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Release date: Nov. 19, 2019

The elaborate funerary rituals and practices of the Victorian era will be on display on the streets of the Royal BC Museum’s Old Town and adjacent Helmcken house this Saturday, Nov. 23.

Students in Nicole Kilburn’s Anthropology of Death class are partnering with the museum to explore aspects of death in a historical context, including post-mortem photography, headstone engravings, memorial stationary, the use of clairvoyants, hair jewelry, mourning clothes, and the economy of death.

“As anthropologists, we are exploring a time period, just far enough removed from our own, that allows us to be safely curious about the ways culture influences the experiences with and expressions of  death,” says Kilburn. “Then through comparison we can start to notice how some of the Victorian rituals are still familiar to us today, and wonder why and how the rituals around death and mourning have changed so much.”

Starting at 1pm on November 23, students will host a number of interactive exhibits on the streets of the Museum’s Old Town. Between 2:30-3:30pm, patrons will be invited to walk through the adjacent Helmcken House—British Columbia’s oldest colonial building in situ—to witness the recreation of a Victorian wake which at the time was usually a private affair held within a family home.

“The Victorians were much more familiar with death in their everyday experience,” notes Kilburn, citing higher infant mortality rates, the deaths of women during childbirth and deaths caused by unsafe working conditions. “It wasn’t that people feared death less, but there was more familiarity with it. The dead were still tended to in the home rather than these roles being outsourced. Death touched a family earlier and more often than today, and it was memorialized in very particular ways.”

Strict rules about widows’ dark mourning clothes and jet black jewelry, initially popularised by the example of Queen Victoria mourning the death of Prince Albert, gave rise to an industry of death and a commodification of memorial keepsakes, which sometimes included preserving locks of a loved one’s hair or taking a photograph after the death of a family member.

“In a modern context, we have access to cameras on our phones and we take thousands of photos that we may never look at again,” notes Kilburn. “The Victorians used post-mortem photography to memorialize a loved one and when you think about how precious that one photograph was, perhaps the only photograph of a loved one, then we can start to appreciate the practice as less morbid.”

While the funeral preparations will focus on the death of a fictional male of British background and the rites and rituals associated with this particular cultural and socio-economic status, students are also examining other perspectives on death that were part of the British Columbia community in 1900. These include the experiences of Chinese immigrants and acknowledging the dark reality of settlers desecrating Indigenous burials.

“As a class, we’ve discussed how we can respectfully and ethically present death and grieving and be inclusive,” says Kilburn.

Interdisciplinary support from the college’s schools of Health and Human Services, and Trades and Technology will help to recreate the funeral preparations in a respectful and authentic fashion. First Memorial Funeral Services have donated the use of a casket for the day and the parlour of Helmcken House will be arranged according to the era’s funeral traditions.

“We’ll have crepe-covered mirrors and clocked stopped at the time of death as well as a casket with a mannequin dressed in funerary attire,” says Kilburn. “Students have learned that the Victorians left the windows open so that the spirit could leave and that a boxwood wreath on the door communicated to the community that a death had occurred.”

Kilburn credits the college’s emphasis on applied learning with helping her students engage deeply with the topic of death and mourning in a meaningful way for their capstone project.

“Courses and activities like this provide us an opportunity to think about death and talk about it in a safe way, but also to appreciate being alive,” says Kilburn. “Death and grief can be a very personal topic and I’m clear about that from the very beginning with students that we are exploring it in a respectful and sensitive way.”

Student organizer Laurel Hanson appreciates the opportunity to connect her studies with an immersive, real-world experience. “This type applied learning gives me concrete skills and has also resulted in a volunteer position at the museum,” she says. “I would never have had this opportunity without this project.”

The event “Preparing for a Victorian Funeral: A Camosun College Project” runs from 1-3:30pm on Saturday, Nov. 23 in the Royal BC Museum, and all activities are included in the price of a regular admission.

The public and media are invited to attend, to be curious and ask questions while being respectful of the solemn nature of the topic as they bear witness.

Kilburn will be available for media interviews in advance of the event and immediately following the conclusion of the wake.

Camosun College is one of the largest public colleges in British Columbia, established in 1971, with campuses located on the traditional territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. The college serves 19,000 learners a year in certificate, diploma, bachelor's degree, post-degree diploma and continuing education programs.

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(click to enlarge)

The Royal BC Museum's Old Town will host a number of interactive exhibits from Camosun's "Anthropology of Death" class. (Photo courtesy of the Royal BC Museum)

"The Victorians were much more familiar with death in their everyday experience... Death touched a family earlier and more often than today, and it was memorialized in very particular ways."

~Nicole Kilburn

Last updated: November 19, 2019 1:08 pm

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