Death in Jane Austen’s time

I chose this topic because exactly a year ago I lost my cousin. So, today is not a very happy day for me – after all, it’s the death anniversary of a loved one. But I wanted to take this oportunity to dig in how people handled death two hundred years ago. How, for example, Jane Austen’s relatives handled her death?

Of course with a lot of sadness, just like today. But the passing of a loved one envolved many rituals and customs that are not observed nowadays. It was a solemn event, with a lot of garment and behavior rules; even though these rules could be softened depending on the social status of the envolved.

For starters, life expectance wasn’t really high, specially amongst the working classes. But it wasn’t a rule: princess Charlotte died in 1817 at only 22. That same year, Jane Austen died at 41 years old.

To tell her family about her passing, Cassandra Austen problably sent a letter with a black sealing wax. Since people needed to be told about deaths throught mail, and deaths could happen anytime, it was a way of letting the recipient antecipate the sad news.

After the passing, the deceased was burried two or three days later. During this time, the coffin was left open in the deceased’s house, so relatives could say their goodbyes. Assuming, of course, they could get there in time – sometimes they lived far away, and due to putrefaction the coffin needed to be closed.

Obviously it was hard to slow decomposition, and it was one of the reasons why people were usually burried in the parish where they were living – and not where they were born. Besides, transporting the body was way too expensive and only the wealthier could afford it. And, of course, they did, even when their loved ones died abroad.

In such cases, burials took place in family cripts (usually inside the churches). But most people were burried in the churchyard.

For everyone, the cerimony had a pattern: the coffin was carried from the deceased’s house to the church. The priest waited on the church’s entrance, and then a mass was celebrated. After that, the coffin was taken to it’s pit. But the funeral could be, other than a solemn event, a chance to show off status and wealth.

After the funeral, there was the mourning period. Black was the common color, but white could be used for those considered innocent in the eyes of God (children and unmarried girls). During this period, social mourning etiquette was less rigid than it was in the victorian era; but, nevertheless, it was pretty strict, especially for women.

It was expected that women, especially widows, would remain in mourning for a year. After that, they entered a half-mourning period, and could wear white, grey and lavand clothes. Men already wore black all the time, so they added black ribbons, hatbands, armbands, black handkerchief, black gloves and, sometimes, black cravat to their garment. If memory doesn’t fail me, in Persuation, Mr. Elliot (William) wears a armband to show his grief for his wife. Military would wear armbands below their elbows.

My main souce for this post was the amazing book Jane Austen’s England, by the incredible Roy and Lesley Adkins! I strongly recommend the Reading, cause this is not 5% of what they have to teach. And not only about mourning and all that. Truly.

I hope you enjoyed!

With love,

Roberta.

Posted by Roberta Ouriques

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