A shamelessly commercial post today: Kestrel Publications is draping itself in black in celebration–The Victorian Book of the Dead has arrived!
Anyone who has read more than a week’s worth of posts on this blog will have noticed my penchant for the grim and the grewsome. You’ll find large slabs of death in all of my non-fiction books. Perhaps this is because I grew up with family stories of Victorian death and prowled pioneer and Victorian cemeteries as a child. In school I wrote stories about mummified corpses and a paper about the history of funeral directing, complete with a fashion show.
So I thought it would be easy to dash off a little collection about Victorian death.
How wrong I was.
It is hardly a little collection. If you have glanced in from time to time you may have also noticed my tendency to be relentlessly informative. I am a completist and, as usual, I found that I had enough material for multiple books on Victorian death and mourning. The result is 360 pages, including indexes, an extensive bibliography, antique illustrations, and Jessica Wiesel’s wonderful vignettes (She based the cover art on antique funeral cards.) I suggest dipping into the book rather than reading it in one sitting.
Let’s just call it an embarrassment of liches.
Here is the table of contents to give you an idea of what The Victorian Book of the Dead contains.
Introduction: A Deathbed, by Dickens
1“I Am the Death Angel:” Victorian Personifications of Death
2 A Baby’s Coffin in the Air: Banshees, Black Dogs, and Other Harbingers of Death
3 Died of Lizards: Strange Deaths from Poisoned Stockings to Self-Decapitation
4 The Trades of Woe: Undertakers, Grave-diggers, and Dead-Men’s Razors
5 Crape: Its Uses and Abuses
6 Fashions for the Dead: Life’s Vanities Perpetuated in the Costumes of the Grave
7 The Corpse Sat Up: Wakes and Watches Gone Wrong
8 “A Ghastly Kind of Business:” Photographing the Dead
9 Fiends for a Funeral: Amateur Mourners and Funerary Extravagance
10 Grave Errors: Exploding Corpses, Flaming Formaldehyde, and Other Funeral Fatalities
11 The Picture on the Coffin Lid: Haunted Cemeteries and Other Venues of Death
12 The Habiliments of Woe: Products for Correct Mourning
13 The Inconsolable Grief Department: Fashionable Widows and Their Whims
14 The Restless Dead: Ghosts With a Purpose
15 Bone of My Bone: Collecting Corpses, Relics, and Remains
16 The Museum of Death: The Horrors of the Morgue
17 “Death never could gather a fairer flower:” Deathbeds and Sorrow.
I tried very hard to not repeat the same stale stories about widows-wear-black-for-two-years, burial alive, or bodysnatching, but wanted to uncover some of the more faddish of funeral fancies. What I found most fascinating in researching The Victorian Book of the Dead was the sheer ephemeral quality of many of these mourning rituals. These are fashions and whims that were too short-lived to appear in standard histories and left no physical artifacts behind. As far as I have been able to discover, newspapers and journals are the only sources we have for oddities like the tombstone censor, the funeral stenographer, and mourning cigarettes.
Some of the other mournful trends and stories that took my fancy were:
An inn near a Missouri cemetery designed specifically to serve mourners (A bier cellar?)
The lost art of crape threats
The many people who made shrouds and kept them for years until needed.
Cats as a menace at wakes
The special techniques for making a corpse look its best for a post-mortem photograph (hint: pins are involved.)
Widow jokes that played on the cliches of the “fashionable widow,” who is conscious of looking her best in her widow’s weeds or of the easily-consoled “merry widow.”
The amazing variety of strange deaths including one of my all-time favorite fortean stories: the Gas-Fiend Parrot, who murdered his mistress.
A death in a Victorian household called on resources from many different professions: the undertaker, embalmer, dead-man’s barber, shroud-maker, “professional widow,” and gravedigger–all of whom tell their strange stories here. You would like to think that with all this expertise, funerals and burials would run as smoothly as a coffin on casters, but a surprising number of funeral rites went desperately wrong. Exploding coffins, crushed corpses, and runaway hearses were just a few of the funerary catastrophes.
And, of course, there is plenty of fortean material to choose from when writing of death. There is a ghost haunting one of the first crematoria in the United States, a woman convinced her dead husband has been beheaded–and another head substituted for his, mystery mourners who left expensive funeral flowers on a bereaved family’s door whenever a death occurred in town, a vision of a dead girl seen by multiple witnesses at her wake, a fight with the Grim Reaper, a mysterious corpse combustion, and strange deaths from lizards to auto-decapitation.
You’ll find a mix of serious and satirical stories–it was easy to make fun of a mourning fabric for widows called “Gleam of Comfort.” There are sad and grim stories of public morgues and Potter’s Fields. There are humorous tales of how the goat ate the crape and two widowers’ dueling hats. The book finishes with heartrending accounts of deathbeds and loss.
This is by no means an encyclopaedia of Victorian mourning or a scholarly treatise–how could it be, when it is filled with stories of corpse-furniture and mourning bicycles? Let’s just call it a look at the popular culture of Victorian death that will make you glad to be alive.
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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.