Victorian Etiquette for Funerals



[From: "Mourning and Funeral Usages", Harpers Bazaar, April 17, 1886]

NOTHING in our country is more undecided in the public mind than the etiqueVictorian funerals and Victorian mourningtte of 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.

Victorian funerals and Victorian mourningOf 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 etiquette.

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.

Victorian funerals and Victorian mourning As for 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 and sleeves.

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.