Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Funeral accessories

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

A funeral is the ceremonial burying (or cremation) of the dead, the obsequies. In England, for centuries, there have been accepted ways in which bodies can be disposed of after death. Latterly this has also been covered by law. The ceremonies associated with the funeral vary according to the religious beliefs of the dead person and their family. The English funeral accessories in our collections relate to Christian burial, most particularly those of the Victorian era.

As Richardson has commented:

'The Victorian celebration of death represented a society-wide desire to honour the dead, and a large measure of agreement upon what forms that honour could, and indeed should, take. There existed a generally agreed norm of funerary behaviour, a consensus which at times became a social imperative. Respectable funerary display was a powerful social statement, an articulation of social aspiration and attainment, a celebration of the financial ability to honour the dead in an acceptable way. ... The need for a decent funeral was acknowledged across the board. There were agreed, not necessarily commercialized, ways of showing respect: strength in numbers; displays of figurative grief and respect in banners and wreaths; public processional.' [1989: 115-6]

Funerals have always been an expensive business for the surviving relatives. The 1843 report on 'Interment in Towns' found that the average funeral expenses of the aristocracy costing from £800 [around £60,000 at 2005 costs *] to £1,500 [approximately £112,000*], and those of the 'upper gentry' from £200 [£15,000*] to £400 [£30,000*]. 'Ordinary' folk would have paid proportionally less. [Jalland, 1989: 185] The fashion for ostentatious funeral display reached its zenith in the 1850s and by the 1880s more modest ceremonies were preferred by most. [Jalland, 1989: 186] According to Arnold a quarter of all money invested in saving banks during Victorian times was set aside for funeral expenses, as she comments 'many individuals had more money spent on them dead than alive ... families verging on destitution earmarked money for funeral expenses through burial clubs...' [2007: 188]

* Calculated on the relative retail price index using http://www.measuringworth.com/ukcompare/

In Martin Chuzzlewit Charles Dickens gives an impression of the kind of funeral that Victorians wished for their relatives:

'... an affectionate gentleman, who knows what it is in the power of money to do, in giving him relief, and in testifying his love and veneration for the departed. It can give him,' said Mr Mould, waving his watch-chain slowly round and round, so that he described one circle after every item; 'it can give him four horses to each vehicle; it can give him velvet trappings; it can give him drivers in cloth cloaks and top-boots; it can give him the plumage of the ostrich, dyed black; it can give him any number of walking attendants, dressed in the first style of funeral fashion, and carrying batons tipped with brass; it can give him a handsome tomb; it can give him a place in Westminster Abbey itself, if he choose to invest it in such a purchase. Oh! do not let us say that gold is dross, when it can buy such things as these, Mrs Gamp.' [text obtained from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/968/968-h/968-h.htm, Chapter Nineteen]

An elaborate funeral was a mark of respect for the dead person, and a marker of the social status of their family.

1953.12.4 B. Funeral pall of black and white velvet used in Chipping Norton.

1953.12.4 B. Funeral pall of black and white velvet used in Chipping Norton.

The Pitt Rivers Museum has two artefacts previously owned by the funeral director, Frederick John Lewis, of Chipping Norton, in north Oxfordshire. Lewis (1879-1960) was an undertaker and builder in Chipping Norton. His funeral business was sold on in the late 1950s (and is still operating today). He was born and lived his whole life in the town and was very involved with local life, running the local baseball club and scouts. Chipping Norton Museum of Local History includes a display about Lewis and the development of baseball in the area. He was also the local Punch and Judy man.

The objects are 'velvet trappings' as referred to by Dickens in the extract above. The first is a funeral pall [1953.12.4], measuring 8 by 6 feet, of black velvet with white decoration. A pall is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

'A cloth, usually of black, purple or white velvet, spread over a coffin, hearse or tomb...'

Apparently such velvet pall cloths were common from Georgian times, and black velvet appears to have been the colour and textile of choice. [Richardson, 1989: 107] This pall was probably used in a horse-drawn hearse and covered the coffin during transport. It is said, by the accession book, to be of a type common in early Victorian "Shillibeer" funerals. A shillibeer funeral used 'a vehicle containing a mourning-carriage and hearse combined, patented by Shillibeer.' [OED]

George Shillibeer (1797-1866) was the first designer of horsedrawn coaches which transported large numbers of people, the forerunner to omnibuses. After he had spent some time in debtors' prison he adapted these large vehicles to include accommodation for the hearse as well as the mourners, called 'Shillibeer's Funeral Coaches' and spent the last few years of life in the undertaking business. One of his hearses was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 ( Class 5, no. 964, Vol. I, p. 290 of Catalogue). It seems that this design of hearse continued after Shillibeer's death.

In Victorian times, most funeral directors belonged to small, family firms and provided the coffin and transport. Cemeteries, which were established from the 1820s onwards, meant that bodies had to be transported to out-of-town locations. According to Parsons [1999: 128] the number of clients for most funeral directors did not warrant owning a horse-drawn hearse and therefore the transport was actually provided on a contractual basis by a carriage-master who would serve several funeral businesses.

The second item is the black velvet apron worn by the driver (of the horse team), made from black fringed velvet, measuring 4 by 3 1/3 feet. [ 1953.12.5] Unfortunately, neither of these items are on display.

My thanks to Alan Watkin of Chipping Norton for providing some of the above information.

Useful links:




Further Reading

Catharine Arnold 2007 Necropolis: London and its dead London Pocket Books

Brian Parsons.1999 'Yesterday, today and tomorrow. The lifecycle of the UK funeral industry' Mortality vol. 4 no. 2 1999 pp. 127-145

Ruth Richardson 1989 'Why was death so big in Victorian Britain' in Ralph Houlbrooke [ed] Death, Ritual and Bereavement Routledge, London

[I am hoping that this page can be illustrated by a view of a typical Victorian funeral with plumes, hearses etc from Puckle, need Mark to confirm that out of copyright]

 Death Objects  

The Pitt Rivers Museum has many objects in it's collections that are related to the subject of death from all over the world, including England. Some of these are discussed in tthe following articles.


Birth and death are the only certainties for all humans, and every culture has had customs and practices associated with burials and with the mourning of family and friends. Many of the English items in the Pitt Rivers Museum in this category come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when there was a very strong interest in the customs associated with death and mourning. It is said that this interest was fostered by Queen Victoria's response to the death of her husband, Albert, in 1861. She wore mourning for the rest of her long life. Victorian society, at least from the 21st century perspective, appears to have been excessively governed by formal rules of etiquette. This was as true for matters relating to death as with all other areas of social life.

Attitudes to death in England have changed considerably since Victorian times. Where once it was commonplace and acceptable to wear ornaments made from the enduring parts of relatives' corpses (that is, hair) it has come to seem unsavoury. We have now generally become more squeamish about death, we are much less likely to view the bodies of even close relatives once they are dead. At one time, it would have been expected that neighbours and friends, as well as relatives, would have visited the corpse before interment.

All cultural values are relative and shift over time and space, but in relation to death some of these values have changed greatly over relatively small periods of time, or short distances. Even today, for example, the relationship the English have with the dead is different from that experienced in Scotland or Ireland. The following web pages examine only those practices and artefacts relating to death in and from England.