Morbid Desire The Victorian Fascination with Death

A Virtual Exhibit by Camron-Stanford House

Today, we tend to lower our voices when we speak of death or the dying. Most of us never see dead bodies except in film and on television. We wait anxiously for our friends to “find closure” and move on after the death of a loved one because we find mourning to be awkward. None of this was true for Victorians, who from a 21st century perspective had a morbid desire to hold on to the dead.

Why the difference? Death seemed to lurk behind every corner during the nineteenth century. Average life expectancy was a little over 40 years, and wealth and social standing provided only little insurance. Even Victoria, the English queen for whom the era was named, lost her husband when he was 42. Children were even more at risk. Over half of the deaths each year were children under five years old, and forty percent of those were stillborn births. It was not uncommon for a mother to bury one child while she was carrying another. The use of morticians would not become standard until after the United States Civil War and funeral parlors came into being with the 20th century. Before that, caring for the dead in Victorian times was typically the realm of women.

With brief lives, it became important to show that loved ones mattered; that their lives had value. Families were expected to show visible signs of grief and to expend on funerals sums equal to the worth of the deceased. In 1880 the United States spent one and one-fourth times more money on funerals than the government expended for public schools.

From beautiful objects to seemingly bizarre customs, Morbid Desire helps us understand our Victorian forbears and their connection to death and mourning.

Content Warning: This online exhibit contains content that references death and serious illness, including historical photographs and other historical documentation about the death of both adults and children. For questions, please contact us at office@cshouse.org.

Exhibit Table of Contents

This exhibit will be explored in three sections. Use the navigation buttons at the bottom of each page, or jump to your desired location using these links:

Section 1: The Presence of Death

Section 2: Victorian Mourning Fashions and the Business of Mourning

Section 3: Death and Illness at the Camron-Stanford House

Apotheosis: Ascending to Heaven

Four events: the death of George Washington, the American Civil War, the death of Prince Albert of England, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln informed the Western perception of death and formalized its etiquette and imagery in the 19th century.

George Washington—General, Founding Father, and First President of the United States—died December 14, 1799 and the nation mourned collectively for the first time. His private and public funerals were relatively simple affairs but as early as 1800 engravings, paintings and writings emerged that mourned the country’s illustrious hero and venerated him as close to god-like.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, died on December 14, 1861. The queen outlived her beloved husband by forty years and mourned him for the remainder of her life. As the queen did, in both etiquette and fashion, so did Europe and most of America.

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 shocked the war-torn nation and the world. Lincoln was given an elaborate state funeral in Washington D.C. To travel home to Springfield, Illinois, his body was put on a train with the cars and engine draped in mourning crape.

Mary Todd Lincoln was too distraught to attend her husband’s funeral, but like Queen Victoria, she wore mourning attire for the rest of her life. Lincoln was immediately venerated as the "Savior of the Nation" and symbolically joined George Washington in apotheosis.

(Image: Washington and Lincoln Apotheosis, 1865. Library of Congress.)

Image 1: President Abraham Lincoln's hearse. S.M Fassett (photographer). Library of Congress. Image 2: Queen Victoria and her children. Royal Archive, UK.

Object Highlight

Both a memorial card and an advertisement. This card was distributed by Kahn & Sons (possibly a meat distributor in Cincinnati, Ohio). The card advertises a window display at their location, on the subject of President U.S. Grant's demise. President Ulysses S. Grant passed away in July of 1885.

(Camron-Stanford House Collection, Gift of Sister Madeline Rowden, 1985)

From Parlor Into Living Room

19th Century women typically cared for dead family members at home. The house was prepared to be a place of dark quiet solitude and grief. The exterior was draped in black bunting, and a black wreath with white ribbon hung on the door so callers knew a death had occurred. Curtains were drawn and windows draped in black. Mirrors were covered. Clocks were stopped at the hour of death.

The body was laid in the parlor on a “cooling table” filled with ice or in a casket surrounded by fragrant flowers. During the time that the body would be in the parlor, flowers would be refreshed often to mask odors for the benefit of visitors. When the body was removed from the house, it was carried out feet first lest it look back and beckon others to follow it into death.

The massive number of deaths during the Civil War fueled a new industry—referred to colorfully in Great Britain as the dismal trade—which included the services of undertakers and the commercialization of funerals. By the turn of the 20th century, professional funeral parlors had replaced the family parlor as the place to care for the dead. The family parlor now became a our modern Living Room.

(Image: Funeral in a family home in the 19th century. The Thanatos Archive.)

Image 1: A turn of the century living room. Image 2: Siblings posed for a post-mortem picture in the family parlor. Image 3: A casket on display in a family home. Orange County Historical Society.

Object Highlight

The Cokesbury Funeral Manual offered practical guidance for ministers presiding over last rites and funeral services. The book reviews customs and offers recommendations for prayers, biblical passages, poetry, and other readings for use in services for anyone from young children to older adults. The book offers a glimpse into funerary traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Courtesy of Maggie Adams)

To Burry Him Decent

The goal of many working class Americans was simply to avoid the disgrace of a pauper’s grave. Factory workers often made just $8 a month and even a pauper’s burial of $15 equaled two months wages.

To prepare for the inevitable, most workers set aside nickels, dimes and quarters every week for life insurance or for dues to fraternal organizations offering burial insurance. Those organizations numbered in the hundreds and were based on social, ethnic, trade, religious, or political affiliations. The Oakland City Directory for 1879 lists 47 different societies including the Wholesale and Retail Butchers, the Woodsmen of the World and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

But the insurance usually didn’t go very far. A San Francisco editorial calculated the average cost of a funeral in 1875 at $300 while the average insurance death benefit was $227. Working class widows then looked to families or to fraternal organizations for support. The agreement for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows promised wives of deceased members financial and social support, even promising to act as a father to her fatherless children. In 1896 Odd Fellows provided relief to more than 6,000 widows and buried nearly 8,500 men.

(Image: Funeral parade in Deadwood, South Dakota. 1890. Library of Congress)

Image 1: Sons of Norway at the Eucalyptus Amphitheater in Piedmont Park, 1914. Courtesy of the Piedmont Historical Society. Image 2: Clipping from a beneficiary certificate issued to dues-paying members of the Woodmen of the World, a local fraternal group. Image 3: Also seen above- Funeral parade in Deadwood, South Dakota. 1890. Library of Congress.

Death's Image

Until the development of the camera, only the wealthy had portraits of loved ones. Early daguerreotypes and glass ambrotypes may have been “mirrors with memory” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said but they were too expensive for the masses. It was not until the paper carte de visite of the 1860’s that images were easily reproducible and inexpensive enough for the average person.

Families could afford to send a memorial card to extended family and friends and a post mortem portrait often became the only photo made in a person’s lifetime. Sometimes subjects would be propped up surrounded by living members of their family or clutching props such as flowers, toys etc.

Photographers advertised house calls for post mortem portraits. In rural areas, the body would be cleaned and dressed and brought to the photography studio.

As a final touch, funeral cards might be edged in black simulating the black crape present through-out the home in mourning.

Object Highlight

This stereograph card shows an image of a mourning family at a wake or funeral held for a young child. In the image, a woman leans over a small casket, grieving, while a man and child sit to the side observing. A religious official oversees the scene.

When used with a stereoscope, the two image combine to create a full image that could be seen in 3D when the person using it held the viewer up to their eyes.

(Camron-Stanford House Collection, 2019)

Continue On to Part 2: Victorian Mourning Fashions

Created By
Camron-Stanford House