Following Queen Victoria’s example after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, it became customary for families to go through elaborate rituals to commemorate their dead. This included wearing mourning clothes, having a lavish and expensive funeral, curtailing social behavior for a set period of time, and erecting an ornate monument on the grave. Women did not falter from wearing jewellery to the lavish funerals.
The Victorians took symbolism very seriously, almost every form of monument in a Victorian Cemetery represents something relevant to the deceased and their family.
Many symbols would also be displayed upside down as a representation of death. Classic examples of this can be seen in Highgate Cemetery where even the keyholes on the cast iron catacomb doors are inverted.
- The three stepped plinth represents "Faith, Hope and Charity", the Squirrel in the photo was just being a poser.
- The Serpents (which is shown on the Catacomb doors to the left) is the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic for Eternal Life.
- The Arrows represents Mortality.
- The Urn, Symbol of death copied from cinerary urns of antiquity.
- Scales denotes the weighing of souls for justice.
- The Obelisk is a tall rectangular or triangular pointed column which is the ancient Egyptian symbol.
- Lilly's are symbolic of purity and are still one of the most common funeral flowers.
- Ivy, stands for memories remaining evergreen.
- IHS The sacred monogram, is an abbreviation of the word for Jesus in Greek.
- Bird (often a dove) Flying down = with Holy Spirit, Flying up = the spirit ascending, Perched = like Noah's dove after the flood.
- A broken or severed flower is a sign of early or sudden death. A severed bud denotes a child.
- Clasped hands indicate the hope of reunification, normally between a Husband and Wife. If you look closely you will see that one hand has a frilly cuff symbolizing the hand of the wife.
- Broken column, (right side of photo) means cut off in the prime of life or a loss of support, often denotes head of the family.
- The Angel means a messenger or guide between God & man.
- Anchor and Chain - symbolises a firm faith in salvation.
The Victorian coffin was as individual as the occupant. They were generally made of hard woods but cast iron examples are not rare. Many were covered in black velvet held in place by metal studs.
Law dictated as it still does today that coffins interred in brick vaults, tombs or catacombs had to be triple sealed. This was achieved by the deceased being laid to rest in a wooden coffin which was then sealed externally by a layer of lead or zinc, in turn this would then be encased in the wooden outer coffin which was suitably decorated with the coffin furniture such as name plates and handles.
This effective means of sealing also had another aspect which the Victorians found appealing in their bid to remain physically eternal. The air tight coffin would in effect halt the decomposition process once the air sealed in with the deceased had been utilized by the natural bacteria within the corpse.
Examples of perfectly preserved remains of over 150 years of age are not common finds, but they are sometimes discovered during the unfortunate process of exhumation, although it has to be said that any coffins which remain intact after being exhumed are never opened, just re-interred in a new place of rest.
Something which is often found placed atop or in close proximity of the Coffin, is what the Victorians called "Everlasting Flowers". These consisted of entire "Arrangements" or "Wreaths" of minutely detailed lead flowers and flora.
The everlasting flowers in some cases would be mounted under glass domes, other times the "Arrangement" was simply leaned against the Coffin, which can be seen if you look closely at the picture picture.