House of Mourning - Victorian Mourning & Funeral Customs in the 1890s



The manner of caring for the dead is growing gradually into a closer imitation of life, and we see the dear ones now lying in that peaceful repose which gives hope to those who view them. No longer does the gruesome and chilling shroud enwrap the form. The garments worn in life have taken its place, and men and women are dressed as in life. It gives a feeling of comfort to see them thus, for it imparts a natural look which could never accompany the shroud. Flowers are strewn about the placid face, and one cannot but remember those grand lines from Bryant:

"He wraps the drapery of his couch about him,
And lies down to pleasant dreams."




It is no longer the custom to watch the dead — an excellent omission, for many of those vigils were unseemly in their mirth. Some friend or relative sits up in order to give the dead any attention necessary. The preparation of the deceased is always attended to by some kindly friends who are not members of the family, and that agonizing duty is spared the afflicted ones. It is more thoughtful for someone to volunteer to remain with the family, through the long sad night hours. It makes the grief and loneliness of the house less oppressive.


"Ring the bell softly,
There's crape on the door."

Black crape tied with white ribbon is placed upon the door or bell knob, as an indication that the dread visitor has entered the home, and borne away another prize. This should deter the caller from ringing, if it is possible to bring the attendant to the door without doing so. No one knows save those who have passed through a sorrow, how the clang of a bell, with its noisy reminder of active life, jars upon the nerves. In many houses, the hall door is left ajar, that friends may enter quietly. The kindly instincts of the heart tell them to speak softly, and be helpful and sympathetic. White crape looped with white ribbon is appropriate for a child or young person. For the aged, black crape and black ribbon are used.



From six to eight pall-bearers are chosen from the immediate friends of the deceased, and near to him in age. A very young girl may be conveyed to the hearse by girls of her own age. The duty of the pall-bearers is to carry the coffin from the house to the hearse — also from the hearse to the grave. The carriage in which they ride precedes the hearse. They are provided with black gloves and crape for the arm, when attending an elderly person, but wear white gloves and white crape for a young person. These are furnished by the family through the undertaker. Notes are sent to those who are to act in this capacity, requesting their services.



When the sad event has become known, friends call to offer their services, but the afflicted ones are not expected to see any save their most particular friends, whose duty it is to make all arrangements for the burial, consulting with those most interested about the details, receive those who call, or fulfill any and every requirement that may arise. Visits of condolence are not made until after the funeral.


The family decides about how many it wishes to invite to the interment, and provides carriages for them. A list is made out, and given to the undertaker, that he may know about how many carriages will be needed, and in what order to arrange them. Many bring their own carriages, but a certain number is provided by the family, among which are those for the pall-bearers, and clergyman, when he accompanies the dead to the grave.



Do not slight an invitation to a funeral. In cities and towns where death notices are inserted in the papers, the words "Friends invited," is sufficient invitation to the funeral. But in smaller places, it becomes necessary to issue invitations to those whose presence is desired. The invitations are engraved on small-sized note paper, with wide black border, in this manner:


"Yourself and family  are respectfully   invited to attend the funeral of Miss Stella Mason, from her late residence (number of residence or the church, if the services are to be held there may be placed here) on Wednesday, July 14th, at 11 o'clock A. M . Burial at Forest Home Cemetery." 



When the funeral is held at the house, the family do not view the remains after the people have begun to assemble. Just before the clergyman begins the services the mourners are seated near the casket, the nearest one at the head, and the others following in order of kinship. If it is possible, they are placed in a room adjoining, where the words of the service can be heard. They are thus spared the pain of giving way to their grief before strangers.

Those who are present should look at the dead before they take their seats for the service, although it is customary for the master of ceremonies (usually the undertaker) ere the coffin lid is closed, to invite all who so desire, to take a last look, ere parting forever.

The casket is never opened at the church, unless it is the funeral of a prominent man and numbers go to the church for that purpose, whom the house would not accommodate.

The family, together with those who are to be present at the interment, should be allowed to pass from the house or church before the others do.



This announcement has caused many to remain away from a funeral, lest they intrude. But it merely means that the interment will be private, only a few near friends accompanying the remains to the grave; but at the services all who choose to come will be welcome.



How tenderly these emblems of purity and beauty speak to the mourning heart. They are the tokens of sympathy sent by friends to comfort the lonely ones. Their fragrance mingles with the memory of the dear one who has gone. How fitting that their exquisite beauty and perfume should mingle with the last sad rites and consolation be found by silently breathing the heart's emotions in their blossoms, for

"They are love's last gifts; bring flowers, pale flowers."



The carriages containing the clergyman and pall­bearers come first. The hearse follows, and behind that are the carriages of the immediate mourners, in their proper order. At the place of burial the minister precedes the coffin. An undertaker who is competent, always directs all the details, so that the family have no part in any such painful duty.



The sword and sash of an army or navy officer are laid across the coffin lid, and the national flag is draped over him. When the deceased is buried with Masonic or other honors, the lodge or body to which he belongs, conducts the funeral according to its own formulas. In case the deceased is a member of an organization that expects to conduct the services, prompt notice should be sent them, so that they may have time to prepare for the funeral.


A widow's bonnet should be of heavy crape, with white crape or tarletan border, and the veil must be worn over the face. At the end of three months she may wear the veil depending from the back of her bonnet. This deep veil must be worn a year, and mourning must be worn two years. Many widows never return to gay colors, and some wear mourning the rest of their lives.

A widower wears mourning for a year. His mourning must consist of a black suit, black gloves and necktie, and a deep weed on his hat. Those are very punctilious in such matters, wear black-edged linen and black studs and cuff-buttons.

For parents or children deep mourning is worn for a year. After that, though mourning is worn another year, the material is changed, and crape is dispensed with.

A sudden transition at the end of the period of mourning from black to glaring colors, should not be made. Any change of this nature should be gradual.

Crape and soft woolen goods for brothers and sisters are worn for six months; after that gray, black and white can be adopted.

Of course there are no set limits to the period of wearing mourning, for these matters vary with the individual tastes and feelings of the wearer. Custom has laid down certain rules, which, however, can be widely departed from at will.

For uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents, black suits without crape are worn.

Children wear mourning for a parent one year. It seems an unnatural custom to put very small children into deep black, even for so near a friend as a parent. The little ones do not comprehend the loss that has come to them; why teach them the meaning of their sad garb?

Gentlemen in mourning wear weeds, whose depth is proportioned to the closeness of their relationship to the dead.  Their mourning is  adhered to only as long as the ladies of their household wear it.



A person in deep mourning does not go into society, or receive or pay visits. Neither are they found at the theater or other public places of amusement, unless it is a musical or concert, for six months. Formerly, a year's seclusion was demanded of a mourner; as also was the fashion of wearing purple, or "half-mourning" on leaving off deep black. There are some natures to whom this isolation long continued, would prove fatal. Such may be forgiven, if they indulge in innocent recreations a little earlier than custom believes compatible with genuine sorrow.

It is not in good taste to attend a funeral in gay colors. You are not expected to assume mourning, but nearly every one has a plain, dark suit that is less noticeable.



There are many who do not believe in wearing mourning at all. Such have a right to refuse it — it concerns no one but themselves. On the other hand, much can be said in favor of the custom. A mourning dress is a protection against thoughtless or cruel inquiries. It is also in consonance with the feelings of the one bereaved, to whom brightness and merriment seem almost a mockery of the woe into which they have been plunged. With such, garments of mourning are "an outward sign of an inward sorrow," and they cling to them as the last token of respect and affection which they can pay the dead.



Gentlemen or ladies in mourning use black-bordered cards and stationery for their social correspondence, until the period of mourning expires. The width of this border is a matter of taste. But if they write any letters upon business, they use plain white stationery.



Sometimes the bereaved ones send cards announcing their loss to friends. It is far less harrowing than to write, especially when one's circle of acquaintance is large. They should say very little:


In Memoriam:
Died in Chicago, March 25, 1891,
Aged 23 years.


The words "In affectionate remembrance" may be substituted for "In Memoriam."



The first calls of condolence should be made by friends within ten days of the death, but mere acquaintances should not call until the family have appeared at their place of worship. When those who are in mourning feel able to receive visits, they announce the fact by sending out black-edged cards enclosed in envelopes to those who have called upon them. This custom is not general, although a very excellent one.

It is best not to allude to the sorrow unless it is seen that it is expected of them to do so. It is a relief with some people to talk of the departed, while it proves a torture to others, and only reopens the wound.



It is better for the sorrowing ones to mingle with their fellow creatures as soon as they can endure company. Their own feelings are their best guides. To some dispositions seclusion is a sweet and gentle ministry — they are never alone. But to others the monotony and loneliness strike a chill, and they must have some change to keep them from a settled melancholy.

It is not usual to give or attend entertainments within a year of the death of a near relative; but if the custom is broken by the young, it should not excite unkind remarks. Older people should not expect younger ones to observe such strict rules as they lay down for themselves. The "young suffer intensely, but it is a wise provision of nature that it is not as lasting as the grief of maturer years. They should pay a suitable respect for the relatives they have lost; but do not ask them to seclude themselves until their lives are lastingly shadowed. We owe love and remembrance to the dead; but we also owe a duty to the living. And if we would hallow the memory of those we have lost, we should be more tender toward those who are left us to love and cherish.


There's a beautiful face in the silent air
Which follows me ever and near,
With smiling eyes and amber hair,
With voiceless lips, yet with breath of prayer,
That I feel, but cannot hear.

The snow-white hand and head of gold
Lie low in a marble sleep—
I stretch my arms for the clasp of old,
But the empty air is strangely cold,
And so my vigil alone I keep!

There's a sinless brow with a radiant crown,
And a cross laid down in the dust;
There's a smile where never a shadow comes now,
And tears no more from those dear eyes flow—
So sweet in their innocent trust.

Ah, well! the summer is coming again,
Singing her same old song;
But oh, it sounds like a sob of pain
As it floats in the sunshine and the rain
O'er the hearts of the world's great throng.

There's a beautiful land beyond the skies,
And I long to reach its shore;
For I know I shall find my darling there—
The beautiful eyes and amber hair
Of the loved one gone before.


"What a pleasant thought, that when we come to die people will show us respect, that they will gather round the casket and tenderly lay our remains away in the earth for the angels to watch over till the morning of the resurrection. Tears will fall upon our grave, and appreciative words will be uttered. But would it not be well if honors were not entirely post­humous? if a part of the love and affection that is so freely given to the dead, had encircled them when living?"


I sometimes think that it would be best
If the hands that labor were folded o'er
The silent breast in the last sweet rest,
When I think of the friends who have gone before;
Who have crossed o'er the river's rolling tide
And reached the home on the other side.

It seems so far to the wished for day,
And weary, and lonely, and lost I roam;
I feel like a child who has lost his way,
And is always longing for home, sweet home!
But I say to my yearning heart: "Be still,
We'll go home when it is God's will.

The night is long, but the day will break
When the light of Eternity, streaming down
On the cross we bear for the Master's sake,
Will guide our steps to the promised crown.
A little while, and the gate is passed—
Home, and heaven, and rest at last!

—F. L. Stanton
from... Polite Society at Home and Abroad, 1891. .






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