Sunday, May 20, 2012

Musings on Victoria Day and Various Other Victorian Mourning Rituals

This Monday, those of us residing in Canada will celebrate Victoria Day, affectionately referred to as the May Long Weekend. The ritual of the May Long commences with the disinterring of the tenting equipment from the bowels of the basement and the mass exodus to the mountains for the first weekend of camping, and generally culminates with the eventual surrender to the elements at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning after a foot of snow has caved in the ceiling of the tent.

While contemplating the origins of this holiday weekend and Queen Victoria herself, one started researching her obsession with mourning after her royal consort Prince Albert died, these musings quite probably precipitated by remembrances of previous Victoria Day Weekend camping experiences and the resultant thoughts of one's impending death by freezing.

Queen Victoria, to whom we Canadians are eternally grateful
for the “Ritual of the May Long” ...

One of the most important mourning rituals of the Victorian era was the wearing of the proper clothing. Mourning dress reached its peak during Queen Victoria's reign, who set the standard by wearing mourning for the remainder of her life after the death of Albert. The strict custom of attiring oneself entirely in black while grieving for a loved one was observed by every class, and those who could not afford the change of dress often altered and dyed their regular garments black, a trick the insomniac  often uses to extend her own wardrobe.

For women, the custom involved wearing heavy black clothing and veils of black crape, the attire commonly known as Widow's Weeds, from the Old English Waed  meaning garment. First or Deep Mourning for a widow lasted one year and a day, after which she moved on to Second Mourning, lasting another twenty-one months. During Third or Ordinary Mourning, the addition of black jet, ribbon, embroidery or lace embellishments was permitted on mourning attire (this is the stuff the insomniac  loves to collect). Following Ordinary Mourning, a minimum two year span, the widow went into Half Mourning, which continued for an additional six months but could be sustained for the remainder of her life, if she chose. Half Mourning attire consisted of the fashions of the day but made up in special colours, including soft mauves and grey, colours the insomniac  would happily wear for the rest of her life, whether she was in mourning or not.

One could picture oneself wearing these Widows Weeds for
much longer than the requisite mourning period ...

Photo courtesy of the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection

The insomniac  wasn't quite sure if the following cabinet photo of a family should appear under the caption Mourning Dress or Post Mortem Photography, as the entire family appears to be either dead or well on their way, especially the gentleman.

Oh, how the insomniac  regrets not purchasing
this cabinet card off Etsy or eBay
or wherever it was she saw it  ...

The invention of the daguerreotype provided the middle class with a means of preserving a keepsake of their deceased loved ones. This was especially important in the case of  infants and young children, as childhood mortality rates in the Victorian era were extremely high and a post mortem photograph might be the only image the family possessed. Regrettably, the practice of post mortem photography peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century, as the beauty and sensitivity of these photographs is undeniable.

Poignant, but beautiful nonetheless ...

In nineteenth century England, children were mourned and buried using the same rituals as adults, with the exception of colour. Children were dressed in white to symbolize their innocence and purity, and buried in a coffin of white, as they are to this day.

Innocent and pure ...

Another Victorian ritual was the use of black ostrich plumes during a funeral procession, first introduced in the eighteenth century and flourishing during Queen Victoria's reign. In order to achieve a sufficiently sombre effect, the horses pulling a funeral hearse were oft-times dyed black and given glossy false tails, the ostrich feathers mounted between their ears with special black rosettes worn on the forehead. If a coffin had to be transported in the hearse for a great distance, stops for refreshments at local pubs along the way were scheduled, in some instances, every twenty minutes along the route. Truly, an admirable custom and one that should possibly be resurrected for today's funerals.

Offspring, take note: this is how your Sainted Mother wishes to be transported
to her final resting place. And here's the link, in case you forget ...

A traditional gift given to mourners were specially printed booklets or cards, containing details of the service and often kept as souvenirs. Although the insomniac  does keep the little cheaply printed booklets given out at today's services in an old cigar box, they lack somewhat the beauty of these older examples. There's a thought for all you budding entrepreneurs - revive the production of these beautifully embellished mourning cards, so we have mementos worthy of saving in our cigar boxes, please.

Folded Memorial Card from 1909
with message and name inside ...

Prince Albert's In Memoriam Card

An excerpt from a lovely and melancholy Gothic poem, and exactly what the insomniac wishes for her final resting place, especially the wailing Owl and mournful Moon ...

 Behind me rises huge and awful Pile,
Sole on this blasted Heath, a Place of Tombs,
Waste, desolate, where Ruin dreary dwells,
Brooding o'er sightless Sculls, and crumbling Bones.
Ghastful He sits, and eyes with stedfast Glare
The Column grey with Moss, the falling Bust,
The Time-shook Arch, the monumental Stone,
Impair'd, effac'd, and hastening into Dust,
Unfaithful to their Charge of flattering Fame.
All is dread Silence here, and undisturb'd,
Save what the Wind sighs, and the wailing Owl
Screams solitary to the mournful Moon,
Glimmering her western Ray thro' yonder Isle,
Where the sad Spirit walks with shadowy Foot
His wonted Round, or lingers o'er his Grave.

From Excursion by David Mallet (1726-8)

Until next time, the insomniac  wishes you nights of blissful sleep filled with pleasant dreams. And if you happen to be one of the brave souls out camping in the snow this May Long, best not to fall asleep at all and concentrate instead on not perishing from frostbite ... Goodnight, my pretties.


PostScript: The insomniac  swears she never heard of the above referenced book before this week, and did not plagiarize the title for her "Art Nouveau - A Magnificent Obsession" blog post of last month.

   Mourning Dress, A Costume and Social History, Lou Taylor
   A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy, Helen Rappaport

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