Author On the Bookcase: Christine Trent
Please welcome Christine Trent to On the Bookcase as she tells us about the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking she discovered while wrting her novel Lady of Ashes.
The inspiration for this book came from an unusual place: my writer friend, Mary Oldham. Sitting together at a writing conference one day, I was musing about what kind of profession my next heroine would have. I was considering something in the Victorian era. Mary said to me, quite casually, “Do you know what I’ve always wanted to read about? A Victorian undertaker.” Wow.
After I got over the shock of that idea, my mind went crazy with possibilities, and the end result will be Lady of Ashes. Until the book’s release, I thought I’d share with you some of the fascinating research about Victorian-era funerals and undertaking I’ve discovered.
Coffin vs. Casket, what’s the difference? A coffin is a burial container in which it widens at the shoulders to accommodate a person’s shoulders. Think old Dracula movies and anything produced for Halloween. A casket, however, is the modern burial container Americans generally use today, made of steel or wood, that is designed as an even rectangle with a rounded top.
Did you know that Victorians did not embalm their dead? In fact, the practice only took off in the United States during the Civil War, in order to cope with preserving dead soldiers—on both sides—while being sent home on trains.
Do you know why the Victorians didn’t embalm their dead? They thought it an unseemly—and un-Christian—practice to fill a body with chemicals before placing it in the ground.
Guess why lilies are traditionally associated with funerals? Their scent is so intense that they masked the odor of decomposing bodies. While Prince Albert’s coffin stood inside Windsor Chapel in 1861, the profusion of lilies was so overpowering that the guards had to be switched out every hour to prevent them from fainting.
First class or coach? The Victorians were still a class-conscious society, even if some of those barriers were breaking down. In planning your funeral, the undertaker—wearing a top hat swathed in black crape—would offer your family options appropriate to your social status. For example, if you were of high enough rank, you might have a funeral car with glass sides, interior curtains, and plumes adoring the top. Were you just middle class? Well, a smaller carriage then, no curtains and no plumes. For those of little means, your funeral carriage was more like a long, black open cart.
What’s a professional mourner? Depending on your social status, your undertaker might hire professional mourners to walk alongside your funeral car. Dressed in black, the number of them helped demonstrate how important or wealthy you were. The same is true for the number of horses pulling your funeral car, the number of ostrich plumes adorning the horses’ heads and your funeral car, and in what part of the cemetery you were buried.
Parade routes aren’t just for floats. In America, the hearse (or, in Victorian parlance, funeral carriage) drives from the funeral home to the church to the cemetery. In Victorian England, the funeral carriage went from the home of the deceased to the cemetery’s chapel. Except, it didn’t always go directly there. For society people, the funeral procession would frequently detour through busy or fashionable streets, so that everyone could get a glimpse of what important person had died.
Fascinating, isn’t it?
Christine Trent writes historical fiction from her two-story home library. She lives with her wonderful bookshelf-building husband, three precocious cats, a large doll collection, and over 3,000 fully cataloged books. She and her husband are active travelers and journey regularly to England to conduct book research at historic sites. It was Christine's interest in dolls and history that led to the idea for The Queen's Dollmaker.