The following traditions involving death were once commonly observed in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. While you may find the occasional instance of one of these traditions being practiced today, they are mostly relegated to history.

Post-Mortem Photography

Post-mortem photography was a popular means of preserving the memory of a loved one in the 19th century. Especially in the early years of photography, people found that having a photograph of a loved one post-mortem was better than having no photograph at all. The use of metal stands and supports to pose corpses into life-like positions is said to be a myth propagated by the existence of a device designed by photographer Mathew Brady to assist living people in holding still for portraits which required long exposure times. While the practice of post-mortem photography declined throughout the early 20th century, it has been revived in limited circumstances such as to assist in the bereavement of stillborn infants. Examples of this include the work of a Colorado-based nonprofit organization called “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Sitting Up with the Dead

In the present day, when a loved one dies, employees from the mortuary will rush over and take the body of the deceased to the funeral home, where it will be preserved and prepared for a funeral. Before this was the common practice, it was the custom for the family to prepare the body and arrange the funeral at home. The body was bathed and otherwise prepared. A homemade casket was often constructed, or one was purchased from the lumberyard. While these preparations were being completed, the deceased spent the night in a bed or was laid out in the parlor, and someone stayed with the body at all times. While some say this was done to keep away rodents, others insist this was a precaution to make sure the deceased was truly dead.

Superstitions and Fears

While the original purpose for sitting up with the dead might be up for debate, many traditions involving the deceased were developed to combat fears and superstitions held by people in the 19th century. People would carry the corpse of a loved one out of the home feet-first so that the spirit of the dead could not beckon other family members to follow. Graves were covered with slabs or bricks to deter grave robbers, who were often medical students retrieving cadavers for their studies. Coffins were rigged with bells and other devices in the off-chance that a person was buried alive. Graves were faced East to West to assist the deceased in facing Christ on Judgment Day (and prior to that to assist pagans in their sun worship).

Bottom Line

The customs mentioned in this article are no longer the widespread traditions once practiced by people in the United States and throughout the English-speaking world. While there may be the occasional instance of any of one of these traditions being observed, you will be hard pressed to find such an instance, and even harder pressed to find most of these being practiced without controversy.

An earlier version of this article appeared at WafflesatNoon and The Huffington Post. © 2017-2020 Randal A. Burd, Jr., M.Ed.

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One Reply to “Strange Traditions Involving Death in the Victorian Era”

  1. It’s still very common in Ireland to wake the person at home for a couple of nights, before they go to the church for the funeral.

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