Victorian Etiquette for Funerals
and Funeral Usages", Harpers Bazaar, April 17, 1886]
NOTHING in our country is more undecided in the public mind than the
mourning. It has not yet received that hereditary and positive character which makes the
slightest departure from received custom so reprehensible in England. We have not the
mutes, or the nodding feathers of the hearse, that still form part of the English funeral
equipage; nor is the rank of the poor clay which travels to its last home illustrated by
the pomp and ceremony of its departure. Still, in answer to some pertinent questions, we
will offer a few desultory remarks, beginning with the end, as it were - the return of the
mourner to the world.
When persons who have been in mourning wish to reenter society,
they should leave cards on all their friends and acquaintances, as an intimation that they
are equal to the paying and receiving of calls. Until this intimation is given, society
will not venture to intrude upon the mourner's privacy. In cases where cards of inquiry
have been left, with the words "To inquire" written on the top of the card,
these cards should be replied to by cards with "Thanks for kind inquiries"
written upon them; but if cards for inquiry had not been left, this form can be omitted.
course there is a kind of complimentary mourning which does not necessitate seclusion -
that which is worn out of respect to a husband's relative whom one may never have seen.
But no one wearing a heavy crape veil should go to a gay reception, a wedding, or a
theatre; the thing is incongruous. Still less should mourning prevent one from taking
proper recreation: the more the heart aches, the more should one try to gain cheerfulness
and composure, to hear music, to see faces which one loves: this is a duty, not merely a
wise and sensible rule. Yet it is well to have some established customs as to visiting and
dress in order that the gay and the heartless may in observing them avoid that which
shocks every one - an appearance of lack of respect to the memory of the dead- that all
society may move on in decency and order, which is the object and end of the study of
A heartless wife who, instead of being grieved at the death of her husband, is rejoiced
at it, should be taught that society will not respect her unless she pays to the memory of
the man whose name she bears that "homage which vice pays to virtue," a
commendable respect to the usages of society in the matter of mourning and of retirement
from the world. Mourning garments have this use, that they are a shield to the real
mourner, and they are often a curtain of respectability to the person who should be a
mourner but is not. We shall therefore borrow from the best English and American
authorities what we believe to be the most recent usages in the etiquette of mourning.
periods of mourning, we are told that a widow's mourning should last eighteen months,
although in England it is somewhat lightened in twelve. For the first six months the dress
should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs
of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow's cap of white crape if
preferred. In America, however, widows' caps are not as universally worn as in England.
Dull black kid gloves are worn in first mourning; after that Gants de Duede or silk gloves
are proper, particularly in summer. After six months' mourning the crape can be removed,
and grenadine, copeau fringe, and dead trimmings used, if the smell of crape is offensive,
as it is to some people. After twelve months the widow's cap is left off, and the heavy
veil is exchanged for a lighter one, and the dress can be of silk grenadine, plain black
gros grain, or crape-trimmed cashmere with jet trimmings, and crepe lisse about the neck
All kinds of black fur and seal-skin are worn in deep mourning.
Mourning for a father or mother should last one year. During half a year should be worn
Henrietta cloth or serge trimmed with crape, at first with black tulle at the wrists and
neck. A deep veil is worn at the back of the bonnet, but not over the head or face like
the widow's veil, which covers the entire person when down. This fashion is very much
objected to by doctors, who think many diseases of the eye come by this means, and advise
for common use thin nuns' veiling instead of crape, which sheds its pernicious dye into
the sensitive nostrils, producing catarrhal disease as well as blindness and cataract of
the eye. It is a thousand pities that fashion dictates the crape veil, but so it is. It is
the very banner of woe, and no one has the courage to go without it. We can only suggest
to mourners wearing it that they should pin a small veil of black tulle over the eyes and
nose, and throw back the heavy crape as often as possible, for health's sake.
Jet ornaments alone should be worn for eighteen months, unless diamonds set as mementos
are used. For half-mourning, a bonnet of silk or chip, trimmed with crape and ribbon.
Mourning flowers, and crepe lisse at the hands and wrists, lead the way to gray, mauve,
and white and black toilettes after the second year.
Mourning for a brother or sister may be the same; for step-father or step-mother the
same; for grandparents the same; but the duration may be shorter. In England this sort of
respectful mourning only lasts three months.
Mourning for children should last nine months. The first three the dress should be
crape- trimmed, the mourning less deep than that for a husband. No one is ever ready to
take off mourning; therefore these rules have this advantage - they enable the friends
around a grief stricken mother to tell her when is the time to make her dress more
cheerful, which she is bound to do for the sake of the survivors, many of whom are perhaps
affected for life by seeing a mother always in black. It is well for mothers to remember
this when sorrow for a lost child makes all the earth seem barren to them.
We are often asked whether letters of condolence should be written on blackedged paper.
Decidedly not, unless the writer is in black. The telegraph now flashes messages of
respect and sympathy across sea and land like a voice from the heart. Perhaps it is better
than any other word of sympathy, although all who can should write to a bereaved person.
There is no formula possible for these letters; they must be left to the individual's good
taste, and perhaps the simplest and least conventional are the best. A card with a few
words pencilled on it has often been the best letter of condolence.
In France a long and deeply edged mourning letter or address, called a faire part, is
sent to every one known to the family to advise them of a death. In this country that is
not done, although some mention of the deceased is generally sent to friends in Europe who
would not otherwise hear of the death.
Wives wear mourning for the relatives of their husbands precisely as they would for
their own, as would husbands for the relatives of their wives. Widowers wear mourning for
their wives two years in England; here only one year. Widowers go into society at a much
earlier date than widows, it being a received rule that all gentlemen in mourning for
relatives go into society very much sooner than ladies.
Ladies of the family attend the funeral of a relative if they are able to do so, and
wear their deepest mourning. Servants are usually put in mourning for the head of the
family - sometimes for any member of it. They should wear a plain black livery and weeds
on their hats; the inside lining of the family carriage should also be of black.
The period of mourning for an aunt or uncle or cousin is of three months' duration, and
that time at least should elapse before the family go out or into gay company, or are seen
at theatres or operas, etc.
We now come to the saddest part of our subject, the consideration of the dead body, so
dear, yet so soon to leave us; so familiar, yet so far away - the cast-off dress, the
beloved clay. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes!
As for the coffin, it is simpler than formerly; and while lined with satin and made
with care, it is plain on the outside - black cloth, with silver plate for the name and
silver handles, being in the most modern taste. There are but few of the "trappings
of woe." At the funeral of General Grant, twice a President, and regarded as the
savior of his country, there was a gorgeous catafalque of purple velvet, but at the
ordinary funeral there are none of these trappings. If our richest citizen were to die
to-morrow, he would probably be buried plainly. Yet it is touching to see with what
fidelity the poorest creature tries to "bury her dead dacent." The destitute
Irish woman begs for a few dollars for this sacred duty, and seldom in vain. It is a duty
for the rich to put down ostentation in funerals, for it is an expense which comes heavily
on those who have poverty added to grief.
In dressing the remains for the grave, those of a man are usually "clad in his
habit as he lived." For a woman, tastes differ; a white robe and cap, not necessarily
shroud-like, are decidedly unexceptionable. For young persons and children, white cashmere
robes and flowers are always most appropriate.
The late Cardinal, whose splendid obsequies and whose regal "lying in state"
were in keeping with his high rank and the gorgeous ceremonial of his Church, was strongly
opposed to the profuse use of flowers at funerals, and requested that none be sent to deck
his lifeless clay. He was a modest and humble man, and always on the right side in these
things; therefore let his advice prevail. A few flowers placed in the dead hand, perhaps a
simple wreath, but not those unmeaning memorials which have become to real mourners such
sad perversities of good taste, such a misuse of flowers. Let those who can afford to send
such things devote the money to the use of poor mothers who cannot afford to buy a coffin
for a dead child or a coat for a living one.
In the course of a month after a death all friends of the deceased are expected to
leave cards on the survivors, and it is discretionary whether these be written on or not.
These cards should be carefully preserved, that, when the mourner is ready to return to
the world, they may be properly acknowledged.