‘Cult of the Dead’ versus ‘Phobic of the Dead’: The role of Victorian mourning ephemera in death acceptance.

Guest-blogger Romany Reagan, PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, explores the practice of constructing mementos from the hair of deceased loved ones during the Victorian period.

Perhaps the most iconic attribute of the Victorian era is its perceived preoccupation with death and mourning. The Victorian ‘Cult of the Dead’, as it’s often been called, was not only housed in cemeteries, tombstones, horse-drawn hearses, and monuments. Mourning ephemera comprised various small portraits, mounted mourning cards, linen handkerchiefs with black borders, mourning fans of black silk, various items of mourning dress, mourning hair jewellery and art, post-mortem photography, and innumerable personal effects. Viewed through today’s values and aesthetics, these numerous personal objects are now historical rarities that are found in niche museums and personal ‘cabinets of curiosities’, which are the only places where these once commonplace and personal totems now receive due appreciation.

Montage of Victorian mourning Ephemera. Image courtesy of Romany Reagan.

One thing to remember about this era is how important objects were for embodying emotion. Not having the plethora of life traces we now have of deceased loved ones (photos, videos, blogs, etc.), items, such as hair jewellery, were a way to keep the lost loved one close, and the wearing of special garments broadcast your grief to the world more powerfully than a post on social media.

Dismissing post-mortem photography or mourning hair art as ‘morbid’ or ‘grotesque’ is looking at it through the myopic lens of the present. Contemporary societies in the developed world capture memories and totems with such ease today, that society can be too quick to condemn the Victorians as ‘fetishists’, when they were merely using what they had available at the time. These trappings of mourning provided a very important purpose, both privately and socially within the community. One of the Victorian tokens of mourning and remembrance that is perhaps least understood today is mourning hair jewellery and art.

Victorian mourning hair art. Image courtesy of Romany Reagan

Contemporary sensibilities find hair very distasteful when it is no longer attached to the head. While attached to a living person, contemporary aesthetics prize a full head of hair as beautiful, attractive, even a source of desire. However, when it falls out onto a table, into a drain, or into your dinner – it becomes an abomination.

This interesting inconsistency is something many of us may take for granted in our current society. However, for the Victorians, the hair of a deceased loved one was not repulsive. It was an intimate substance woven like silk into intricate wall art or worn jewellery.

The potency of human remains as facilitators of personal memory is evident in the uses of hair jewellery sustained from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in Northern Europe. Worked into brooches, lockets, rings, and bracelets (often with the use of precious metals and stones) human hair has extended memory connections through the powerful evocation of the person to whom it once belonged.

Human material that was regarded as ‘dead’ while the person was living, is thus transformed into a ‘living’ substance after death, in the sense that it is reanimated as a possession capable of sustaining the deceased in close proximity to the bereaved. The physical durability of hair makes this possible as it stands in stark contrast to the instabilities of the fleshy body. The quality of endurance and the specificity of reference to a particular individual renders hair especially appropriate as a memory form. The most intricate miniatures in hair-work are extraordinarily fine, and one can only admire such painstaking craftsmanship, although the effect on contemporary sensibilities is likely to be one of distaste.

I am fascinated by the visceral experience and immediacy of interacting with hair-art mourning objects. They are not merely something treasured that has been touched by people from the past – they are that as well – but they are also an embodied presence of someone from the past. I do not find these carefully crafted art pieces repulsive; I find them incredibly tender. The time it takes to make them, the care in craftsmanship, and the love that would drive such a painstaking effort is poignant and beautiful.

Victorian mourning hair art shadow box, c1840, 18”x12” from author’s private collection. Photo copyright Romany Reagan

The retactilisation of death is a healthy way for those who are bereaved to process the bodily loss of a loved one. For people who have yet to experience loss, it helps to remove some elements of the unknown and fear of the inevitable process by touching and talking about this thing we get so unsettled by: human remains.

Crafting mourning hair jewellery and art is one way of processing and enacting an embodied mode of the experience of grief. Rediscovering the care and artistry of mourning hair jewellery rescues these beautiful items from being marginalised as ‘creepy’ and instead being celebrated for what they are: physical manifestations of love and loss.

romany-reagan-image-4Romany Reagan is a final-year PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis centres around performing heritage, specifically through the medium of audio walks exploring the disparate heritages that coexist within Abney Park Cemetery in North London. Areas of interest encompass: psychogeography, mourning practices, ‘The Good Death’, anachronistic space, theatre archaeology, heterotopias, gothic sensibility, liminal spaces, human geography, the uncanny, and the Victorian ‘Cult of the Dead’. Her walk ‘Crossing Paths/Different Worlds in Abney Park Cemetery’ was published in Ways to Wander (Triarchy Press, 2015)

Website: https://abneyrambles.com/
Twitter: @msromany; @abneyrambles



2 Comments Add yours

  1. yinall says:

    I would love to but we have no budget for the plugins 😦 – Yvonne


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