Death and Dying in Regency England

As with any good (or bad) mystery, there are several deaths in my next Jane Austen adaptation/sequel, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. However, death and funerals were not on the order of present day “farewells.” If one has ever read Jessica Mitford’s “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” he will early on wonder about the embalming process or the lack of it in the previous centuries.

In nineteenth century England, people died early on from disease, childbirth, accidents, and even murder. One thing that a lot of people get wrong when they write funeral scenes for the Regency is having a graveside service where a priest or friend eulogizes the dead person in the cemetery. At that time, cemeteries were considered consecrated ground, and a person was not permitted to have non-sacred speeches or texts read aloud at the gravesite. One would only have the traditional “ashes to ashes” liturgy at the burial itself.

Although they were forbidden to attend the funeral because of their “delicate” sensibilities, when a person died, the women in the family would prepare the body. Occasionally, a gentleman’s valet would do the job. Whoever was assigned the task would wash the person’s body and hair and then dress the corpse. Often, those in charge would use small objects hidden under the shirt or cravat to keep the person’s chin elevated and the mouth closed.

Embalming was not used in England for many years following the Regency Period so keeping the body “fresh” was always an issue. Placing the body on ice was one was to deal with the quickly decaying corpse. Funerals normally took place within a few days of the death. Floral arrangements about the bodies were used to mask the stench of the decay.

The wealthy had tombs for the family’s burial needs. The middle class/gentry were buried in coffins. I saw a recent ad for “renting a casket.” In the Regency, the poor would rent a coffin to transport the deceased to the cemetery where the body was dumped out of the coffin so as to return the box to the coffin maker. The coffin was cut after the person died. The fresh smell of the wood, usually pine, would cover some of the smell of the decaying body. 

According to a law (predating 1823), a person who committed suicide was to be buried at a crossroads with a stake through the corpse’s heart. The stake kept the ghost from returning (see the cemetery scene in my Vampire Darcy’s Desire). Burial at a crossroads diluted the person’s evilness by sending his spirit in four directions. Until 1870, a person who committed suicide also lost all his personal property to the Crown. From 1823 to 1832, instead of the stake, the deceased had to buried at night between the hours of nine and midnight. Eventually, suicide cases were permitted to be buried in a Church of England graveyard, but no service could be conducted over the body.

The possibility of premature resurrection was common during the period. Medical schools were only permitted to use the cadavers of those who were executed for a crime. There were never enough bodies for anatomical study. Surgeons would hire grave robbers to exhume likely candidates for medical study. An efficient grave robber would dig down to where the head was located and pull the body out without disturbing the whole site. They would leave the grave clothes behind. Having a dead body was not a great offense, but a body dressed in grave clothes would be seven years’ transportation if the robber was caught.

Mourning the departed was not adhered to with such strict “guidelines” during the Regency Period, as it was during the Victorian Period. Queen Victoria mourned Albert until her own death. According to Trumbach in The Rise of the Egalitarian Family, a person would mourn: 12 months for a husband or wife; 6 months for parents or parents-in-law; 3 months for a sister or brother, uncle or aunt; 6 weeks for a sister-in-law or brother-in-law; 3 weeks for aunts/uncles who remarried; 2 weeks for first cousin; 1 week for second and third cousins, as well as the husband or stepmother’s sister.

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7 Responses to Death and Dying in Regency England

  1. Monica says:

    It’s interesting that women were considered too delicate to attend the formal service and burial but not to physically handle a corpse that had who-knows-what wrong with it. Also the whole stealing naked dead people vs clothed dead people lol. Is that because grave clothes were considered someone’s property? Did people bury their loved ones with jewelry or mementos like they do now?

    • One’s Sunday best would be evident if one was caught with a body. Naked bodies could be thought to be a part of a mass grave for peasants, etc. It would also be acceptable to have naked bodies being taken off to the medical schools for experiments. If a body was clothed, it would draw the authorities attention. Truthfully, because I knew that the women prepared the body, I had thought they also attended the funeral. I am glad I haven’t written something stupid about funerals.

      • Monica says:

        I’ve heard differing reports of whether they attended but I didn’t know the women prepared the bodies until now. The other day I read a P&P fiction online and Col Fitzwilliam said something like “death is women’s work” and now it makes more sense.

  2. suzan says:

    I didn’t know they prepared the body either however I did know they didn’t attend. I find the whole part about the Crown got the money in case of suicide atrocious. The rest of the family already had to deal with the repercussions of their loved one and then to lose all the prospect of material sustenance too is just beyond belief.

    • Suicide was a crime worst than murder in those days. “Self murder” as it was often termed. There is a YA book called “Hero” (by Robert Cormier). In it, the young man falls on a grenade because it wants to kill himself. As a Catholic, suicide would have been the ultimate crime. Unfortunately, he disfigures his face, but he does not die. Everyone terms him a “hero,” when he feels anything but that.

  3. Imogene says:

    Death and dying is always such an interesting topic as it is handled in differently in the various cultures of the world. What I find even more interesting is how the handling of death and dying has evolved in the English culture. Do you know what the reason was for the women not being allowed to attend the funeral? Why was a funeral a delicate matter for women but the preparing of the naked body of a male or female was not?

    • I read a piece some time ago that said it was assumed that the woman had seen the man’s body previously so dressing it was not the issue. However, the idea of a woman openly grieving for loved one was the issue. When she prepared the body, she could cry and grieve as she wished. Everything was a “display” for the neighbors.
      If you have never read “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain,” you should. It’s a real eye-opener.

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