Victorian Death and Cemeteries

I love the peace and quiet of old Victorian cemeteries and I can spend hours reading the inscriptions on tombs and headstones and marvel at the magnificent carvings of statues.  I love it even more when I come across an old tomb that invites me in closer to reveal its hidden past.

Victorian Cemetery in the Fog
Victorian Cemetery in the Fog

It pains me to see how boring and bland our cemeteries are becoming.  Why would anyone want to be laid to rest in a place where all the headstones are pretty much uniform?

Our cemeteries are losing character.  The Victorians had the right idea when they lavished the grave of their dearly departed with monuments and statues so that they wouldn’t be forgotten.

They built their cemeteries as parks and would regularly stroll amongst the dead and have family picnics.  Now we have authorities ripping up headstones and turning these once magnificent cemeteries into green spaces with absolutely no character at all.

Even before the Victorian era, craftsmen were carving death heads and skull and crossbones onto headstones that have stood the test of time.  

Skull and Crossbones grave in Warrington
Skull and Crossbones grave in Warrington

A skull and crossbones was a Memento Mori, in other words, it’s a reminder that our own mortality doesn’t last.  Death will come to us one day soon.

Photograph of Manchester Road Cemetery in Warrington
Tree framed view of a cemetery

My vision of a burial is for my grave to stay intact for an eternity. Before you even think of correcting me, yes I know that most plots are only for a period of approximately 75 to 99 years here in the UK.

As for the newer cemeteries, well I just don’t feel like they hold any beauty or history these days.  Most of the headstones are pretty much uniform with no fascinating inscriptions or carvings to draw someone in like me.

Memento Mori verse on a headstone
Memento Mori verse on a headstone

All you that come my grave to fee
Prepare yourfelves to follow me
Repent in time make no delay
I in my prime was called away

From a headstone in Daresbury

It’s a shame, but the upkeep of these Victorian cemeteries is more than likely down to funds.  Generations have moved on and therefore there is no one to pay for the maintenance of the elaborate stonework.  

This is one of the reasons why I love creating graveyard and cemetery photographs and I’m more than happy to work with cemetery friend groups to help them raise funds for preserving them.  If you feel the same way as me and you manage a Victorian cemetery, then please get in touch.

The Victorians certainly had their own fascinating customs when it came to death.  I’ve included a few of my favourites below and I would love to read your feedback.

Victorian Death Photographs

Deceased girl sat to the side on a chair so that a stand can support her body.
Deceased girl sat to the side on a chair so that a stand can support her body.

The Victorians photographed their dead prior to burial.  I find these photographs intriguing and it would be thought of as totally shocking in this day and age to prop up a dead person, paint eyes on their eyelids so that they would look awake for a photograph to be taken.   They took so much time to paint their faces and make them look beautiful for the portrait to be taken as a keepsake.  The Victorian girl pictured to the left more than likely died of mumps, which was a big killer in the Victorian times.

Victorian’s and their Death Superstitions

As soon as there was a death, all mirrors in the home would be covered in case the spirit of the deceased became trapped in the glass.

Clocks would be stopped or else it would bring bad luck.

The custom of ‘waking’ involved watching over the body every minute until burial, which would last 3-4 days.  This would also serve as a safeguard should a person be in a coma.

Curtains were drawn to prevent the soul leaving before the funeral.

The dead were carried out feet first to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning others to follow.

‘Saved by the bell’ comes from the fear of being buried alive.  Coffins would have a bell connected to a chain so that one who wakes could sound an alarm.

Flowers would bloom upon a grave of someone who had a good spirit/life.

Hearing a clap of thunder following a burial indicates that the deceased’s soul has reached Heaven.

If you smell roses when there are none around, someone is going to die.

If you don’t hold your breath whilst walking past a graveyard, you will not be buried.

If a bird pecks your window or crashes into one, there has been a death.

If a picture falls off the wall, there will be a death of someone you know.

A single snowdrop in a garden foretells a death.

It’s bad luck to cross a path of a funeral procession and if this couldn’t be avoided, you had to hold tightly onto a button to ward off some of the negative effects.

Glasgow Necropolis
Glasgow Necropolis
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