Featured Image: Kingdom of Heaven (1891) by Frank Bramley.
For the Victorians, there were a few key omens that foretold an imminent death. To see one elicited great fear and anxiety, and in the case of an omen that foretold a child’s death, brought about great sadness. Even rather benign objects – such as seeing a bird or butterfly flutter about in the room of a sick person, or even a household clock- could be interpreted as harbingers of death. However, there were a very particular set of symbols and omens that could only mean death – and for these apparitions, dreams, and observances, there was no interpreting otherwise.
The most notorious omen of death, “visions of coffins” were not to be messed with and guaranteed a death would soon occur in the familial or neighborly realm of the individual who witnessed it. Dreams of little white coffins indicated a death of a child would soon occur. Sometimes mothers even dreamed – or beheld – “a baby’s coffin in the air” such as Elizabeth Graham in the year 1849, which preceded the death of her baby by cholera (Jones).
Like coffins, crape was already a Victorian symbol of death in its own right. Victorians hung crape on their doorways if they had just recently had a death in the household. Black crape was used to tell onlookers that an adult had died, and white was used to signify a child’s death. However, seeing a “vision of phantom crape” hanging on a door foretold a death that was to come. A certain Mrs. Kroger saw a vision of both black and white crape on her door in the year 1895, and though her omens were dismissed, soon after, she and her child both died (The Cincinnati Enquirer).
Apparitions of tombstones were yet another omen indicative of death, especially when one saw a vision of one’s own tombstone and epitaph, such as Elizabeth Higgins did in a dream when she was a girl. The tombstone she dreamed of displayed the very age she would reach upon her death. And she died at 27 years, 8 months, and 26 days, just as the tombstone in her dream predicted (Underhill).
“Phantom funerals are a particularly well-known motif in European ghost lore,” says Chris Woodyard. “These mysterious visionary processions are either seen or heard by the viewer, but never both at once. The actual funeral is always found to be identical to the one foreseen”(Woodyard). In such a case, a certain Mrs. Thomas foresaw a child’s funeral in 1898, preceding the death of a little girl in her neighborhood who would accidentally drown (The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research).
Jones, Amanda Theodora, “A Psychic Autobiography”, quoted in Woodyard, Chris The Victorian Book of the Dead (Kestrel Publications, 2014), p.14.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, quoted in Woodyard, Chris The Victorian Book of the Dead (Kestrel Publications, 2014), p.12.
The Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, quoted in Woodyard, Chris The Victorian Book of the Dead (Kestrel Publications, 2014), p.26-7.
Underhill, A. Leah, “The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism,” quoted in Woodyard, Chris The Victorian Book of the Dead (Kestrel Publications, 2014), p.23-6.
Woodyard, Chris. The Victorian Book of the Dead. Kestrel Publications, 2014.