Monday, May 19, 2008

On Victorians and Goth:

The Victorians made death into an art form. Almost everything a person in Victorian times did had death attached to it. In fact most of our death rituals are left over from them. They even used cemeteries like we use parks and would picnic there. And on special occasions they set the table with an extra place setting and chair for the departed to join in the celebration.

There were elaborate rules on dress and social obligation. Right down to their writing paper and calling cards all rimmed with a black border for the subscribed time limit. For a close relative a half inch border for the first year, a quarter inch border for the second and an eighth inch border for the third. And of course the black mourning dress. That went into gray with black trim and then pastels with black or gray trim as the time went by. Few people got through life without at least wearing a black arm band in mourning no matter the social standing. And the plethora of flowers was to try to mask the smell of death in the house. Funeral parlors replaced the home viewing.

They attended Séances and mummy unwrapping parties for fun. They had elaborate tombstones and mausoleums made to honor the dead and mark their graves. Death quilts or tapestries were made in the year after a persons death. Often these had a cemetery or mourning scenes on them. Hair art, made from the hair of the departed into flowers and motifs and hung on the wall in a frame. Playing cards were bad not because of gambling but because they came from tarot decks and you were tempting death by playing with them without the proper respect. But they often played with them anyway.

They made death masks of plaster from the faces of the dearly departed. They took photographs of the dead in coffins and sitting up in bed or a chair. Some people even went so far as to have life size statues made from the plaster molds of their dead children or babies.

The cypress flower meant death or mourning according to the book “The Language of Flowers” by Kate Greenaway. Weeping Willow trees did too. Many people felt that seeing certain birds or animals meant a coming death. Crow on a cradle or a large black dog known as a grim.

They put more into a funeral then a wedding. They even had professional mourners. These were hired to weep and wail and swell the numbers at a funeral to up the dead ones status in life. And often the meal after the funeral was the payment for coming. But you paid more for a good crier. Cookbooks of the day even had menus for funeral meals.

Yes, Victorians liked their death rituals. And I like the Goth side of Victorians for it.

More on death another time.

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