contemplate those ceremonies and practices. First, a massive coffin, of material well-nigh indestructible, and particularly calculated to defeat the main object of burial, viz., the dissolution of the corpse as speedily as possible through contact with its mother earth. Second, a hideous hearse, with its attendant mourning coaches, ghastly and stuffy to a degree, and admirably adapted to the purpose of£ retaining infections of all kinds, to the “honour” of the dead, and the jeopardy of the living! Third, a gruesome array of weighty palls and nodding plumes, of hatbands, scarves, and gloves, all to give a mock glorification to the poor remains of mortality, and to gratify the mingled vanity and greed of survivors. Fourth, the hired mourners. And oh! what a pitiable simulation of grief have we here. There is the expression of unutterable woe, it is true; but never was a mask more false, nor an affectation so transparently unreal. Fifth, the alcohol; and is not this the worst of all? When the solemn work is over, and the scarves and gloves are flung aside, then commence the orgies….And all this under the plea of “mourning,” and with the pretence of doing “honour” to the unconscious shell of a human being! THE CHURCH PORTRAIT JOURNAL: A MONTHLY PAPER FOR CHURCH PEOPLE. 1879

 The hatbands, scarves and gloves mentioned were traditional gifts to mourners. 17th and 18th century mourners received gifts of gloves, sashes (sometimes cloaks), and mourning rings when they attended funerals. These were paid for out of the deceased’s estate. A Boston clergyman wrote that in 30 years he had gotten 2,940 pairs of funeral gloves. A physician who died in 1758 left a quart measure full of gold mourning rings, often enameled with a skull or skeleton, with the deceased’s name and dates in black or white. One clergyman’s wife collected the many black silk hatbands (the long scarves we know as “weepers” from undertakers’ top hats) given to her husband and made them into a dress.

Calls for mourning reform seemed to come along with each new war:

You refer to Annie’s mourning dresses. She wore black at the funeral, but so many deaths are now occurring at home and in the army, that black apparel is not so generally worn as formerly. It is not pleasant to wear somber black for long periods, and besides it is far costlier than before the war.” Mrs. Thomas J Anderson to Mrs. James H Anderson. Marion Ohio, Dec 8, 1863.

The identical objections were raised in 1917 by Dorothy Dix. She pointed out that “What the psychological effect, not only upon the minds of women, but upon men of the sights of thousands of women dressed in mourning is appalling to consider…[a woman who puts on a colored dress] saddens no one else with her sorrow. She stabs no other woman to the heart with a remembrance of her own loss…Her colored dress, worn when her very soul is black with mourning, is the red badge of courage.” Further, mourning is costly: “the cost of a complete mourning equipment for a well to do family would buy many liberty bonds…It is said that this war is going to be won by money…Therefore, the women of the country cannot only do a big patriotic duty, but avenge their dead by putting their money into bullets instead of crepe.” And, finally, wearing mourning is literally sickening: “That women are depressed by wearing mourning and are made sick and nervous is a well-established fact…it wrecks her own health and makes her sacrifice the living to the dead…” Dix says that “in peace times a woman may indulge herself in the luxury of costly mourning and a debauch of tears and grief, but now there is no room for either. Thousands of women who have been comfortably supported by men who were competent money-makers, are going to find themselves not only widowed, fatherless and brotherless, but forced out into the world to earn their own living….They will need to “get over” their grief as soon as possible, not foster it, and they can best do this by leaving off the insignia of death that will remind them constantly of their loss. I hope that the women of America will rise above the heathenish custom of decking themselves out in black to show that they grieve.…” Augusta [GA] Chronicle 5 December 1917: p. 5

Of course, it helped to have the highest in society supporting reforms, such as the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandria), flatly refusing to wear crape on her mourning for her son, Eddie, the late Duke of Clarence, on his death in 1892.

Yet, for all the expense, ostentation, and hypocrisy of formal mourning, there was, at its core, something useful. A friend of mine lost her husband very suddenly. Afterwards she said that she hadn’t wanted the usual funeral rituals, but now she realized that they served a social purpose and there are reasons some of them have survived.

This 1895 passage points out one of the benefits of mourning:

Mrs. Jones now interposed. She said: “Our friend Mrs. Brown is right, of course, when she says that mourning customs are open to abuses, and sometimes they may be both unnecessary and unadvisable. But in a modified form they may be of value. I suppose all customs in their simple forms originated in a want of human nature, and I can well believe that the custom of wearing black is no exception to the rule. A proof of this occurred not long ago in my own experience. Two friends of mine, a gentleman and his wife, were strongly convinced of the absurdity and uselessness of the practice of wearing mourning, and they made a promise to each other that if either died the other should continue the ordinary attire, and wear no black. After a time the wife, who was quite a young lady, unexpectedly and suddenly died, and in obedience to the understanding between them the husband made no alteration whatever in his dress. But it was astonishing how much pain he had to endure through friends coming up to him and making remarks about his wife, asking how she was, and sending messages to her. If in his dress there had been even the slightest sign that he was a mourner, he would have been spared distressing explanations. After a time he was obliged to confess that, though established customs might easily be abused, in their simpler forms they might serve as a protection. We may disapprove of the abuse and exaggeration of the practice of wearing black, therefore, without entirely condemning it when it is carried out reasonably.” The Leisure Hour, Volume 44, William Haig Miller, James Macaulay, William Stevens 1895

A person in mourning was treated gently, with deference. Everyone knew where they stood. At least in the middle and upper classes, it would be at least a year before the widow accepted invitations and went out again in society. Frank discussions of the Edifying Deathbed or the Loved One’s Last Moments or the Floral Tributes at the funeral were expected and, in some cases, relished.

As I wrote in “Crape”:

“Mourning allows the most casual passer-by to deduce and sympathize with your loss,” he mused. “It is a veritable palette of grief, shading from crepuscular confections reflective of the blackest despair through a mild mauve melancholy for an elderly cousin, down to the merest soupçon of regret for some bowing acquaintance. It explains, it excuses, it absolves…”

We have not only forgotten how to mourn; we have forgotten how to treat the grieving. Those who sorrow are told to get out, have a good time, put on a happy face “because that’s what s/he would have wanted.” They are medicated as if grief is a sickness requiring treatment. We shrink from the sight of the tears of the bereaved. I suppose that we non-mourning moderns would find that there was something to be said for the custom of burning the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. After all, it meant one didn’t have to look at the widow moping about or tell her to “get over it” two weeks after the funeral. It is strange how quickly we expect people to forget.  Mourning has become elective, not essential.

I propose that we bring back some recognized symbol of mourning: black armbands; a black necklace or ring; full, black-glove mourning. Or simply wearing black from top to toe.  Something to signal that you should not admonish that despondent gentleman to “turn that frown upside down!” when he has just lost his wife of 60 years.

And, as I have previously remarked, I wish to be mourned. Relentlessly.

You’ll find much more on mourning in my new book, The Victorian Book of the Dead available at the link or at online retailers and for Kindle.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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