The Regency Way of Death:   Origins of Night Funerals

During the Regency, there were still some wealthy aristocrats, and quite a few royals, whose funerals were held after dark. But those night-time funerals had their origins in the seventeenth century and actually began as a revolt by a number of Scottish aristocrats against the overbearing authority of the College of Arms. They persisted into the Regency in large measure as a status symbol, by which they demonstrated to the community the wealth and social superiority of the family of the deceased.

When artificial light was a statement of rank and power . . .

By the late Middle Ages in England, the heraldic funeral was the accepted ceremony by which members of the aristocracy were laid to rest. But these ceremonies were less intended to mourn the departed than they were to ensure public acceptance of a smooth transition of the power of the deceased to their successor. Aristocrats during this period, especially the ranking males in each family, held significant political power on which the stability of the government depended. Any disruption in public recognition and allegiance to the successor of a deceased aristocrat was a threat to the monarch and their control of the country. In order to ensure unbroken allegiance to an aristocrat’s heir when they died, the monarch directed the College of Arms to take responsibility for the funeral rituals of the aristocracy. The focus of the ceremonies became the position and power which had been held by the deceased and the continuity maintained as his heir took his place and assumed his power. The departed individual received barely any recognition during these funerals.

Over the centuries, the heralds of the College of Arms assumed more and more authority over the funerals of the aristocracy. They required increasingly complex and costly furnishings and rituals to which some in the aristocracy objected. But the heralds had the full support of the monarch, not to mention the majority of the clergy. And both were unwilling to relinquish the generous incomes they received for directing and officiating at these ostentatious heraldic funerals. Such funerals continued though the reign of the last Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. But the situation began to change after the new Stuart king, James I, acceded to the throne of England. King James had been king in Scotland for more than thirty-five years when he succeeded to Elizabeth’s throne, and he decided to relocate his center of power to London. James I was accompanied to England by a number of his most trusted and highest ranking Scottish nobles.

As the years passed, in the natural order of things, some of the Scottish nobles who had moved to England with King James died. The heralds of the College of Arms stepped in to take over the management of the funerals of these Scottish aristocrats, only to meet with increasingly determined opposition from their families. Unlike the rites of the Church of England, the Scottish church was much less ostentatious in its ceremonies. Many of these Scottish families were also of a more independent and frugal turn of mind. They were unwilling to submit to the tyranny of the English College of Arms, which had no legal power over the citizens of Scotland. King James did give some lip-service to the tradition of the heraldic funeral for the English aristocrats, but he was not willing to force his favored Scottish nobles to conform. However, the Scottish aristocrats were also aware that the king would not sanction an open rift with English funeral tradition. They found their solution in the example that the King himself had provided. In 1612, James had the remains of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, brought to London, where she was interred in Westminster Abbey during an elaborate candlelight ceremony, over which the College of Arms had no jurisdiction.

Official heraldic funerals had to be held during daylight hours. Funerals that were held at night were not subject to the requirements which were imposed by the College of Arms. Therefore, the aristocratic Scottish families in England began to hold the funerals of their deceased family members at night. In centuries past, funerals carried out at night were the province of the very poor of the working classes. These people could not afford to take time out of their working day, even for the funeral of a loved one, because they needed every penny of their income. So it became their practice to lay their dead to rest at night, after their working day had ended. In the early seventeenth century, the Scottish aristocrats also adopted the practice of burying their dead after dark. But with the ample use of torches, their funerals were nothing like those of the poor and were nearly as bright as full daylight. Despite the extra cost for artificial light and payments to participating clergy, these funerals were much less expensive since the exorbitant demands of the College of Arms did not have to be met.

Night-time funerals relieved the families of a number of onerous requirements which had placed the focus of the ceremonies on the transition of the political power and position of the deceased, not on that person as an individual. Many also thought that night focused on the sorrow and sadness felt by the family at the loss of their loved one. Night funerals could be organized more quickly, since the requirements of the heralds could be ignored. In heraldic funerals, the College of Arms would only allow mourners in the funeral procession who were the same gender as the deceased and held similar power. That excluded many members of the immediate family who wished to accompany their loved ones to their final rest. During night funerals in the seventeenth century, though many women chose not to attend, they could do so if they wished. In addition, at night, male family members were able to attend the funerals of deceased female members of their families.

Night funerals were perhaps the greatest boon to aristocratic women. A heraldic funeral took such a long time to organize that it was required that the body of the deceased be embalmed prior to the funeral. All embalmers at the time were men. There were a number of noblewomen who were scandalized at the idea that any man, particularly a commoner, would not only see their nude body, but would also touch it. Even worse, these unknown men would cut into their corpse during the process. Many of these women, as well as quite a few men, were very suspicious of the practice of embalming in general and did not want it done to their bodies. Knowing that they would be buried during a night-time funeral gave them great peace of mind that their body would not be embalmed, and thus would never be seen or touched by a strange man.

King Charles I, the son of James I, ordered the prohibition of night-time funerals in the hope of re-establishing the power of the College of Arms and aristocratic support of the Crown. However, by then, night funerals were customary practice among both the Scottish and the English aristocracy and his prohibition had little effect. Night funerals became less common during the era of the Protectorate, since Oliver Cromwell considered them a practice of the hated aristocracy. However, after the Restoration of King Charles II, night funerals once again became standard practice not only for the majority of aristocrats, but also for most royals. By the end of the seventeenth century, night funerals had become a status symbol, and many families who could afford it began to lay their dear departed to rest after dark. Early in the eighteenth century, the heraldic funerals controlled by the College of Arms had fallen out of favor and had ceased completely by the middle of the century. Among royalty and the upper-classes, however, night-time funerals continued right into the Regency.

The increased costs which were associated with night funerals made them fairly exclusive and seems to be the primary reason they became a status symbol during the eighteenth century. The provision of enough artificial light to illuminate the procession and the ceremony was very expensive. Most of the clergy also demanded double their usual price to officiate at a funeral held after dark. Therefore, only those with significant wealth were able to afford the much more costly night funeral, by which they demonstrated their affluence and social position to society. A night-time funeral remained a high-status event right through the Regency. They were still very common with the English royalty and the members of the aristocracy, as well as some social climbing members of the gentry seeking to improve their social standing. But they were not at all common among those of the middle and lower classes.

Though quite a few aristocratic women had attended night funerals during the seventeenth century, that practice dwindled to the point that very few women attended funerals of any kind during the eighteenth century. By the Regency, night funerals sometimes attracted a rough element, so upper-class women were actively discouraged from attending them for their own safety. Nevertheless, there were a few instances when ladies of the nobility and the gentry did participate in a night funeral procession, though most seem to have stopped short of attending the final service at the grave-side. However, this seems to have been restricted to those ladies of the Church of England. Most ladies of dissenting faiths did attend the funeral, and often the graveside service as well. But since these ladies were usually of the middle or lower classes, they would have attended these funerals during the day-time.

Night-time funerals were typically held for members of the English royal family and members of aristocracy during the Regency. By that time, the practice had at least two hundred years of tradition behind it. Though the College of Arms no longer held absolute power over royal and aristocratic funerals, they were sometimes consulted in the planning of the rites and ceremonies by some families seeking particularly traditional furnishings for an important funeral. Not all members of the upper-classes laid their loved ones to rest after dark. There seem to have been quite a number of day time funerals among the upper classes, but at the time, they would have been considered of lower status than a night-time funeral.

Dear Regency Authors, now that you know something about the origins and history of night funerals, might there be a place for one in an upcoming story? Without doubt, funerals are not at all romantic, but there might be a need for one to serve a particular plot line in a story. Perhaps two factions in a family are squabbling over whether or not the deceased head of the family should be laid to rest during the day or at night? Might the hero or the heroine have to find a way to conciliate the two factions? Mayhap the daughter or grand-daughter of the deceased wishes to accompany her parent or grand-parent to their final rest, though her family forbids it. A night funeral might afford her the cover she needs to follow her heart. Will she encounter the hero on her return? To what might that lead?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to The Regency Way of Death:   Origins of Night Funerals

  1. I hope that the faux pas I made in having my heroine Jane Fairfax Churchill [out of Austen’s ‘Emma’] attend her husband’s funeral is mitigated by her relatively low social status and it being a daytime funeral; she was going to see if anyone who was responsible for the murder of her husband might turn up, keeping an eye on the mourners. And as a determined woman, she definitely wanted to watch out for anyone who should not have been there… I am hoping to use night time funerals in the future.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Night funerals were only for royals and the upper classes, and the attendance of women at those funerals seems to have been the most prohibited. I don’t think you have anything to worry about with the scenario you described. From what I can tell, there were a number of women, even those who were Church of England, who attended the funerals of close family members, certainly that of a spouse. The restriction against women at funerals seems to have been followed most often by women of the upper classes, particularly when the funeral took place in London. If the funeral took place in the country, even some upper-class women attended at least the church service, though most did not go on to the graveside service.

      I have the heroine of my recent Regency, Deflowering Daisy, borrow a maid’s gown so she can attend the funeral of her husband without offending the proprieties. So, I think having your heroine attend her husband’s funeral, and for such an important reason, is perfectly acceptable.



  2. It’s a brilliant idea to have a heroine borrow a maid’s gown so she can attend the funeral without offending the proprieties. I think that somebody – being male and handsome – should see through her disguise. Being of a tyrannical disposition, said male later criticizes the heroine’s behavior. If he does so behind her back or to her face depends on how the story will continue, and if said male is the hero or the villain. I would opt for “to her face” and “said male being the hero”. However, I am sure you have found a perfect solution in your novel (by the way: how are the chances it will be published in print for us potential readers in Europe?).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The hero does see her, but he does not confront her, since he is trying to stay out of her sight. Sounds somewhat convoluted, but it will make sense in the context of the story and they will discuss it in the last chapter. By which time, she pretty much has him wrapped around her little finger! 😉

      In terms of the book going to print, at last count, it was about 3/4 of the way to the eBook sale numbers needed for a paper edition. I am hopeful that there might be a hard copy available early in the new year. All digits, and eyes, crossed!



      • I look forward to the dead tree format of the book. And many thanks, the obsequies in question took place in London but a locum was used not the usual vicar as the death was in questionable circumstances, and the couple involved were very much on the fringes of what might loosely be called society.

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  4. barbsilkstone says:

    This was fascinating. Thank you!

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