Grave Matters, or Death and Dying in 19th Century England

In The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy (originally released in 2013), multiple deaths occur. What were some of the “customs” associated with death and dying in the 19th Century?

In the country, “ringing of the passing bell” signaled to all those in the local parish that a member of the community was near death. Six tolls of the bell indicated the person was a woman; nine foretold of a man.

Women prepared the body for the funeral, but did not attend. Women were considered too weak to withstand the ceremony without succumbing to the “vapors.” Wearing black in remembrance of the departed was an important symbol of one’s grief, unless the deceased was a child or a young, unmarried girl. Then the mourners wore white. Occasionally, special mourners known as “mutes” were hired to stand about and look solemn. Other special mourners carried staves draped in black cloth.

Men wore black armbands as a sign of mourning. Women, however, were expected to dress completely in black. Their dresses were generally made from bombazine. No jewelry, except jet pearls, made from coal, was worn.  A widow was expected to mourn her husband for two years, wearing all black for one year and “half mourning” after that. One mourned his parents or children for a year. Six months was the period for a sibling or a grandparent. Three months for an aunt or uncle and six weeks for a first cousin. Queen Victoria wore mourning for Albert from his death in 1861 to her passing in 1901.

The carriage bearing the coffin was drawn by black horses with black feathers in their  harnesses. People wore mourning for one full year. Social invitations were declined and the mourners maintained an “unsociable” appearance.

When the body arrived at the gravesite, a death knell was rung by the sexton, who likely dug the grave for the deceased. By law, if the person died by suicide, he was buried at a crossroads with a stake in his heart to prevent his ghost from walking about. The crossroads diluted the evil of the suicide by sending the mayhem in four directions. This “custom” continued until it was outlawed in 1823.  The personal property of someone who committed suicide was forfeited to the Crown. That tradition ended in 1870. Until 1832, a suicide corpse had to be buried between 9 P.M. and midnight. It was only after the 1830s that a suicide corpse could be buried in the cemetery of a Church of England parish, but no service could be conducted over the body.

Unfortunately, resurrectionists made a tidy fortune through body snatching. Medical schools could only use a body donated to them through the courts for dissection and anatomy lessons. Those who committed major crimes might be appointed for dissection by the courts. It is estimated that the courts averaged between 50-60 “donations” each year, but that the schools required, at least, 500 cadavers. Therefore, an “industry” arose where body were prematurely resurrected by body snatchers. The resurrectionists earned an average of two guineas per cadaver.

Families hired watchers and set traps to try to stop this custom. The “snatchers” sometimes sent a “pretend mourner” to the gravesite to spot the traps and to report back to them. The body snatchers would dig close to the site’s head, tear open the top part of the coffin, and drag the body out. Normally, the grave clothes were left behind because it was a punishment of seven years’ transportation to be caught with a clothed body. A naked one was a different story. Laws for “naked corpses” imposed only minor fines.

The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery 


Fitzwilliam Darcy is devastated. The joy of his recent wedding has been cut short by the news of the sudden death of his father’s beloved cousin, Samuel Darcy. Elizabeth and Darcy travel to Dorset, a popular Regency resort area, to pay their respects to the well-traveled and eccentric Samuel. But this is no summer holiday. Danger bubbles beneath Dorset’s peaceful surface as strange and foreboding events begin to occur. Several of Samuel’s ancient treasures go missing, and then his body itself disappears. As Darcy and Elizabeth investigate this mystery and unravel its tangled ties to the haunting legends of Dark Dorset, the legendary couple’s love is put to the test when sinister forces strike close to home. Some secrets should remain secrets, but Darcy will do all he can to find answers—even if it means meeting his own end in the damp depths of a newly dug grave.

With malicious villains, dramatic revelations and heroic gestures, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy will keep Austen fans turning the pages right up until its dramatic conclusion.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Grave Matters, or Death and Dying in 19th Century England

  1. Angie Kroll says:

    I am NOT looking forward to see who you’ve killed off in the next novel (though I can’t wait to read it)!

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