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Monday, October 31, 2011

Regency Death and Burial

Since it's Halloween, I decided to get a little macabre and delve into the area of death and burial practices in Regency England. Though I'm an author of Regency Romance novels, I do a great deal of research in order to keep my books feeling as authentic as possible, not just as a pretty backdrop to my stories, but because their customs shaped the people, and therefore, my characters.

In England during the Regency Era, there were no funeral parlors or funeral homes. When a person died, the body remained at home. Sometimes an undertaker came prepare the body and sometimes a family member or a servant such as a valet usually did it. Most often, though, women were expected to perform that duty. (Odd that, since women weren't generally allowed to attend the funeral lest their delicate constitutions be too strained.) Anyway, whomever had this unpleasant task washed the hair and body also dressed the body. They often used props to arrange the body's position, such as under the chin to keep the mouth closed.

Bodies were usually laid out on a table for mourners to come pay their respects. The bodies were encased in a shroud, even in the coffin, which was usually made of wool or cambric unless the family were willing to pay for silk. A law was passed in the 18th century that shrouds had to be wool, unless people paid for the privilege of having something else. This act was passed to protect the wool trade. I could comment on that, but I won't. :-)

They didn't embalm in those days. Though America began embalming as early as the Civil War, (well after the Regency Era) that practice didn't take off in England for many years. To help with preservation, bodies were sometimes laid on ice. As you can imagine, that created problems with melting ice and disposing of the water. Usually, burials happened within a week since bodily decay happened quickly and depended on many factors beyond just climate. Obese bodies decay faster than thin ones. Alcoholics, contrary to popular belief, do not get "pickled" but instead decay faster. This is the same for those who suffered from long-term disease.

Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert
Prince Albert died on December 14, 1861--a chilly time of year, to be sure--and was not actually buried for nearly two weeks. The stench was so bad that the nearby guards had to be changed every two hours, despite the profusion of lilies around his coffin. Albert was relatively thin, but had been suffering from typhoid fever for probably two years.

The rich were buried in family tombs or inside churches. The middle class were buried in the ground in coffins. The very poor were thrown into common graves. I also read that poor people sometimes rented a coffin to get the body to the graveyard and then tipped it until the body slid out and into the grave. The leased coffin was then returned to the coffin maker. That conjures up all kinds of images, doesn't it?

They didn't use "caskets," they used "coffins," which had a widened area for the shoulders like what we think of for Dracula's coffin. Coffins were fresh-cut from pine after a person's death, so that the strong pine smell could help with body odors. Hmmm, maybe they should have strewn pine chips or cedar chips around Prince Albert's body in addition to the lilies :-)

A person who committed the heinous crime of suicide, also know as self-murder, was buried vertically at a cross roads, supposedly to keep the spirit from knowing which way to travel. Why, vertically, I don't know.

If you want more information, I recommend "The Victorian Undertaker" by Trevor May, a thin volume that you can read in about an hour. Although it discusses the Victorian Era, there isn't much about death and burial had changed from the Regency Era.

This concludes your trip into the macabre.

Oh, and Happy Halloween.  Mwahahaha.


catslady said...

Buried standing up - never heard that one but then I always learn lots of interesting facts here.

My dad's father died in the early 1920's and my dad was just a boy. It was in Mississippi so hot and they still laid them out in the home. I was grown before I found out why my father hated flowers and never gave any to my mom. It was the memory of the smell of all the flowers in his house to try and cover the smell :(

Alice Faye said...

My aunt died as an infant back in the 30's. Her body was kept at home and my mom said they left her in the cradle all in white. I do know she was buried with no vault. Have no idea or she was too young to remember if she had a casket or coffin.

angelyn said...

Nice post. My last one was about Regency suicide burial and what Byron had to say on the matter. The contemporary accounts of London's small parish cemetaries before the opening of Highgate cemetary is instructive. And nauseating.

Isabella Throne said...

I am doing some research on Regency funerals for a new Gothic novel to be published before Halloween. Thanks for the help. This is a very enlightening article.