'Death Do Us Part'

Michele Vowell | Kentucky New Era

A framed memorial pays tribute to a child who died in the early 1900s. Memorials like this evolved from 19th century mourning customs established by Queen Victoria. The memorial was on display Tuesday night during the Big Read event "Death Do Us Part" at the Hall of the Alhambra Theatre.

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria of England lost the love of her life, Prince Albert, and thus set the standard for mourning for generations.

Robert Martin, chief financial officer for the City of Hopkinsville, discussed the queen's royal influence Tuesday night during a Big Read presentation, "Death Do Us Part," in the upstairs Hall of the Alhambra Theatre.

"While people of the 19th century were widely repressed about a great many things, their comfort with death is a far cry from modern cinemas," he said. "Nowhere is this more evident than in British mourning etiquette during the time of Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901."

The death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861 ushered in a "rigorous display of mourning" that set the stage for the general culture to follow, he said.

Martin said he has an appreciation for death and funerals --- and the Victorian era --- because his parents owned Martin Funeral Home in Elkton in a Victorian-style house. The family lived in the floors above the business.


"It gave me an appreciation that death is just a part of living," Martin said. "We are all going to die … It's a natural part of living."

Martin said by studying Victorian funeral customs, one can have a better understanding of this year's Big Read book, "Our Town." Act 3 takes place in a cemetery.

"'Our Town' is set at the very end of Queen Victoria's reign," he said. "Some of those customs still last today."

Martin said after her husband died, the queen entered a deep depression and stayed out of the public eye for a decade. She wore mourning clothes for the next 40 years, until the day she died --- "setting the standard for mourning attire," he said.

Mourning clothing included black clothing and a heavy veil worn over the face for a minimum of three months. Widows were expected to mourn for at least two years. Widowers were expected to wear mourning clothing, as well, but only for one year.

"Because there was a great fear of being buried alive, relatives or friends would stay awake through the night to watch for any movement of the corpse," he said. "Thus, the origin of the term 'funeral wake.'"

In the mid-1800s, Martin said Great Britain's concern for community health led to the establishment of landscaped public cemeteries.

"The elaborate headstones and wordy epitaphs erected on memorials to the deceased provided a (place) … where family and friends might express their grief and love," he said.

One of the more morbid funeral customs of the day, Martin said, was postmortem portraits.

"Postmortem photographs may be the single creepiest element of Victorian death and mourning," he said.

Martin said in the Victorian era funerals became elaborate affairs, much like weddings are today.

"For the wealthy, burying a loved one was as much about being seen as it was about the process of grieving and mourning," he said.

Keely Doctorman, of Hopkinsville, said she thought it was interesting and understandable how focused on death the culture was in the Victorian era.

"It was so common for children to die before the age of 2," she said. "It was so common for you to have more than one spouse. The shorter mourning period for men was because women were more likely to die."

Doctorman said Queen Victoria "was quite a lady."

"(Prince Albert) was supposedly the great love of her life. She spent the rest of her life in mourning. If he wasn't, she perpetrated a very convincing lie," she said.

Hopkinsville resident Jeri Lynn Richardson collects oddities, including Victorian funeral memorabilia. She loaned Martin some jewelry fashioned with deceased loved ones' hair inside, as well as invitations to a funeral held years ago in Elkton.

"I just thought it fascinating all of the traditions," she said. "I think it's interesting how we still do some of the funeral customs today that they started way back then."

Martin said funerals today are "straight out of the Victorian playbook."

"Our funerals unwaveringly involve wearing black, the singing of hymns and the consumption of mass quantities of food," he said. "Anything else is simply inappropriate."

Martin said funeral traditions have evolved to include cremations and celebrations of life, which are contrary to Victorian customs, but many 19th century traditions still remain.

"I think we will always have a touch of Victorian in our funeral traditions," he said.

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