Rites of Passage: Death & Mourning in Victorian Britain

Judith Flanders

Picador, £25

In the course of her latest social history, Judith Flanders visits deathbeds, mortuaries, funeral parlours and cemeteries, encountering coffin-loads of grief and plenty of macabre spectacles along the way. Sound grim? Undoubtedly. Yet Rites of Passage sheds fascinating light not only on Victorian attitudes towards death and mourning, but on the way our ancestors lived.

At a time when birth itself was supremely hazardous and families lost one child after another to waves of cholera and typhoid, most people seem to have kept one eye on the grave – almost literally, given the proximity of local churchyards and the vogue for wearing jewellery fashioned from the dearly departed’s hair.

And while the dead were omnipresent, the dying too were familiar housemates. With medical science in its infancy, care of the terminally ill was the domain of (usually female) relatives, who were often aided by little more than folk knowledge or do-it-yourself sickroom manuals that mixed spiritual advice (remind your patient that afflictions are sent “to teach us charity” and that “indulging in gloominess” is sinful) with woefully ineffective therapies.

For cholera, one might try a mustard and linseed poultice or – in extremis – lop off the invalid’s hair in the hope of relieving pressure on the brain. And when all that failed, well, there were plenty of helpful tracts filled with soul-cleansing passages to be read aloud to those preparing to meet their maker.

Yet despite the ubiquity of bereavement, Flanders dismisses as “preposterous” any notion that Victorians were somehow inured to its impact, insisting all the evidence suggests “parents of every class were devastated by the deaths of their children”. In 1856, Archibald Tait – then dean of Carlisle – and his wife spoke of enduring “unspeakable agony” when they lost five of their seven children to disease within the space of weeks.

READ MORE: Carys Davies' grasp of historical mood rarely falters in Clear

And as Flanders points out, the popularity of “consolatory” artworks depicting babes ascending jubilantly heavenwards does not mean people actually felt consoled. She quotes the Scottish novelist, Margaret Oliphant, who outlived all five of her children and wrote, perhaps shockingly for the times: “I cannot feel resigned … I keep on always upbraiding and reproaching God.”

The appalling attrition rate was not without its beneficiaries. Commerce thrived on the burgeoning demand for memorial cards, elaborate coffin-ware and even bespoke funeral biscuits impressed with the deceased’s birth and death dates. And as one newspaper noted at the time, Prince Albert’s death in 1861 proved a boon to the ailing British textile industry, creating “an almost incalculable demand” not only for royal funeral memorabilia but for mourning wear.

The era’s pre-eminent mourner was, of course, Queen Victoria herself, who spent the second half of her life gloomily garbed in widow’s “weeds”, shunning official engagements and even materialising at her son’s wedding like a black-clad “ghost at the feast”. And while few went to such lengths, respectable widows were expected to spend at least a year wearing nothing but black, followed by a lengthy “second-mourning” then a further spell of “half-mourning”, during which muted shades of grey or mauve were permitted.

Whole department stores opened to meet the demand for ostentatious grieving with one London outlet – known locally as “Black Peter Robinson’s” – stocking an array of half-mourning garb in a section titled the Mitigated Affliction Department.

The Herald: The Glasgow NecropolisThe Glasgow Necropolis (Image: free)

Thankfully, there was also a healthy line in satirical journalism mocking such conventions and as Flanders points out, 19th-century etiquette manuals may not provide a reliable guide to the way people actually behaved. Victoria’s prolonged lamentation attracted some censure including from the now widowed Mrs Oliphant, who complained: “A woman is surely a poor creature if with a large happy affectionate family around her she can’t take heart to do her duty whether she likes it or not.”

Nor do we know that much about the experiences of working-class households, since most surviving diaries, letters and literary references reflect the views of society’s upper echelons.

However, “the brutal truth was,” writes Flanders, that “death was expensive”, and when even hospitals charged a deposit against the cost of burial should the patient die, many simply couldn’t afford the five or six-shilling price of a graveyard plot.

With Poor Laws forcing the penniless into workhouses, people feared the final indignity of a pauper’s burial in one of the cheap, parish-issued coffins, renowned for leaking bodily fluids and even dropping corpses en-route to the grave. Or worse. With medical knowledge accelerating, so too was the need for cadavers for dissection, and when Parliament proposed to allow the use of “unclaimed” bodies from workhouses, hospitals and prisons, riots ensued.

In Edinburgh, a hospital-bound cholera van was attacked by a crowd convinced its human cargo was destined to become surgical fodder. Meanwhile, when a new, unconsecrated paupers’ cemetery was created on Paisley’s outskirts, terrified locals dug up graves only to find them devoid of bodies. “The obvious next step,” writes Flanders, “was to attack the cholera hospital itself, where they believed the exhumed dead had been taken for anatomisation.”

Such fears seem not to have been entirely unwarranted. In the 100 years following the passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act, “none but the poor were dissected post-mortem”, and there were almost 57,000 such procedures in London alone. Executed prisoners fared still worse, with some found to be “medically alive” on arrival at the surgeons’ hall, thanks to the unreliability of “short-drop” hanging.

Ghastly as such a prospect undoubtedly is, modern readers may struggle to comprehend the Victorian dread of posthumous evisceration. But back then, an intact corpse seems to have been considered vital for one’s prospects in the afterlife and it’s perhaps not surprising that, in an age when life itself was perilous, people craved some certainty over the future of their remains.

READ MORE: 10 best books for February from Tom Hibbert to Bridget O’Connor

Would today’s extended life expectancy have been achieved without the medical advances made possible by resurrectionists and grave-robbers? Has our sanitised, hands-off approach to death and dying made us more or less accepting of their inevitability?

These are among the myriad questions prompted by this intelligent and meticulously researched exploration of our changing attitudes towards mortality, spirituality and the supernatural. Sometimes sad, often witty, Rites of Passage makes for a thought-provoking and surprisingly entertaining sepulchral journey.