Did women attend funerals during the Regency? That is a rather complex question for which a simple "yes" or "no" answer will not suffice. The statement that Regency women did not attend funerals due to their "delicate sensibilities" has been repeated on a number of sites across the web, despite the fact that research shows such sentiments to be purely Victorian. Some women who lived during the Regency did attend funerals while many others did not, for various reasons related to their social position, their faith and even their geographical location.
When, where and why a Regency woman might, or might not, attend a funeral …
Based on surviving records, women of all classes often did attend funerals from the Middle Ages right through the seventeenth century. This practice began to change as the eighteenth century advanced. Prior to this new age of rationalism and enlightenment, it was considered inappropriate to show one’s deep grief in public. The reason for this attitude was the expectation that the deceased had gone on to a better place, where he, or she, would enjoy an eternity of peace and serenity in the company of a loving God. It was considered by the clergy that such a fate was not an occasion of mourning, but of rejoicing. Nevertheless, many people did feel great sadness at being forever separated from their loved ones and tears and weeping were not fully suppressed at most funerals, particularly by the female members of the funeral party.
The change in funeral practices that began in the eighteenth century occurred among those of the upper classes and can be ascribed to two emerging cultural philosophies, the advent of "polite society" and the advance of the age of reason and rationalism. As the eighteenth century progressed, the aristocracy and the gentry sought means by which they could distinguish themselves from the lower classes. The rise of politeness was the keystone of this philosophy. But this did not mean simply knowing which fork to use or knowing to whom and how deeply to bow or curtsey. Members of polite society were typically involved in ongoing intellectual pursuits, they often patronized the arts and sciences, they made it a point to exhibit exceptional, but restrained, taste and they cultivated refined and elegant behaviour. One of the principal tenants of that behavior was never to reveal any strong emotion in public. Members of polite society were expected to remain calm and in control at all times. This was reinforced by the axioms of the new rationalism which became prevalent during the age of reason. Rational people were expected to behave in a calm and collected manner, restraining any expression of strong feeling in public.
Aristocratic and upper-class ladies who were members of polite society often found it very difficult to restrain their tears and weeping at the loss of a loved one. It would be extremely embarrassing to them to loose control during the course of a funeral service in which many people were in attendance. It would be equally embarrassing to the male members of their family who were expected to maintain a stoic calm in the face of death, even that of a loved one. Thus, ladies of aristocratic and upper-class families, primarily those who were members of the Church of England, gradually ceased attending funeral services. This change did not happen all at once. It seems to have begun in London and slowly spread across England during the last decades of the eighteenth century, first to other large urban areas, and then to smaller cities and towns.
There were other reasons why the upper-class Anglican ladies of polite society did not attend funerals in the latter decades of the eighteenth century. These restrictions do seem to have been instituted by men as a means by which to shield their ladies, not only from vulgar behavior, but also from the risk of physical harm. A mark of status for wealthy upper-class funerals was a large contingent of attendants in the funeral procession. The majority of these attendants were hirelings contracted by the undertaker who managed the funeral. It was not uncommon for these hired attendants to join the funeral procession heavily intoxicated. Despite the solemnity of the proceedings, these inebriates often made crude and vulgar remarks on a variety of topics as the procession moved along, none of which were fit for the ears of gently-bred ladies. As propriety and respectability came to be valued more highly, the male members of polite society wished to protect the ladies of their families from the vulgarities to which they would almost certainly be subject as they traveled in the funeral procession. Therefore, by the end of the eighteenth century, upper-class ladies very seldom took part in funeral processions, even those for close family members.
However, ladies who took part in funeral processions could be in much greater danger than just hearing crude and vulgar language. They could also be at risk of real physical harm. Another significant status symbol of aristocratic and upper-class funerals was that these funerals were almost always held at night. These high-profile funeral processions drew very large crowds along their routes and there were often those in the crowds with criminal intent. It was not uncommon for these ruffians to wait at a distance until the coffin was taken from the hearse at the place of interment, after which they would attack the unprotected vehicles. These thugs typically stole the escutcheons from the carriages in the procession, as well as anything else of value, and sometimes even attacked the funeral attendants. There were also usually a number of pick-pockets who took advantage of the attack on the funeral vehicles to move through the crowd, stealing everything they could get their hands on. Since women were not allowed to attend the actual interment, any ladies who might have been in the funeral procession would have been in the vehicles, virtually unprotected should one of these attacks take place. There are records which show that at least some of the coachmen and other procession attendants did sometimes attempt to fend off these attacks, but they were seldom successful and were often injured in the attempt. These attacks on funeral processions continued into the nineteenth century. For example, in March of 1802, the funeral procession for the deceased Duke of Bedford was attacked, at about 1:00am, by a gang of ruffians, just as the coffin had been carried into the church. In the melee, one of the attendants was knocked down and trampled by a horse, severely injuring his leg. The crowds then attempted to swarm into the church, breaking a great many windows in the attempt. Is it any wonder that most men did not want their womenfolk in such processions? Or that very few women wished to be exposed to such dangers?
The funeral practices of the royal family were very similar to those of the aristocracy, with a few differences. The ladies of the royal family usually did ride in carriages in the grand funeral processions of deceased members of their family. However, they were quite safe, since all royal funeral processions were accompanied by a large contingent of armed troops. These soldiers were not part of the procession merely as a mark of honor for the deceased. They were also there to protect the royal funeral procession from any kind of attack or assault. In the centuries long before the eighteenth, and right through the Regency, though the ladies of the royal family often rode in royal funeral processions, they did not attend the funeral or interment services for the deceased members of their family. In fact, that tradition was not broken until the funeral of King William IV, in 1837, when Queen Adelaide not only rode in his funeral procession, she attended both the funeral and interment service. She was the first queen of England to accompany her spouse to his final rest in several centuries.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, many of the wealthier members of the middle class were imitating the funeral practices of the aristocracy, including elaborate funeral processions and night-time burials. For those who lived in urban areas and were members of the Church of England, those imitations usually included the exclusion of women from participation in some or all aspects of the funeral service. These women were not expressly forbidden from attending funeral services, but many felt that to do so was very unladylike. However, not all middle class women felt that way, and they did ride or walk in the funeral procession, and also attended the funeral service in the church. However, none of these women were allowed to attend a grave-side service in an Anglican church yard.
Grave yards associated with Anglican churches were consecrated ground, and most ministers at these churches would not allow any more people than were absolutely necessary at a grave-side service, often known as the committal. Typically, only the chief mourner and immediate male relatives were allowed to attend an Anglican grave-side committal. It appears that women were excluded, at least in part, due to the perception that they were sinful by nature, as sisters of Eve. Due to this attitude, it was not until the early twentieth century that most male doctors were willing to provide any kind of pain relief to a woman in labor because they believed the pain of childbirth was God’s punishment for the sins of Eve. Well into the nineteenth century, once a woman had given birth and was able to leave her bed, she would go through a ritual known as "churching." The first time she went to church after the birth, a special service would be held, in part, thanksgiving for the birth, but also a request for forgiveness for the "sinful act" by which she had conceived her newborn babe. Mrs. Cassandra Austen attended such a service after the birth of her daughter, Jane, just as she had after the birth of all of her other children. And her husband was the minister of the church!
Regency women who were members of the various dissenting sects did not usually follow these Anglican practices. There are a few letters which survive from the first decades of the nineteenth century from dissenting women to their pastors, asking if they might attend the funeral of a family member or friend. The extant responses from these pastors consistently advise their parishioners that there was nothing in the tenets of their faith which would prohibit them from attending these funerals. A couple went so far as to state that they considered the avoidance of funerals by "fashionable" ladies as lacking in true feeling. Not only did women of the Quaker, Baptist, and other dissenting faiths attend the funerals of family and friends, they also attended the grave-side services, and in many cases, even spoke a few words at those services. A well-bred upper-class Anglican lady would have been utterly scandalized at the very idea.
Women of the lower classes, or those living in rural areas, might attend all or part of the funeral service for a deceased family member or friend. If there was any kind of funeral procession, it was usually on foot, and many women walked along behind the coffin to the church. Most also attended the church service, but, if they were of the Anglican faith, they would not attend the committal at the grave-side. But most of these women had other duties which needed their attention while the men attended the burial service. Few lower class or rural people could afford the expense of a night-time burial, and it was therefore still customary among most of those families to invite the principal mourners back to their homes after the burial for a meal. Therefore, while the men were at the grave-side committal, the women returned to the home of the deceased to complete preparations for the funeral meal. The Anglican upper classes had forgone this important ritual of grieving and healing when they adopted night-time burials, to their detriment.
Though Anglican women of the aristocracy and the gentry did not usually attend funerals during the Regency, they were involved in the various rituals and ceremonies for the deceased which led up to the funeral. By the Regency, the corpse would not usually be washed and dressed by family members. Instead, it would be prepared by professionals hired by the undertaker who managed the funeral. Midwives often performed this service for extra income, though, if requested by the family, a male attendant would wash and dress a male corpse. There were no funeral parlors until long after the Regency, so the deceased would remain in the home, on view, until the day of the funeral. Once the body was placed in the coffin and was ready for viewing, the ladies of the house usually took on the responsibility of sitting vigil while the deceased remained in the house. Though prayers were said for the deceased during this time, the primary purpose of vigil was to be sure the corpse was truly bereft of life, and not in a deep sleep. It was the custom that at least one person remain with the body around the clock until it was taken from the house for the funeral, watching for any sign of life. The majority of this burden fell on the women of the house, though children and male family members did usually take part, at least for short periods. By the day of the funeral, the female relatives of the deceased were usually exhausted and did not have the strength to attend the funeral service, even if doing so had been considered acceptable.
It was also customary during the Regency to provide small tokens of remembrance to all of the mourners who attended a funeral. In most cases, it was the ladies of the house who had the responsibility of gathering these favors and tying them up for presentation. Such favors could range from handkerchiefs to gloves to hatbands, all usually black. The most simple favors were sprigs of rosemary, symbolic of remembrance, tied with a black silk ribbon. Among the upper classes, more substantial gifts were made, especially to principal mourners. These might include mourning rings and other morning jewelry, such as brooches or lockets. Such tokens of remembrance might include a lock of the deceased’s hair as well as an engraving with their name or initials, the date of their death, and even a brief sentiment of remembrance. Personal items which had belonged to the deceased might also be given as mementos to their closest friends and family members. These personal mementos were usually selected by the senior female member of the deceased’s family, either based on their will or left to the discretion of the lady. Once these various mourning gifts had been gathered, the ladies of the house would set themselves to the task of preparing them for presentation. All the rosemary springs would be tied with a length of black silk ribbon, while all the other favors would be wrapped in silk cloth and tied with a silk ribbon. The favors, such as rosemary sprigs, handkerchiefs, gloves and hatbands, would usually be presented to the mourners when they arrived at the house on the day of the funeral. The more expensive mourning jewelry and personal mementos were often presented to the recipients personally, in the days after the funeral had taken place. It should be noted that such gifts were not made only to men, quite of lot of them were intended for ladies as well.
During the Regency, most of the ladies of the aristocracy and the gentry who were members of the Church of England, especially those living in large urban centers, did not usually attend the funerals of even their closest friends and family members. Many of these ladies abstained from attending these services due to a combination of social pressure and their own physical and emotional exhaustion at such times, unwilling to expose their personal feelings publicly when they were not in full control of themselves. However, few of them were idle during this time of sorrow. They kept vigil through many a night with the deceased, gathered favors, mourning gifts and personal mementos which they prepared for presentation to the mourners. Many women of the middle classes emulated this behaviour in an attempt to be thought fashionable. Ignoring such fashionable behavior, women of dissenting faiths, those of the lower classes and those living in rural communities, usually attended all, or at least part of the funeral ceremonies for their loved ones. Which is not to say that there were not a few hardy souls among the upper-class ladies who did ride in the funeral procession and attend the funeral service for someone whom they especially loved and admired. They would have caused some tongues to wag, but a woman of strong character would have put her commitment to the deceased above such considerations.