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West Norwood Cemetery
West Norwood Cemetery

Victorian attitude to death

The Victorians had a very different attitude to death from us. Many more people died at a younger age, and the risk of dying before adulthood was very high. Among the poor people disease spread quickly, living conditions were unsanitary and there were none of the cures that we have for disease and infection today. The wealthier classes also succumbed to epidemics of flu and diphtheria. Today you might find that death is a taboo subject, but the Victorians, as Christians who held strong convictions about the eternal soul and the resurrection of the body, embraced the subject of death. This is possibly one reason why the tombs and mausoleums in the Victorian cemeteries are so splendid and inventive, and the families of the deceased would spend much more time visiting them and enjoying the experience. Sir William Tite, who designed the layout of the Norwood Cemetery and who is buried there in the catacombs, intended to make it like a pleasure ground. Cemeteries were often compared to Paradise.

In 1861 Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, died and the entire royal household were to spend five years in official mourning. They were only allowed to go into semi-mourning after this period because of the effect it was having on the morale of her staff and the rest of the nation. There was something of a death cult around the whole ritual and paraphernalia of mourning, particularly among the wealthier and upper classes. Everything had to be carried out in the right way, with all black clothing and jewellery, black horses and black plumes on the carriage or hearse. Special official mourners were hired, called mutes, who wore sad expressions and as their name suggests, kept silent. Victoria was the ultimate grieving widow and in her behaviour and dress she set standards which other widows followed. Victoria never remarried; she remained in mourning for 40 years. You can often see Victorian style funerals in London today; many companies still keep the black carriage and horses like the one here from Westways Carriage Horses. Poor people in Victoria’s London were often buried in graves with just a simple wooden cross, or even in a pauper’s or common grave. There were sites provided for common graves in cemeteries and as individuals were not marked by any memorial, the poor remain invisible to us there. The Wildgoose Memorial library is a small museum and archive that deals with ‘The living in relation to the dead, and on memory and mortality’. You can visit it on www.janewildgoose.co.uk


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