Curtains would be drawn and clocks would be stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered with crape or veiling to prevent the deceased's spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass. A wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood tied with crape or black ribbons was hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred.
The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of "waking". The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma. Most wakes also lasted 3-4 days to allow relatives to arrive from far away. The use of flowers and candles helped to mask unpleasant odors in the room before embalming became common.
In the 19th century Europe and America the dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.
Timeline for Mourning
All communities had mourning rules that dictated how long a family would be in mourning according to their relation to the deceased. A woman might mourn her parents for months or even years, but a cousin or distant in law might dictate a much shorter mourning period. A husband's death, on the other hand, would dictate full mourning for six to twenty four months, with the tradition being one year and one day. This period of deep mourning might be followed by a period of lighter mourning that allowed the woman to slowly return to society. (Many women chose to remain in full mourning the rest of their lives, returning to society, but retaining their "widows weeds".)
The recommended guide for length of the mourning period (according to author Lou Taylor)
- Widow for Husband 2 1/2 years
- Widower for wife 3 months (children needed a mother)
- Mother for Child one year
- Child for parent one year