Friday, 27 November 2015

Victorian Death Rituals and Superstitions

From avoiding the mixture of red and white flowers in a vase to keeping the door unlocked after a funeral, superstition evidentially played a key role during the Victorian times. However, the question is, to what extent did the Victorians associate death with superstition? 

Historical evidence would suggest that the Victorians were weary of the dead and relied heavily on superstitious beliefs, to shield them from any harm that could potentially be inflicted upon them. Death was extremely common within Victorian society, due to the severity of class distinctions and lack of effective medications available for (as Fraser McAlpine lists them in his article “Five Horrible Diseases you might have caught in Victorian England”) “Cholera”, “Typhoid”, “Smallpox”, “Scarlet Fever” and “Measles, Mumps and Rubella”.  

A drawing of children with fatal Victorian diseases.
The Victorians were surrounded by death, but this arguably served to heighten their anxieties; Jackie Pennington’s blog “Victorian Superstitions- Why Death was so Important” thoroughly explores this idea. In the process of removing the deceased from the family home, their bodies “were carried out of the house feet first to prevent them from beckoning another family member to follow”. Why would someone who adored and cherished their deceased relative believe they would purposely manipulate the living? Surely to beckon another family member and to therefore wish death upon the living, suggests that the Victorians believed that in death, a supernatural force overruled the once moral human. Pennington goes on to explain that “pictures and photographs of the deceased were covered or turned over to stop them [the living] from being possessed by the dead”. For ones who were supposedly admired in death, why is it that the deceased were not worshipped by the living but feared by them?  Is it that many of the Victorian rituals, carried out to honour the dead, were actually fulfilments of superstitious beliefs, that meant they could live without fear of the dead coming back to possess or harm them?

This idea is a one which is vastly explored in Bram Stoker’s Dracula 1897, which plays on the fears common within Victorian society. Lucy Westenra’s (an innocent Victorian victim) initial death sees her as a “beautiful corpse” (174). She is supposedly free from Dracula’s supernatural grasp and it is through death that she is once more restored to her original beauty. However, to the readers regret, Lucy comes back from the dead as a vampire, “a demon in her shape” (228) who preys on young children and is presented through her “pointed teeth [and] bloodstained, voluptuous mouth” (228). Stoker’s cunning representation of the Gothic and supernatural adds emphasis to the anxieties associated with death, the unknown and superstition in the Victorian era.

Lucy Westenra as a vampire in Bram Stocker’s Dracula.

However, is it arguable that the Victorian’s were realistically a lot less superstitious then we would all believe. Historically speaking, the Victorians were obsessed with rituals which honoured and respected the dead.

Post- Mortem family photo. 
One of the most morbid traditions of the era was the capturing of post- mortem photographs. As pictured below (left), it was common practise for the Victorians to pose alongside the deceased and was used in remembrance of their once adored relatives. The trickery behind capturing stand up corpses was to place a stand behind the dead to support them in an upright position. 
Post- Mortem photo: young boy supported

However, this was not always enough to hold up the limp bodies displayed in post- mortem photos, who occasionally required additional stability; which explains why in the right hand photo the back drop appears ruffled as there is a hand holding the young boys head up in a lifelike position. Within today’s society taking photographs alongside the dead would seem macabre, so for the Victorians to, without fails, stand in unity alongside corpses reveals to what extent they cherished the dead. 

Another ritual, which serves as evidence that the Victorians did not associate superstition with the dead, was mourning periods and mourning attire. As addressed in Elaine Furst’s blog “10 Fascinating Death Facts from the Victorian Era”, “A widow was expected to mourn her husband for at least two years during which time she was expected to wear black at all times with her only social agenda being at church”. 

Queen Victoria is a prime example of mourning attire taken to its most extreme level. After Prince Albert’s sudden death on December 14, 1861, their servants were instructed “to dress in black for the first three years of his death. Victoria however, continued wearing black for the rest of her life”. Furst expands by stating that mourning attire came at a risk as “black dye from the crepe material sheds its pernicious dye into the sensitive nostrils, producing catarrhal diseases as well as blindness and cataracts of the eye”. Tell me, why would the Victorians knowingly risk their own health to respect the dead, if they feared them? 

Full mourning attire, photographer circa 1860.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton explores the significance of mourning attire through the means of business. Due to its popularity within the Victorian period, Margaret (a young dress maker) says to Mary Barton “I’m going dark as fast as maybe. Plain work pays so bad, and mourning has been so plentiful this winter that I were tempted to take in any black work I could; and now I’m suffering from it” (46). The emphasises placed upon the price of attire alongside the regularity of death and above all Margaret losing her vision, as a result of making so many dark dresses, reveals the true extent to which Victorians would go to reverence the dead.

Furthermore, jewellery played a key role in worshipping the dead. Hair, bones and teeth of the deceased were coveted by the living and were frequently turned into items of jewellery. These mementos were accepted graciously by the Victorians and in contrast to the way today’s society would view them, the Victorians founds the brooches, necklaces, rings etc. as a respected ritual worth pursuing. To proudly wear something, that today would be considered morally wrong suggests that the Victorian era were not only obsessed with worshipping the dead but were quite possibly the most respectful mourners of all time.

Brooch from Jill Galey's collection of Victorian mourning jewellery.

 Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H entirely defines the meaning of worshipping the dead. Tennyson had a transcendental relationship with his best friend Arthur Hallam which was as “dear as the mother to the son” (9, IX: 20). Tennyson prays for Hallam to “be near” (37, L: 1, 5, 9, 13) him through fear, illness and death. He conclusively wants Hallam to haunt him and this reading alone distorts the ideology that the Victorians seriously associated death with superstition. Superstition implies that the haunting of the living would successfully cause harm and possession to the dead ones relatives whereas in Tennyson’s reality, Hallam's hauntings would only serve to aid and comfort him.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery, which opened in 1839, was considered one of what was known as the Magnificent Seven. It provided private grounds around outer London that were not previously available for the dead. Highgate Cemetery is well known for its beauty and Landscape and as aforementioned the Victorians worshipped the rituals of the dead, and therefore spent vast amounts of money in honouring them; especially on their tombstones. Alongside the richest parts of the cemetery, including the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, one of greatest example of an extravagant tombstone is the Mausoleum of Julius Beer, situated at the highest point of the cemeteries West side, costing 3 million pounds to build and featuring a golden leaf ceiling. As described by Mary Shoobridge in her blog “Highgate Cemetery: A Victorian Valhalla” after Frankfurt’s “daughter, Ada, died at the age of 8, he has this extraordinary tomb built, modelled in the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Recently restored to its former glory, it is as fine inside as it is outside”. 

Highgate Cemetery (West): Mausoleum of Julius Beer.

After 15 years of existence, Highgate Cemetery was expanded by twenty acres (named East Highgate Cemetery) due to its popular demand and income. As Shoobridge explains “a tunnel beneath Swain’s Lane connected the new ground with the Church of England chapel in the older (West) side”. Here many more burials took place, and Highgate Cemetery soon come to be known as one of the most prominent architectural landscapes of its kind. Due to the fact that the Victorians spent so much of their income on burials presents itself as evidence that they valued and respected their dead as oppose to fearing them. However, one cannot help thinking such grand gestures were carried out in an attempt to make the dead feel appreciated so that they did not become angered and come back from the dead to haunt the living. But, with all that is considered, to what extent would you now believe that death and superstition were closely associated in the Victorian era?



Furst, Elaine. "10 Fascinating Death Facts from the Victorian Era." Listverse. General Knowledge, 7 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn. Mary Barton. United Kingdom: Wordsworth Editions, 8 Aug. 2012. Print.

McAlpine, Fraser. "Five Horrible Diseases You May Have Caught in Victorian England." BBC America. N.p., 24 Apr. 2104. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

Pennington, Jackie. “Victorian Superstitions- Why Death was so Important”. The Pennington Edition. Word Press, 9 May 2014. Web. 15 Nov 2015. <>.

Shoobridge, Mary. "Highgate Cemetery: A Victorian Valhalla." IndifferentReflections. N.P., 01 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Stocker, Bram, Maurice Hindle, and Christopher Frayling. Dracula. New York: Penguin Group (USA), 2003. Print.
Tennyson, Lord Alfred. In Memoriam A.H.H. United States: Createspace, 14 May. 2012. Print.

Images/ Videos

Bram Stocker's Dracula (4/8) Movie Clip- Lucy the Vampyr (1992) HD. Movieclips, 7 Oct. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

Cuff, Tim. Victorian Mourning Jewellery. Digital image. Sarahjryder- News from Nelson/ Tasman, New Zealand. Jill Galey, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Ed. Victorian Diseases. Digital image. New Manchester Walks in Steps in the City. N.P., 01 Feb. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <>.

Full Mourning Attire, Photographed Circa 1860. Digital image. Mourning Dress during the Early Victorian Era. R.S. Fleming, 30 Mar. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Shoobridge, Mary. Highgate Cemetery: Mausoleum of Julius Beer. Digital image. IndifferentReflections. N.P., 01 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Victorian Post- Mortem Photo. Digital image. Viralnova- Your Stories Delivered Daily. N.P., 28 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <>.


  1. Hi Shannon, great post! The post-mortem photography is so creepy, especially the hand holding up the little boy. I particularly like your take on Highgate Cemetery, I didn't know there was a 'Magnificent Seven' of cemeteries - how strange!
    In regards to your final question, I do think that death and superstition were closely related for the Victorians, but as you pointed out, being haunted is not always a negative - I think we see both the positive and negatives of this in Wuthering Heights too (also think that ending with a question is a great idea).

    1. Hi Sydney,
      Thank you for the lovely comments! the post- mortem photos are so creepy but were really interesting to research. The 'Magnificent Seven' really puts the death rates within Victorian society into perspective and its insane to think they required seven additional cemeteries in London to accommodate for the dead! Thank you for responding to my final question, I certainly agree with both being present within Wuthering Heights.

  2. What an interesting entry! I wasn't aware the Victorians had so many rituals when it came to death! That one post-mortem picture of the boy with his head being held was really creepy! I really liked your example of Dracula and how instances in the book correlated with the death rituals. Overall a great piece of work and a pleasure to read!

    1. Hi Yazmeen,
      thank you for your kind comments! I could not resist looking at post- mortem photos when considering death rituals and superstitions, I find them so intriguing but odd. I'm glad you enjoyed my link to Dracula, it's one of my favourite novels and there seemed to be so many links between superstition and the unknown(vampires)I thought it important to reference.

  3. Hey Shannon,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. You write beautifully - it was very easy to follow and I love the way your paragraphs elegantly flowed from one to the other.

    Your topic is captivating and I found your research really interesting - especially your idea that people worshiped the dead to prevent them from returning and haunting the living. I had not thought about that before. I suppose my post on ghosts reflects the worst-case scenario for the Victorians! Haha.

    Lovely post!


    1. Hi Phoebe,
      I really appreciate your thoughtful comments, thank you! I could not help looking at Highgate Cemetery without having a feeling of doubt as to why the Victorians went to so much effort to respect the dead. I wish we could know whether the Victorians done this out of respect or fear, I suppose it will always remain a mystery. I did find that there were many correlations between our blogs and it was a pleasure to read your work as it further enhanced my understanding of the Victorian's fear of the unknown; thank you!