Halloween is just around the corner and since my book does require the death of a secondary character, I thought it might be fun to share some of the superstitions I discovered during research of Victorian funerals and mourning rituals.
At the Time of Death
If the death occurred at home, the curtains would be drawn and the clocks would be stopped. Symbolically, it represented the family in mourning, and if you have ever lost someone, the idea of a clock showing that your entire world has stopped seems accurate. Stopping the clock also “prevented” anyone else in the family from experiencing a run of bad luck.
In addition to the clocks being stopped and curtains drawn, mirrors would be covered with crape or veiling to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass. Picture frames were sometimes turned down to prevent the spirit from possessing one of the remaining survivors.
Due to eyes being affected by rigor mortis first, they were swiftly closed and often times pennies were placed over the eyelids to prevent them from reopening. However, there was also a superstition that being looked at by a corpse could threaten you and your kind.
Wakes were held in the home for generally 4 days by friends and family. This allowed time for family members to travel. Staying with the body was a sign of respect for the deceased, although some believe it was used to make sure the deceased did not wake up from a coma.
If you remember the story of Lazarus, he had been dead four days before Jesus commanded for the stone to be rolled away. What was the response of Martha? “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” (I love the KJV of that story. Who wouldn’t love to say stinketh?)
So now imagine your loved one lying dead in your house for four days… because of that wonderful aroma, flowers and candles would fill the room and bed of the deceased, at least until embalming became common.
When it was time for the body to be removed from the house, they were carried out feet first. This was to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him.
For some strange reason, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a fear of being buried alive developed.Some entrepreneurs took advantage of this fear and developed a safety coffin, where a bell was placed on top of the grave. One end of a rope was fixed to the bell and the other to the hand of the deceased. The idea was if they woke up they could ring the bell and alert the graveyard workers to their situation, thus being “saved by the bell.”
Other coffins were fixed with elaborate tubes and mirrors which allowed gravediggers to look into coffins for signs of life.
Grave-robbery became a real problem in the 19th century as medical schools grew and needed fresh cadavers for dissection in their classes. Bricking-over a grave or putting a wrought iron cage over a grave was a way of guaranteeing some security of the body being undisturbed after death.