Curtains were drawn. Clocks were stopped at the time of death. Black ribbons circled door knobs, alerting people a resident had died (and so visitors would not wear new clothing inside the home, which was extremely bad luck). Photos of the living were turned face down so the dearly departed could not summon others to the next world. Mourners refrained from looking in mirrors near the lifeless body, as guests might see an image of the deceased and be the next to die. And bodies were removed from the home feet first so the dead could not make eye contact and summon the living to “the other side.”
That’s just part of what we heard from in-costume and in-character guides at the Victorian Funeral Program held at a Marietta, Ohio mansion called “The Castle.”
At the front door, we were told that the mistress of the house, Charlotte Warner Bell, recently died in child birth and that her infant daughter had died as well. The first guide played the roll of Charlotte’s bereaved sister. Wiping her eyes, Charlotte's sister said she would soon become the mistress of the house. Both she and Charlotte’s widower had young children (and her own husband was killed in the Civil War); re-marrying quickly for practical reasons was common.
When the sister was overcome by “hysteria,” however, we had to leave the room. Others told us about death bed vigils held to make sure the person was really dead and not just in a coma from which they might wake up (hence the term “wake.”) We learned about the appropriate mourning attire and how long it had to be worn (three years, although ornamental items such as lace could be added in the second year. Queen Victoria, however, wore mourning attire until her own death a full 40 years after the death of her husband, Prince Albert). We also met with a post mortum photographer and embalmer.
Afterwards, everyone received a piece of “funeral cake” in a container with an actual Victorian-era epitaph inscribed. The one Jim received read like this:
She was not smart
She was not fair
But hearts with grief
For her are swellin’
As empty sits her little chair
She died of eating watermelon.”
|This gentleman opened the gate as we approached the home of the recently deceased Mrs. Bell.|