Dead Serious: Killing off Steampunk Characters

Queen Victoria in full mourning dress.

Queen Victoria in full mourning dress.

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

Mark Twain

 As every writer knows, killing off characters is never easy. However, death is an important part of life. So, at some point, somebody in one of your Steampunk narratives is going to die. So you need some idea of what the rituals of mourning were during the Victorian era. Don’t think that Victorian Mourning was all about wearing black, though the wearing of black was a large part of it, particularly for women. Like with everything to do with fashion, a widow was expected to wear the most expensive weeds she could afford. However, there was also special rituals and special jewellery that were part of the whole sad affair.

Professional Mutes from the London Cemetery.

Professional Mutes from the London Cemetery.

A Funeral Mute by Robert William Buss

A Funeral Mute by Robert William Buss

Professional Mutes: Mutes were paid members of European funeral firms, renown for wearing sombre and sober black. They kept silent watch over the corpse during open casket sessions, sometimes they stood guard outside of the house of the deceased, and they strode after the hearse as part of a funeral procession, in their roles as a symbolic protectors of the Dead. They were not professional mourners, who were usually women, and were expected to cry and weep. If you have read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Oliver was considered a possibility for being a professional mute. If they attended the death of a child, they would wear white gloves and sashes, and tie white scarves to their hats and staffs. As a writer, what fascinates me is that the Mutes have no voice, and I can see so many possibilities for their use as analogies and metaphors.

Lachrymatory Bottle with mourning card

Lachrymatory Bottle with mourning card

Tear Bottle with cup to catch tears

Tear Bottle with cup to catch tears

Lacrimosas or Tear Catchers: The British Empire saw the reintroduction of the Lacrimosa, tiny hand-blown and decorated glass bottles used to catch the tears of the bereft. Some were worn as mourning jewellery. They were discarded once the captured tears had dried. I can see how a Lacrimosa could be used as a metaphor for hanging onto an old sorrow. I can see tear catchers being collected by a character like Miss Havisham from Charles Dicken’ Great Expectations, someone caught up in the cycle of loss without any rebirth. Then again, to discard a tear catcher would mean a heart was lighter, and the character was ready to engage in life again.

The Funerary Card of the child, William Frederick

The Funerary Card of the child, William Frederick

Funerary Cards: these were handed out funerals as mementos, to encourage the mourners to pray for the deceased. Often, if you had a morbid turn of mind, you collected these cards and displayed them in your home. If you were royalty, or famous, these cards were available to all public mourners, even if they didn’t attend the funeral. These days, they are popular with collectors, as were often decorative. The practice has shifted in modern times to giving out programs at funerals, so that those unfamiliar with going to church have the words to any prayers and songs as required. You can imagine some poor mother who has collected a handful of these cards, each representing a lost baby or child, as infant mortality was still high in the Victorian era.

Black pins for mourning clothes.

Black pins for mourning clothes.

Her Royal Highness, The Princess Louise, wearing a double strand of jet beads.

Her Royal Highness, The Princess Louise, wearing a double strand of jet beads.

As a metaphor, black can represent so many different things that it becomes nearly meaningless. It is up to the writer to control the metaphor and meaning. If you want black to represent death and mourning, so be it, but it is lazy writing. But don’t forget that black can represent night-time, restraint, or respectability as well, or any other meaning you want to attach to it. It could signify a love of aniseed, if you want it to.

Black doesn’t signify death in other cultures. If you have set your funeral somewhere other than the British Commonwealth or America, you will have to research the local funeral customs in your timeframe. Black wasn’t always the colour of death in Britain; green used to be the colour most associated with death in the Gaelic culture. So, when you go to kill of a character, take the time, place and culture into account.

Does this seem too complicated? I haven’t even touched upon the topic of Memento Jewellery or Post-mortem Photography. I’ll save that for a later day.

2 Comments

Filed under Characterization, History, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Themes, writing

2 responses to “Dead Serious: Killing off Steampunk Characters

  1. Reblogged this on chrispavesic and commented:
    There are very interesting details about mourning rituals in the Victorian Era in this post.

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