February 1, 2013

The Victorian lady undertaker

Lady of Ashes

has as its heroine a Victorian undertaker, Violet Morgan. Although Violet marries into the profession she becomes quickly adept at running the family business. While her husband Graham becomes involved in a shady enterprise involving blockade running for the Confederacy, Violet assumes full control of operations at Morgan Undertaking. Graham complains that she is neglecting the house, even though he does not leave her with many options, since he is unwilling to devote himself to the care of corpses. Violet, however, sees her role not just as work but as a vocation, burying the dead being a work of mercy. She approaches the dead with respect and the survivors with sympathy and comfort
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What I appreciate most about this novel is the fascinating information on Victorian mourning customs. People in mourning, especially widows, were allowed to withdraw into seclusion. Everyone understood the requirements of the grieving process, at least where the middle and upper classes were concerned. Outward expressions of sorrow were not only commonplace but expected. In our eyes the accoutrements of mourning may seem exaggerated, since now many do not have burial services but "celebrations of life." In Victorian times, a period of mourning was part of the healing process,
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Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead?  In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.

Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead?  They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground. 

Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals?  Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies.  While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.

First class or coach?  The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down.  In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status.  For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top.  Were you just middle class?  Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes.  For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.
Posted by Jill Fallon at February 1, 2013 10:47 AM | Permalink