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The History of Mourning: From Victorian Mourning Customs to Today

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Published 09/11/2023
by Laura Clipson
Mourning is a deeply ingrained human response to loss, and the customs and practices associated with it have evolved significantly over time. Mourning in the Victorian era was strict, with certain rules and rituals that had to be followed, whereas in modern time mourning tends to be much more relaxed and flexible. Today, we’ll have a look at the key differences between mourning in Victorian times and mourning in contemporary society.

Victorian mourning customs

Mourning clothes
In Victorian times, there were complicated rules about who wore what and for how long when somebody died. There were manuals dedicated to explaining these rules, and shops that specialised in selling mourning clothes. Rules were more strict for women, especially widows, who had to wear black clothing for two years after the death of their husband, with a veil and gloves. Black clothes were for deepest mourning, gradually lightening to grey and white as time went on. Rules were much more relaxed for men, who were expected to wear a dark suit to the funeral if possible, and a black armband as a sign of respect for a few months to a year.

Mourning period
The length of the mourning period was determined by the relationship to the deceased. It was the longest for female widows, who were expected to wear their mourning clothes for two years. Children mourning parents would be expected to mourn for a year, six months for grandparents or siblings, and two months for aunts and uncles.

Funeral customs
Funerals tended to be lavish and expensive, for those who could afford it. Invitations were often sent out for funerals, with anyone invited expected to attend. If the family could not afford a funeral, the local parish would hold a “pauper’s funeral”, bringing shame and dishonour to the surviving family members.

There were many rules in place for how someone had to behave while in mourning. A female widow, for example, would be expected to bear the burden of grief alone. She would not leave home for any reason, and would not receive visitors or attend social affairs such as parties and weddings during the mourning period.

In Victorian times it was popular to have large memorials placed as headstones for the deceased. Mourning cards were also created to announce a death and invite people to a funeral. There were strict rules regarding their design and typography, and they were often kept as mementos.

Modern mourning practices

It is no longer a requirement to wear dark clothing when mourning for funerals nowadays, though some people still prefer to. Many people now wear clothing that reflects the personality and preferences of the deceased, such as clothing in their favourite colour.

Funeral customs
Funerals tend to be more focused on celebrating the life of the deceased, rather than mourning their loss. They are also more personalised than the rigid affairs that were Victorian funerals, often incorporating the deceased’s hobbies, interests and beliefs.

The digital age has introduced online memorials, where friends and family can share memories, photos and condolences on social media or dedicated websites.

There isn’t really any expectation or etiquette for mourning in modern times. Everybody is different, and people grieve in different ways. In contrast to Victorian times, people are encouraged to socialise and go out and have fun even if they are grieving. There is no expected mourning period, as different people will mourn for different periods of time - there is no set amount of time to measure grief.

The history of mourning customs has witnessed a significant shift from the rigid and formal practices of the Victorian era to the more personalised and flexible approaches of today. These differences reflect the changing cultural and societal norms and the growing recognition of the importance of individualised approaches to grief and remembrance.

Thank you for reading.

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