The USGenWeb Project News
Volume 4, Number 7
Victorian Spirits in the Cemetery
by Linda K. Lewis, Graveside Chronicles Editor
The Victorian Era (1837 - 1901) brought major changes to the way society viewed death,
and this is demonstrated by their funerary practices and the clues they left behind in the
cemeteries of this era.
Mortality remained high in the nineteenth century and largely affected the population's every
day lives. The Victorian Era ushered in a period of superstition around death, and a rigid set
of rules of etiquette for dealing with death, epitomized by Queen Victoria.
Typically a person fell ill and remained in the home, on death watch, until they passed. In the
last days or hours of the head of a household's life, it was typical to send for a lawyer to draw
up the will, witnessed by neighbors. When the person passed away, they remained in the home until
time of burial.
If there was a clock in the home it was stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered with
heavy black velvet drapes lest the spirit of the deceased should become trapped in the reflection.
The deceased was laid out in the parlor and all furniture was removed except for a couch and lamps,
and the deceased was watched around the clock until burial by the family. Relatives and neighbors
came by to view the deceased and the room filled with flowers. When the deceased was removed for
burial it had to be carried out feet first to prevent the corpse from looking back into the house
and calling others to follow.
Mourning was elevated to an art form in the Victorian Era, with two stages of mourning, deep- and
half-mourning. This was complete with elaborate rituals, customs and rules of conduct for each stage
When someone died in a household the entire house went into deep-mourning. The household would wear
unadorned black clothing, underwear, handkerchiefs, and armbands, and jewelry was not permitted.
At this time period, people made their own clothing, however as the need for proper black mourning
apparel gave rise to the very first off-the-rack apparel. Those unable to afford ready-to-wear a
pparel dyed their entire wardrobe in large kettles in the back yard, which produced a unique and
A person stayed in deep-mourning for a prescribed period of time, depending upon their relationship
to the deceased. A spouse was required to be in deep-mourning for one year and a child of the deceased
for 6 months. It was believed that the spirit of the deceased attached itself to the spouse and if you
looked into her eyes that spirit would attach to you, therefore a widow's face was veiled in public.
Deep-mourning was followed by a similar period of half-mourning. Black was still the required dress
during half-mourning, however black jewelry was allowed.
Victorian funerals were quite an elaborate and expensive affair. A funeral wagon was drawn by horses
dyed black and adorned with black plumes for the occasion. Professional mourners, pall bearers, ushers,
and a band were hired. The processional itself was parade-like with the family and friends walking
behind the funeral wagon as neighbors came out with bowed heads to watch it pass by.
Prior to the Victorian Era, colonial cemeteries were rather bleak, and not always well cared for.
Some, in fact, were very dangerous places with loosely filled or open graves in an east-west
orientation. And gravestones were, for the most part, plain slabs etched with the decedent's
name and phrases such as RIP. These cemeteries were rarely visited and greatly feared.
The Victorian Era ushered in a host of changes to traditional cemeteries. During this time period,
the garden-style cemetery came into fashion. In many states it was law that new cemeteries had to
be constructed outside of city or town limits for fear of disease. Elaborate garden-style
cemeteries were designed with complex layout, circular areas with graves oriented in all directions,
and elaborate statuary and landscaping to encourage visitors.
The simple portal-shaped gravestone grew into massive elaborate monuments to the dead.
Family plots became popular, often seen with a centrally-located large shaft monument,
usually marble or sandstone, topped with a lantern to light the path to the afterlife,
surrounded by smaller gravestones to mark the location of the individual family members
interred. These family plots often include curbing and a stepped entrance inscribed with
the family surname.
During this period we also find tombstone engravings of elaborate funerary symbols
embellished with religious statuary, and we begin to find Bible verses, organizational
symbols, and personal inscriptions on gravestones that give us many clues to life,
culture, and value system of the Victorians.
The mausoleum (private family cemeteries) became popular in the United States during this
time period as well and we find many examples of elaborate mausolea with gated courtyard
made of imported Carerra marble or granite. It was believed the bigger the monument,
the better, and there was no worse or shameful fate than to be interred in an unmarked grave.
Superstition surrounding death was also evident in the cemetery. The Victorians were
fearful of being buried alive and stories of coffins with fingernail scratches ran
rampant. To address this fear, mortuaries, or Hospitals for the Dead came into fashion.
There the deceased was kept in a hot environment for an extended period of time to
encourage rapid decay and thus ensure there was no chance of awakening.
Various coffin alarms and safety coffins with escape methods were patented during this
time. The standard coffin alarm consisted of a bell mounted to the headstone with a
chain or rope attached to the limbs of the interred. Other alert mechanisms were used,
such as flags, fireworks, and rockets to alert of movement below ground. Some coffins
even came with a tube containing a ladder for escape. The coffin alarms were short-lived,
however, as the bells and flags signaled the natural movement of the corpse during
decomposition. See http://www.bpmlegal.com/wcoffin.html for a diagram of a coffin alarm
patented in 1868.
Many of the elaborate gravestones and cemeteries of the Victorian period can be found in
nearly every area of the United States.