Postmortem Photography

Today’s culture is one of everlasting youth and denial of mortality. For us, postmortem photography may seem distasteful and unsettling.  The Victorians, however, were no strangers to death- and death among the very young was an every day occurence. 

The Victorian parlor became the memorial space to display mementoes of every single life, no matter how brief, and great love and care went into arranging the deceased as beautifully as could be done for these photographs.  Many appear to be merely sleeping peacefully. Photographs of children and infants were particularly heart-wrenching, as some grieving mothers tenderly held their little ones for the first and last time in these images. 

These cabinet photographs were framed and displayed on mantels and parlor tables throughout the years, just as if the images recorded there were still part of the family. Smaller portraits were given out to mourning family members to be worn in lockets, often with a curl of hair.  Hair jewelry became an art form of intricate workmanship by loving hands which has never seen an equal since the nineteenth century. 

The Dead were gone- but never forgotten in the hearts of their families.  Every life mattered very much, and its loss felt and remembered forever.

our-darling.jpg  “Our Darling”

Coffins and Caskets

Although these two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a coffin and a casket.  A proper coffin is wider at the shoulder and tapers toward the feet.  This was felt to be a prudent saving of costly wood as there was no need for width all the way to the bottom.  This style is still to be found in Europe today. Coffins were sometimes very simple pine boxes, unlined and unadorned. Fancier models were lined, had a coffin plate of brass or silver with the deceased’s name and dates and sometimes a sentiment such as “Our Darling” or “Beloved Wife”, and had three metal handles on each side for the six pallbearers to grasp on the way to the grave. Graves were sometimes lined with fir branches, and after the coffin was lowered, bricked over to discourage graverobbers or other disturbance.  It was not unusual for cabinet or furniture makers to do a brisk side trade in coffin making.


Lizzie Borden’s father, Andrew J. Borden, was a carpenter by training before branching out into farming and real estate, and although not a mortician, he did build coffins and was an “undertaker” in the sense of providing items needed for a funeral such as chairs, coffin stands, conveyance to the grave, and other incidentals. A newspaper article tells of Mr. Borden displaying a prominent Civil War casualty in the arcade window complete with bunting in the storefront  of the furniture business he owned with partner William Almy, so as more citizens could view the body and pay their repects in a time before the rise of the conventional funeral “parlor”. 

theophilus_blake_coffin_plate.jpg coffin plate

Embalming became a necessity in transporting Civil War dead from a distance back home again, but before those times, the dead were usually quickly buried and not embalmed.  For this reason, in their haste, errors were made and those in comas or showing signs of death were mistakenly buried alive.  Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story of this unsettling possibility in his 1850 story, The Premature Burial.  Many patented safety coffins were invented to prevent this by means of a bell rope tied to the hand of the buried person which would communicate with the living by means of a bell above the ground.  Sometimes a flag could be raised, or even explosives ignited by the unfortunate Undead.

Exhumations over the years have proven that premature burial did indeed take place, however the expressions “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” do NOT come from this situation. “Saved by the bell” has its origins in the boxing ring, and “dead ringer” refers to substituting a look-alike for the genuine.


A casket originally referred to a small chest for storing and carrying jewels or precious objects.  A casket is a rectangular container of the same width from top to bottom.  It is generally padded and lined, and goes into the ground after the grave has been lined with a vault. Today cemeteries still use concrete vaults or the new resin “grave liners” which also have sealed lids. Caskets usually open at the top so the head and shoulders of the deceased may be viewed at the wake, and have the customary three handles on each side for pallbearers.

For more information on Victorian safety coffins, click on the following link for an excellent article


Victoria mourns the Prince Consort



The Prince Albert Memorial in London

With the death of Albert, Queen Victoria set a trend for deep mourning rituals and rules which would dictate the standards on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.  The inconsolable widow declared she was ready to join her beloved spouse in days after his demise due to typhoid fever, but she lived on another 44 years, building memorials to her idolized husband all over England.

Queen Victoria circa 1900

Victorian Sentimentality in Music


Before the radio, every home which could afford it had a parlor piano, and most young ladies of the family could “play a little”.  The hymnal was a standard to be seen on the music rack, as well as ornate, over-sized pages of sheet music which featured vignettes of touching scenes on their covers.  The tunes were sung to dozing infants in front of the fire, and passed down from generation to generation.

Some of the most sentimental and poignant melodies were inspired by the Civil War, and many featured heart-rending lyrics about waiting mothers.  Perhaps the most popular melody of this type was Just Before the Battle, Mother.


The themes which were so universal to tender hearts everywhere dealt with loss and grief, separation and death.  Motherhood was held in such high regard that many songs had a grieving mother, a mother lost to death, or a child’s loss of its mother as themes.  These became known as “tearjerkers” and were a staple of the music writer’s industry for a time well after WWI.   The Baggage Coach Ahead is one such very popular sad song about the loss of a mother and a father’s explanation to a little child about the mother being in the “baggage coach ahead” as they were taking her body home for burial.  Many of these songs have entered into the realm of American folk music.  Many of the lyrics were written by  women, some were mothers.


To hear some of these old favorites, visit the links below- you may need a handkerchief.




Lily- The Flower of Mourning


An Oak Grove granite lily

Perhaps there is no one flower more associated with mourning, funerals or grave stones than the lily.  Madonna lily, calla lily. or other varieties, with their bell- shaped blossoms and heavy perfume were a favorite of Victorian mourners at the wake, on the grave and carved on stones for the female Departed.  Oak Grove has a veritable field of beautiful carved granite and marble lilies.  In an excellent description from the web site The Art of Mourning, the meaning behind the symbol is explained.

“Lily: Majesty, innocence, purity, and resurrection. Often associated with the Virgin Mary and resurrection. Often used on women’s graves. The use of lilies at funerals symbolizes the restored innocence of the soul at death.”

For other interpretations of Victorian plant symbolism, visit

A Victorian Memorial Park


The concept of a beautifully -landscaped park where families might come to visit departed Loved Ones was first fully-realized in London’s Highgate and Cambridge’s Mount Auburn. The Victorians rivalled the Ancient Egyptians in their ritual observances of death and burial, monuments and memorials.  Beautiful Oak Grove Cemetery in the North end of Fall River is one of many New England mid- century Victorian memorial  parks where the streets are named for trees, and fanciful wrought iron gates enclose the fine families of the city like fences of stately homes in the earthly life.  

For those who love cemeteries,  – the peacefulness and quiet of the Past- Oak Grove holds unparalleled verdant vistas and peerless carved monuments of another age.  Whether a student of Victorian symbolism , or of Fall River history- a pensive hour spent in silence at Oak Grove is a retreat from the pressures of modern society, and a glimpse into the intriguing past of the city’s notable citizens.

Plagued with the problems all cemeteries are faced with today, vandalism, landscaping and maintenance costs, security, lack of volunteerism, etc. -perhaps now is the time for those who truly appreciate the heritage and history enclosed within the gates and walls of Oak Grove to come together.