From the Cradle to the Grave

Customs, Ceremonies & Certificates

This was an Exhibition held at the Museum in 2011

From the moment someone is born they begin to leave an imprint on this world. Birth, Marriage and Death certificates, Censuses, Directories and Wills signpost different stages in a person’s life. However, a person’s life-history does not only exist in official documents. Diari[es, letters, cards, newspapers, obituaries, gravestones and photographs can also offer a staggering amount of information about someone’s life. People also leave behind treasured objects that often find themselves in museum collections or as family heirlooms. These can include wedding dresses, christening gowns, widow’s weeds, jewellery, accessories, clothes, medals and many other objects associated with their individual lives.

General Registration was introduced in England and Wales on 1st July 1837 to record births, marriages and deaths. Before then parish registers would have recorded baptisms, marriages and burials within their local area. The new registration system was part of the Government’s attempt to find out how people lived and died, and how many children they had. Ultimately however it was to work out how much they could be conscripted and taxed. Birth, marriage and death certificates contain a wealth of information about our ancestors such as names, dates, parent’s names, occupations, addresses, other relatives and cause of death. They can also offer fascinating insights such as whether the names were signed with a cross – possibly indicating illiteracy, as well as uncovering hidden secrets such as illegitimate children and bigamy!

Another source of information is the national census. The first national census of England, Scotland and Wales was in 1801. A census is taken every 10 years and provides a snapshot of family life on a specific night in the census year. The early censuses were very vague often recording only the head of the household and basic information. However, from 1851 onwards they become more detailed, containing information on everybody in that house on census night including age, occupation and place of birth. The 1911 census is particularly interesting as many women are missing from this census as part of a Suffragette campaign. Women who supported the Votes for Women Cause refused to add their names on census night. This provides family historians with a tantalizing indication that their female relatives may have been Suffragettes.

Customs & Rituals

Weddings are surrounded by many superstitions and customs. Most of these customs are based on bringing good luck and warding off bad luck. A large amount of these superstitions emerged during the Victorian era. June was considered the luckiest month to marry as it is named after Juno the Roman Goddess of love and marriage. May was considered the worst month to get married and Queen Victoria took this so seriously that she reportedly forbade her children from marrying in May! Getting married on Friday or Saturday was bad luck, yet Wednesdays were the luckiest day to get married on. The famous rhyme of “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is also Victorian although many of the customs referred to in it date before the Victorian period.

The Victorians are also responsible for popularising many of the mourning rituals and customs that are recognised today. By the 19th Century Britain has a complex set of mourning rituals and the fear of not having a respectable funeral gripped people of all classes. Women bore the biggest burden of these customs. Immediately after the husband’s death the widow was confined to the home and visitors were discouraged. After a month black edged mourning cards were sent out to friends and family to let them know visitors could now be received. For the first year and a day after their husband’s death widows were in full mourning and expected to wear completely black clothing including undergarments and stockings. They were also expected to wear thick black “weeping” veils and were not suppose to enter society during this time. For the second year they were is half mourning and were allowed to wear colours of gray, white and lavender. Upper class women were also not allowed to witness the burial of their husband as it was believed she would find it too upsetting. It was also felt that as undertakers and their assistants were usually drunk this would be unsuitable for a woman to see. The first public cremation took place in 1885 at Woking Crematorium. They became the most popular method of disposing of bodies in the mid-20th Century.

Death, Grave Robbing, and Burial Clubs

Death occurred in all families but there was a great difference between the concerns of the rich and the poor. After the loss of a family member, the major concern of the rich was ensuring that the process of grief and mourning was carried out in the correct manner, as expected by their class in the society.

Of great concern to the poor was whether or not they could afford a decent burial for their loved ones. If they had to rely on what the local Poor Union was willing and able to provide it would be nothing more that a simple ceremony and a pauper’s grave with no headstone.

Body-snatching, the removal from their graves of the recently dead for medical research, was of great concern to both the rich and the poor. Britain, at that time, was a very Christian country with a strong belief that, after death, there would be a physical resurrection of the whole body, but what if, after dissection, parts were missing?

In 1832, the “Anatomy Act” was passed in an effort to combat body-snatching. It made the dissection of people who died in prisons, asylums, or workhouses legal and all other methods illegal. The worry here was for those with relatives in Poor Unions as the law stated that unless a relative could pay for a coffin and a churchyard within seven days of an inmate’s death, the deceased could be legally sent to a teaching institution for dissection. This was, for many, a great fear.

Burial Clubs

Because of this fear,  “burial clubs” began to be formed with the idea of helping families to afford proper funeral services for their loved ones – basically an “assurance policy”. Just like Insurance/Assurance Companies, members of the club made weekly payments and the club guaranteed to cover the burial expenses, regardless of how long the individual had been a member.  The rate varied depending on the age of the person and the type of funeral wanted.  However, like any ‘bubble’, many clubs sprang up but crashed due to mis-management or fraud – either by the Club or the families.

Did you Know……..

  • Victorian mourning customs included stopping clocks at the time of death, covering mirrors to prevent the deceased’s soul from getting trapped in the glass, and closing curtains.
  • Weddings often took place at Christmas as this was one of the few times of the year when poorer families had enough time off work to come together.
  • The Census was not taken in 1941 due to the Second World War.
  • Victorians believed large raindrops, a picture falling off the wall, an umbrella opened in the house and the smell of invisible roses were all signs that someone would die.


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