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Funerals through the ages: the history and traditions

How have funeral traditions changed over time? Has the modern selfie replaced post-mortem photography? We want answers (spoiler alert: this blog has them).

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Andy Knott

January 21, 2021

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Victorian vs contemporary funeral traditions

Prince Albert (the man, not the piercing) is largely responsible for kicking off Victorian funeral customs. His wife Vic was so distraught at his death, she dressed in mourning clothes – blacks and sumptuous purples and greys – for the first 3 years after his death. The goth life chose her.

The Victorian period was a time of huge social upheaval and of new technologies, such as telephones, bicycles and electric light bulbs wowing society. If Victorians popped down to modern Shoreditch with its smartphones, fixie bikes and neon displays, they might not feel too out of place.

The way people lived and died was hugely important, and maybe there are a few more parallels with modern death than we first thought. From phantom photos to glass coffins.

Memento mori

Photography was a modern invention and a seriously big deal to the Victorians. When beloved family members died, it was a common practice to take a snap of the corpse, known as a ‘memento mori’; a reminder of your own inevitable death.

Mourning was big business in Victorian times. You could even hire professional mourners in case you had a bad turnout to your funeral. Thanks to social media, this kind of mourning has become a public event again. Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson recently wrote in The Guardian that she had to stop a well-meaning family member from photographing her dead mum in a morgue. Perhaps when we’re grieving in the age of the selfie, taking pictures of someone dead isn’t that big of a deal.

Stop the clocks

In Victorian times, death was considered a full-stop: the absolute end. People would even stop the clocks in the house at the time of death to prevent more bad luck befalling the house. Nowadays, lives are frozen in time in a different way – when you die, your social media doesn’t die with you. Last year researchers predicted dead Facebookers outnumbering living users by 2069.

And since its launch, over 30 million users have died. That’s a lot of cat pics not being shared. Pages can be memorialised, meaning someone looks after the account on behalf of the dead user so you can still post messages to your loved one.

The ever-popular On This Day function can show you happy memories as well as painful ones, but lots of people find comfort in still being able to communicate with their friends and family – even though they can’t respond.

The Victorians had a solution for that, though – if someone was buried but not quite dead yet, they were buried with a bell so they could alert people to the fact that they were underground and conscious. That’s where we get ‘dead ringers’ from…

Pimp my coffin

The funeral business was booming in Victorian times. Death was a spectacle, and something to do on a Wednesday if you didn’t have much on. Often the more important you had been in life, the more ostentatious the funeral. This led to bodies being placed on display in glass coffins, so you could get a better look at great aunt Hilda before she shuffled off underground.

If anything, we’ve become slightly more eco-conscious these days. After all, glass doesn’t biodegrade for absolutely ages. The rise in saving the planet now applies to your afterlife choices, too. Cardboard coffins are becoming more popular, as are more exciting prospects including being buried in speciality caskets shaped like buses. Whatever makes you happy.

What do you want to happen when you die?

Whether you want your earthly remains turned into a diamond or your ashes to be shot into space, we’ve got a deathwish for that.