The Victorians Would Be Mortified

We all know the Victorians had a unique relationship with death and dying, but the current pandemic has forced us Americans to reconcile with our own strange attitudes toward funeral practices. There are still some traditions left over from the Victorians, such as the term "passed away" instead of "died" and "loved one" instead of "the deceased". The traditional black funeral attire has been in use for centuries but was particularly prominent in the 19th century, which is also when modern embalming methods gained popularity.


One Victorian norm which has not carried into the modern age is a willingness to discuss funeral planning well before you’re actually about to die. It was far more common then to die young or in a sudden accident, so it was also more common to have a general plan for your funeral in advance. For example, if a woman was pregnant and close to her due date she would lay out her chosen burial outfit in case she died in childbirth. Bodies were taken care of in the home rather than by morticians, so the family knew what to do. Today, most people only discuss what they want for their funeral with their lawyer while drawing up a will, and even then it’s an uncomfortable conversation. The coronavirus has led to a greater awareness of our own mortality, and thus more willingness to talk with our families about end-of-life plans just in case.


After hearing so many recent stories of people dying alone in the hospital because of safety precautions, I couldn’t help but think of how this is the exact opposite of the "good death" every Victorian tried to achieve. While of course those stories are sad and awful to hear in modern times, the way people usually die today is still very different from the 19th century. To the Victorians, the "good death" involved dying at home surrounded by family members all expecting to hear profound last words. In fact, last words were so important that sometimes people in pain wouldn’t be given pain meds because their family wanted them to be lucid and speaking in their last moments. In the 21st century, death happens more often in a hospital, which the Victorians considered undignified and an unfortunate last resort.


In recent years, demand for cremation over burial has been steadily rising and the pandemic sped up this trend. Families are choosing to "cremate and wait" to have a large memorial service in the future rather than have traditional funerals with limits on attendance. Along with the nature of a coronavirus death, the Victorians would have been shocked by how common cremation is today. During that time, most Christians believed that in order for a person to be resurrected upon the Second Coming, their body needed to be fully intact. Cremating someone wasn’t a decision about the body, it was a decision about the soul, so cremation was considered sacrilegious. Eventually, some Victorians would accept the practice but it did not become normalized until after WWI and the 1918 flu pandemic. Expensive, dramatic Victorian funerals were already falling out of favor as the world modernized, and the mass number of deaths due to the war and the pandemic meant that adhering to Victorian mourning practices would have been overwhelming. On top of this, scores of men were dying on battlefields, their bodies disfigured, so attitudes began to change in regards to physical requirements for future resurrection. By 1963, the Catholic church officially changed its stance on cremation and over time more liberal Jewish movements have started to accept it.


Since Victorians viewed a proper burial as the last thing symbolizing one’s worth in life, it was shameful to have a pauper’s burial. Some people started saving money early in life to pay for their funerals. Some would join burial clubs, organizations like modern insurance companies that collected fees every week based on your age and the type of funeral you wanted, and then paid for the funeral when you died. The more affordable graves, especially in cities like London, weren’t ideal. The landowners running cemeteries sometimes crammed as many bodies in the space as they could. There might have been twelve coffins stacked in one burial plot. If they had more bodies than they could handle, they sometimes threw a few into the city sewers (which, as you can imagine, did not help sanitation problems). The poorest people would have pauper’s funerals, which were paid for by the local parish. Their grave would likely be communal, unmarked, and shallow, though it was usually permanent. Americans were horrified to see photos of the temporary mass graves on Hart Island a few months ago, and the Victorians would have felt the same way.


Just as Victorians worried about avoiding a pauper’s burial, today there are plenty of families struggling to pay for funeral costs. Crowdfunding funerals is increasingly common, especially as so many people lost their jobs because of the pandemic or are facing unexpected medical bills after treatment for the virus. All of this reminds me of Victorian London’s working poor scrimping and saving to pay for a basic funeral.


In conclusion, our modern situation - people dying alone in hospitals, being cremated, and their families not being able to pay for funerals - would have mortified the Victorians. They would probably be following the example of David Sedaris’s father, refusing to die until they could have massive funerals.