If you’ve ever visited an old Scottish kirkyard, you might have stumbled upon an iron or stone contraption protecting a grave. They are called mortsafes and many people think they were used by their superstitious ancestors to keep the dead inside their coffins. While it is true some Victorians believed in vampires and other supernatural beings, the truth behind the mortsafes is even more interesting than the myth. These heavy objects were placed on the grave or encapsulated a coffin (in a form of a cage) to protect the dead from resurrectionists, in other words body snatchers, who would dig up fresh bodies and sell them to surgeons.
The most famous resurrectionists of the time were Burke and Hare who supplied a surgeon named Robert Knox in the early 19th century. These grave robbers (and later murderers) conducted their activities in Edinburgh, the leading center of anatomical study at the time, which is probably the reason why most of the surviving mortsafes can be found in Scotland. The iron cages and other contraptions were expensive, so it was popular to “rent” a mortsafe and reuse it for a different grave in several months, once a body was decomposed and therefore useless for anatomists. The popularity of mortsafes started to diminish after the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832.
The Victorians are known for their obsession with death and elaborate mourning practices, something that was undoubtedly influenced by the high mortality rate of the times. ☠️ The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 allowed them to explore mortality and grief through a new medium – post-mortem photography. 📸Families would have their pictures taken with dead relatives lying peacefully in a bed or, more unusually, posed in a life-like manner on a chair. Some resources even claim that special metal constructions could be used to make the corpses ‘stand” for the photo, however, this is more likely just a myth fueled by misinterpreted 19th-century pictures.
While post-mortem photography might seem morbid today, it’s worth remembering that these photos were often the only images that people had of their loved ones: first photographs were costly, not easily available, and required long exposure time. These photos were valuable family keepsakes. 💜
While there are a few online collections of post-mortem photography, you can also check out this video on debunking the “standing corpse” photographs: Ask a Mortician
While it might seem morbid today, children playing funeral were not a rare sight in the Victorian era. ⚰️⚰️ It was a reflection of the times – high mortality rate meant that children often witnessed death in their families, not only of grandparents and parents but also siblings.
Special doll sets containing small coffins and mourning fabrics were sometimes given to girls, who would then practice dressing the doll, laying it in the coffin, and performing other tasks connected with a funeral, like attending the mourners. 🧸 ⚰️🧸 ⚰️
Check out this fragment of an “Ask a Mortician” episode for more info (some dolls in the video are a bit disturbing, feel warned).
Victorian mourning veils were popular accessories worn by grieving women. ⚰️ The veils could be as long as six feet and were traditionally made out of black crape, a scratchy fabric believed to be the most appropriate for mourning. 🖤
Unfortunately, some of the black dyes (like logwood dye) used in the production were quite poisonous, 🐍 causing a variety of ailments from light rashes to serious respiratory problems. Widows were especially affected by these dangers as the Victorian society expected them to wear crape veils for at least a year and a day during the so-called deep mourning stage.