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Victorian Funeral Etiquette

Fact: Funeral Etiquette Was Rigorously Observed

For the Victorians, life was all about proper etiquette, and nowhere was this more evident than at funerals.

Unlike current times where anyone can attend a funeral service, in the Victorian age, a person must first wait to receive their formal written invitation. (It was not proper however, to send invitations to a funeral of a person who died from a contagious disease. In this case, there would just be a simple notice of death posted in the local paper with the simple phrase “funeral private” and all would be understood.) Funeral guests were then expected to arrive precisely an hour before the service was to begin. Upon entering the funeral parlor or house of the deceased, men were expected to remove their hats and not “replace them again while in the house.” Loud talking and laughter were also strictly forbidden and “interviews with the family at the time should not be expected.”

In the home or funeral parlor, the remains of the deceased were to be placed in such a way so that “when the discourse is finished, if the corpse is exposed to view, the assembled guests may see the same by passing in single file past the coffin, going from foot to head, up one aisle and down another.”

On the way to the burial, there were exactly six pall bearers who walked in threes, “on each side of the hearse, or in a carriage immediately before, while the near relatives directly follow the hearse succeeded by those more distantly connected.” Ladies however, were firmly denied the privilege of following the remains to the grave by strict social etiquette.

At the end of the service, the master of ceremonies preceded the mourners to the carriages and assisted the ladies to their places. If the physician of the deceased happened to be in attendance, he was placed in the carriage immediately following the near relatives of the deceased.

Superstition pervaded Victorian times, especially at times of funerals and bereavement. For example if you were out one day walking along the street, minding your own business and you happened to meet a funeral procession, it was advisable to tun around and go in the other direction. If that was not possible, you could still be saved from ill luck, if you held onto a button. However if someone died in your home, it was necessary to stop the clock from ticking, if you wanted to avoid misfortune. And it was always advisable when yawning, to cover the mouth, so as to avoid the devil whipping in and nabbing your soul.

Victorians when attending a funeral, could be sure that the deceased would go to heaven if rain happened to fall on the funeral procession. However if you yourself wished for a decent burial, after your own death, you must take care to hold your breath whist in the graveyard...or else....

Also when you returned home after attending the funeral, you still couldn't relax and wallow in your grief, rigged head to toe in black, because you had to be vigilant for possible omens of death, which could be lurking in everyday mundane happenings. For example if you smelt roses, when there were no roses in the vicinity, then this was a harbinger of death; as was seeing an owl in the hours of daylight. Even in sleep, dreams foretold of death, for if you dreamed of a baby being born, someone close to you was sure to die and worse if you saw yourself in your nocturnal visions -it was you, who were not long for this world.

All these signs, omens and portents of doom, no doubt created a lot of stress and anxiety, however the canny Victorians also had a surprisingly simple method to protect themselves from the Grim Reaper. All that was required, was the tieing of black ribbons around dogs, children... and in fact anything which breathed, as it entered the house. And silly old death would be stopped in its tracks!