British Columbia

Vancouver Island college students replicate Victorian funeral ceremony

A group of Camosun College students recently staged a Victorian-style wake and pop-up exhibit as they delved into Victoria's historic funeral rituals.

The students are studying Victoria's historic mourning rituals

Student Laurel Hanson models elements of the mourning clothes typically worn by Victorian women: black veil, capelet and brooch. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

A group of Camosun College students recently staged a Victorian-style wake and pop-up exhibit as they delved into Victoria's historic funeral rituals.

The students were part of an anthropology of death class taught by instructor Nicole Kilburn. She says people during the Victorian age would have been more familiar with death than people today. 

"Infant mortality rates were much higher and some people lived much shorter lives," Kilburn said.

"Death was something that would have been more common and it still happened a lot in the home."

As a result, there were elaborate rituals surrounding death and mourning. 

A sign in the window of the drapers shop in the Royal B.C. Museum's Old Town, promising prompt service for mourners. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

Mourning clothes, fashioned in jet black, were rush ordered and tailored within days to be ready for the funeral.

"The expense that is represented there is quite profound, so you're having to organize mourning clothes and fairly quickly during the Victorian period," she said. 

Laurel Hanson, a second-year anthropology student in the course, focused on Victorian mourning fashion and the social expectations around the visible experience of grief. 

Clothes suitable for mourners are featured in the drapers shop in the Royal B.C. Museum's Old Town display. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

"Usually a full period of mourning for a widow would be about two years after her spouse had passed," Hanson said.

The widow would pass through the mourning period in different stages of clothing: from plain clothing without patterns and sheen, minimal jewellery, and sometimes, even a full veil over her head in the presence of other people. 

"Until that two-year period of mourning was up she had to make sure that she was performing that role of grieving widow devoted to her dearly departed spouse for that full time otherwise she risks the consequence of being shunned by society," Hanson explained.

Instructor Nicole Kilburn stands with student Laurel Hanson, who is wearing elements of a widow's mourning attire. The front door of historic Helmcken House on the Royal B.C. Museum property is hung with a boxwood wreath in preparation for a Victorian-style wake. (Deborah Wilson/CBC)

The long mourning period was inspired by Queen Victoria herself, Kilburn says, who stayed a mourning widow for 40 years after the death of her husband.

A big shift came during the First World War — where casualties mounted to make it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

"You have death on an unimaginable scale, on an industrial scale, that made the Victorian rituals around mourning and grief just untenable," Kilburn said.

Queen Victoria popularized many mourning rituals. She mourned her late husband for 40 years. (Senate of Canada)

Still, she says, it's an interesting way of looking at how we grieve differently in a modern world. 

The mock wake took place Saturday at Helmcken House with an exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum.

Listen to the segment below:

The CBC's Deborah Wilson took a look at a pop-up exhibit on the Victorian death rituals in British Columbia. She spoke with Camosun College anthropology instructor Nicole Kilburn and her students. 8:31

With files from Deborah Wilson

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