French Funeral Etiquette and Mourning in the Late 1800s

French silk mourning dress, ca. 1880. Courtesy of Met Museum.

French funeral etiquette and mourning in the late 1800s involved numerous rules. For instance, the French operated under a law that a deceased person’s corpse could not be retained by the family for more than three days after death because ice was scarce. and the ice-box was unknown at the time. Thus, “three days [was] consequently the outside limit of time that the law of hygiene and the rules of common sense [could] allow [for] family affection.”[1]

One of the first things relatives did after a loved person’s death was notify authorities. This meant they needed to go to the mayorality in the arrondissement or quarter where the deceased person lived. Once authorities were notified, the mayor then sent an official physician to examine the corpse and determine the exact cause of death. Relatives were then expected to have a “so-called act of decease drawn-up.”[2] To create this official document, relatives had to provide important information such as “the age, domicile, married or unmarried condition of the dead person, &c.”[3] The mayor then fixed the day and hour for the funeral while also hopefully accommodating and coinciding with the wishes of the deceased person’s family. 


French silk mourning dress, ca. 1874. Courtesy of Met Museum.

There were several other customs or rules of etiquette that were followed. One was that during the time the deceased remained unburied no one was to speak above a whisper in the house. The table was also not to be set for family meals. Instead family members were expected to dine on their own, which meant they ate alone in their bedroom or dined solo in a private corner in the dining-room. Every French gentleman was also said to own “black trousers, frock-coat, waistcoat, necktie, and gloves, and silk [and] therefore, he [was] ready at the shortest notice to attend a funeral.”[4] On the day of the funeral, “the porte-cochere of the house wherein the apartment of the deceased [was] situated [was] draped with black, and all other persons who [had] apartments in the same building … abstain[ed] from receiving visitors.”[5] In addition, one writer mentioned that women rarely went to the cemetery on the day of the funeral. That was because mourners did not ride but rather walked behind the hearse, which made it difficult for the elderly or mothers with young children to get there.

When it came to mourning, the French had a shorter period for mourning than many other countries, and this brevity sometimes shocked people. The French also had three grades of mourning — deep, ordinary, and half mourning. One etiquette book noted that these grades were represented thusly:

“In deep mourning, woollen clothes only are worn; in ordinary mourning, silk and woollen; in half mourning, gray and violet. … [Etiquette] prescribes mourning for a husband for one year and six weeks — that is, six months of deep mourning, six of ordinary, and six weeks of half mourning. For a wife, a father, or a mother, six months — three deep and three half mourning; for a grandparent, two months and a half of slight mourning; for a brother or a sister, two months, one of which is deep mourning; for an uncle or an aunt, three weeks of ordinary black.”[6]

French mourning fan of 1885-1895. Courtesy of Met Museum.

There were other mourning observances specific to France. For instance, it was against the law for a widow to marry before her husband had been dead ten months, whereas a widower had to follow no such law. He could marry as soon as he pleased, but it was considered good etiquette for him to wait at least six months. Additionally, if a widow remarried, her dress was to be simple, and it was not to be white in color. She could not receive or pay wedding calls either, and if she married within a year of her first husband’s death, she could “lay aside her weeds for the ceremony, but … [was expected to] reassume them immediately afterward, and her new husband [was required to] … go into mourning likewise out of respect to the memory of his predecessor.”[7]

References:

  •  
  • [1] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Cream of Current Literature,” May 10, 1877, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Matilda Betham-Edwards, Home Life in France (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Company, 1905), p. 31.
  • [5] Dundee Evening Telegraph, p. 4.
  • [6] Mary Elizabeth Wilson Sherwood, Manners and Social Usages (New York: Harper & brothers, 1887), p. 191–92.
  • [7] Dundee Evening Telegraph, p. 4.

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