Mourning and Burial Practices in the Regency
Here was my reasoning: It is October, for one, so we are approaching Halloween. That brings topics of death to mind, whether we like it or not. Secondly, I am leaving in two days to visit my family in Florida and Mississippi. I know this may sound odd to some, but I rarely manage to travel to the deep South where my ancestral roots are firmly embedded, so while there one of my favorite treks is to the ancient graveyard where generations of my relatives are buried. I have always thought old graveyards peaceful, in a way, and replete with fascinating atmosphere. The one where my grandparents and many other Hudsons are laid to rest is very old, with giant oak trees and moldering headstones that have weathered countless hurricanes for over two centuries. I like the connection to family felt as I stroll with my dad and sister through the uneven paths. Anticipating this gave me the idea to delve into a bit of Regency Era, English history on mourning and burial practices.
Jane Austen wrote in 1808: “My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to peices, & means to have it dyed black for a gown – a very interesting scheme.“
Fashion plates from the Regency include gowns designed specifically for mourning. However, unless you were very wealthy, having new mourning clothing sewn or garments set aside for the occasion was not possible. Most people made due with an existing wardrobe by dying to a dark color, or lining with new material in black. Hats would be covered with black crepe, the bright ribbons or flowers removed. In some cases even that was not an option, the mourner left to adorn their plainest garments with a black ribbon or armband.
Black was the only acceptable color in the first stages of mourning known as “full mourning.” Cloths with dulled finishes were chosen, such as crepes and bombazine silk. Later, during the second stage referred to as “half mourning”, any darker color was allowable: grays and shades of purples mostly.
Men of the era wore darker colors all of the time, so during mourning little changed other than the switch to black for the cravat and gloves.
How long each mourning period lasted varied and was not set into stone. Death was, sadly, too common an occurrence. Vast amounts of time spent mourning were impossible or people would perpetually be wearing black and unable to attend social functions. Widows tended to remain in a state of mourning for longer, up to a year was the expected norm, but even that was negotiable depending on the situation. Often times a widow, usually for financial reasons, was forced to set aside mourning her dead husband in order to remarry. A widower with children was frequently in the same boat, needing a new wife to be a mother. Men in general were not expected to openly mourn or go into seclusion since they were required to conduct business. Any breaches in the unwritten rules of mourning caused no more then gossip and raised eyebrows.
The degree of mourning was directly dependent on the perceived importance of the dead person. Naturally a spouse was considered the closest, so the intensity of public grief and length of full mourning was the longest. Infants were not typically considered as valuable to society, so mourned the least. Immediate relatives – parents or siblings – were given more attention then grandparents, cousins, or friends.
In this era there weren’t funeral parlors or embalming. The body was kept at home, prepared by an undertaker or more likely a servant or woman of the household, encased in a wool shroud, and laid out on a table for mourners to pay respects. How long before burial depended on the weather and available ice. Keeping a deceased body from, well, getting stinky from decay, was an impossible feat that piles of aromatic flowers could not hide. Lasting more than a week was a stretch.
If the person died away from home, transport was necessary, adding to the cost and thus not an easy option unless the family had wealth.
The rich were buried in family tombs or graveyards, or inside church catacombs. If buried in the ground a coffin was used, unless one was poor in which case the enshrouded body was thrown into a common grave. Funeral services were rarely elaborate affairs, unless we are talking about royalty. Mourners gathered to accompany the departed to the gravesite. Women were forbidden to attend due to their “delicate” sensibilities and because they were expected to be in seclusion. Services held at the grave were short and kept to the traditional Anglican liturgy with few onlookers present on what was considered consecrated ground.
I hope I haven’t creeped everyone out. LOL! But then again, it is the season for creepy chills. *insert evil Vincent Price laugh here!