Funeral Customs of the 1800s

by Kathy Lauder.

Most burials in the Nashville City Cemetery took place during the 19th century. It was a period, perhaps more than any other, when people obeyed formal rules of behavior, and there were very particular rules regarding death.

Queen Victoria’s daughters in mourning for their father, 1862

When a Victorian family member died, people in the household carefully followed certain customs to honor the departed and to inform others of the death. The bereaved family would close the curtains, stop all the clocks in the house at the time of death, cover mirrors with black crepe or other veiling (in order, as some believed, to prevent the spirit from being trapped in the looking glass), and turn family photographs face-down (to prevent the spirit from possessing others in the household). Families commonly hung a black bow, a wreath of laurel, or a bundle of yew branches on the front door to let neighbors and visitors know there had been a death. Flowers and candles throughout the house lent a somber touch, but also, of course, scented the air, a particular comfort in the days before embalming – burial might not take place for as many five days after death in order to allow distant family members to arrive.

A covered mirror indicates that the household is in mourning (photo from Appalachian Mountain Roots)

The position of the body in its coffin also held significance. Coffins were carried out of the house feet first in order to prevent the spirit of the dead from looking back and beckoning someone else in the household to follow. In many cemeteries the graves are still placed with the head to the west and feet to the east to correspond with the Christian belief that the final Call to Judgment will come from the east.

For at least a year after the death, close relatives would dress in black, using stationery and handkerchiefs with a black border. Widows wore mourning for two years or even longer, and many would not leave their homes without covering their faces with a dark veil. Many widows dressed not only themselves but also their servants in black, leaving home only to attend church services. Some restricted their jewelry to what was called “mourning jewelry.” This was limited to black (primarily jet) stones and featured lockets, bracelets, or brooches woven or braided from the hair of the deceased. Men’s mourning practices were a little less restrictive. They could generally go about their lives and jobs, sometimes wearing a black arm band to signify their loss.

Mourning brooch made from human hair (from the permanent collection of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis)

 19th Century Superstitions about Death, Funerals, and Cemeteries

  • Cover your mouth while yawning to keep your spirit from escaping or prevent the devil from entering your body.
  • If rain falls on a funeral procession, the deceased will go to heaven.
  • It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head-on. If you cannot turn around, hold onto a button until it passes.
  • A clap of thunder after a burial means the soul of the deceased has arrived in heaven.
  • Never wear anything new to a funeral, especially shoes.
  • If a dog howls at night when someone in the house is sick, it is a bad omen. You can reverse the bad luck it by reaching under the bed and turning a shoe over.
  • If you spill salt, throw a pinch of it over your left shoulder to prevent a death.
  • You must hold your breath when passing a cemetery, or you will not be buried.
  • If the deceased has lived a good life, flowers will bloom on her grave; if not, only weeds will grow there.  (2009)

Previously published in Monuments & Milestones, the Nashville City Cemetery newsletter.