Bizarre Victorian Traditions: From Mourning Jewelry to Postmortem Photography

It’s no secret that the Victorian era held a deep fascination with death and mourning. In fact, it seems like they were obsessed with it. Which isn’t too hard to understand, considering the high mortality rates that this era was known for. However, looking at them from today’s perspective, they not only seem odd — they seem outlandish. So, let’s examine some of the most bizarre Victorian traditions in order to understand this culture that was so deeply invested in all of the rituals surrounding death.

Mourning Jewelry

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You already know that Victorian people loved to wear jewelry. But did you know that they also had something called mourning jewelry? These pieces were more than just a fashion statement, it was a deeply personal memento that helped them keep the memory of a deceased loved one. These jewelry pieces often contained hair of the deceased person. I know it sounds a bit creepy, but honestly, when you look past that — it’s also pretty beautiful and sentimental. They would put their hair in brooches, bracelets, necklace chains or rings.

But it wasn’t just hair that they would incorporate into these jewelry pieces. Sometimes, they would also add something like engraved initials, even further enchanting their sentimental significance. Mourning jewelry perfectly reflected the Victorian ethos of remembering the dead through visible, tangible means. Which allowed the people wearing the pieces to display their grief and remembrance publicly.

Mourning Attire

While mourning jewelry isn’t so widely known, chances are that you’re already familiar with the concept of mourning attire in the Victorian era. But it wasn’t just about wearing black outfits. They had to follow elaborate rules. Mourning clothing served as a public expression of private grief, and its strict codes reflected the societal importance of respect, propriety, and the outward expression of inner feelings. It was about paying tribute and respect to the recently deceased one.

For example, a widow was expected to wear conservative, matte black clothing with no decoration for the first year of “deep mourning,” followed by “second mourning,” where small jewelry and fabrics such as silk and wool were allowed. The next phase was called “half mourning”, where the widow had to follow even more relaxed rules, and was pretty much allowed to dress like her usual self. The rules for men were a lot more simple. They would usually wear a black suit with corresponding accessories like a black armband or hatband. Children, too, wore mourning clothes, though usually for shorter periods.

Postmortem Photography

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Okay, so I had to double check this. Why? Because I had no idea that photography even was a thing in the Victorian era. However, it was, and Victorian photographers used a technique called daguerreotype. The pictures were made through a combination of silver and mercury resting on the plate. The technique was very fragile and had to be covered with glass for stability. That means that you had to re-load the camera each time it was used. This was pretty mind-blowing for me, and I even researched when the first photograph ever was taken — in 1826! Basically at the beginning of the Victorian Era.

Anyway, what did the Victorian people do with their new-found love for photography? Take pictures of the dead. Pretty dark, I know. But looking at it from this perspective, and knowing their obsession with death, it makes perfect sense. So, that’s how postmortem photography became a thing in the Victorian era. They would arrange the recently deceased to make it look as if they were asleep, and not actually dead. Sometimes, the rest of the family members would pose with them, creating a final, poignant family portrait. This practice was particularly common with infants and young children, giving parents the chance to have a lasting visual memory.

Deathbed Photography

But it wasn’t just postmortem photography that was popular. There was also this thing called deathbed photography. The name is pretty self explanatory — the pictures would documented the more immediate and personal aspects of death. These photographs were taken in the moments before or just after death, showing the reality of the individual’s final hours. Needless to say, this these pictures were a lot more graphic. But they also served as a testament to the person’s life and the nature of their passing. Deathbed photos were highly valued, seen as capturing the soul’s transition from life to death.

Seances and Spiritualism

The Victorian era’s obsession with death was paralleled by a fascination with the supernatural. Spiritualism, which posited that spirits of the dead could be contacted through mediums, became wildly popular as a form of entertainment and solace. Séances, attended by people from various social classes, including Queen Victoria herself, often featured mediums who would summon spirits to convey messages, move objects, or produce written communication from the beyond. This blend of mourning and mysticism provided comfort to those grieving, giving them hope that there really is an afterlife.

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You have to understand one thing — the mortality rate during this period was incredibly high. And with so many people dying, mostly from infections diseases that are now fully preventable, the people that were left behind had a hard time moving on. So, becoming a medium was a very sought after profession. At these séances, mediums would use various methods such as automatic writing, table turning, and even spirit boards to demonstrate their connection with the spirit world. The people who would take part in them would feel emotional relief and a deeper connection with their deceased loved ones.

Garden Cemeteries

Last but not least, let’s talk about Victorian cemeteries. With so many people dying, their approach to burials also underwent significant transformation. They started moving away from overcrowded churchyards to landscaped garden cemeteries. These cemeteries were designed not just as final resting places but as serene parks intended for the living to visit and enjoy. They were meticulously landscaped with winding paths, lush greenery, and even artistic sculptures. A lot of these cemeteries exist to this day. For example the Highgate Cemetery in London, or the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. All of them were designed to create a calming and peaceful environment. These garden cemeteries became popular locales for Sunday strolls and picnics, as they provided a peaceful escape from the urban bustle and a place to remember loved ones in a beautiful setting.

Kanita is a wanderlust-fueled traveler with an inclination for unraveling the mysteries of history, the paranormal, and the bizarre world of medicine. As a true crime buff, Kanita's nights are often spent delving into the depths of chilling mysteries. Yet, it's not just the paranormal that captivates her—her background in medicine fuels a fascination with the weird and wonderful world of medical oddities, from twisted historical practices to the myths and legends that shroud the field. From exploring haunted locales to uncovering the strange and morbid tales of medical history, Kanita is your guide to the unconventional, the unexplained, and the downright eerie.

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