Why Victorians were obsessed with death

The Victorian Age corresponds with the reign of Queen Victoria: 20 June 20, 1837 to 22 January 22, 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, and national self-confidence for Britain. It was also a period intensely preoccupied with death.

Nowadays, death has been removed as much as possible from daily life, but in Victorian times—in the US as well as in Victoria’s Britain—death was a frequent visitor.

The Victorians did not have access to modern medicine or hygiene. Hospitals were unsanitary places. People died at home. Bodies were laid out in the home. Victorian families often posed dead children in photos before burying them. The infant mortality rate in 1850 was 150 per 1000 births, compared to today’s US statistics of 5 in 1000 and fewer still in some other countries. And people did not live as long as they do now. A child born in the UK or the US in 1850 had a life expectancy of from 35-40 years. In fact, many adults were lucky to reach the age of 26. Death was omnipresent and burial practices and mourning were cultified.

Mark Twain captures the gloomy preoccupation with death in a passage in Chapter 17 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. See Emmeline’s Gloomy Drawings.

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