Visitors to museums, historic houses and other types of heritage attractions are no longer content to be passive observers. They want to be participants in some way. This desire is easy to understand. It is not, however, always easy to satisfy.
Fortunately some programs are inherently immersive. The Victorian Funeral Tour is a case in point. It’s a hybrid program that includes elements of a traditional lecture, a living history event and a theatrical production.
The Victorian Funeral Tour is most effective when it’s staged around Halloween in a historic house. You do not have to have access to a perfectly preserved Victorian mansion for the program to work. With a little creative decorating, you can use a house from another time period or convert a few rooms of a museum or other facility into a convincing backdrop for this event.
The goal is to recreate the atmosphere of a household in mourning. Think stage set, not painstakingly accurate museum display.
This is how the program works. Small groups of visitors travel from room to decorated room where they encounter costumed family members and representatives of the dismal trade such as undertakers and spirit mediums who describe different aspects of the Victorian celebration of death. Possible topics include superstitions, common causes of death, the deathbed vigil, etiquette, mourning jewelry and clothing, the role of undertakers, post-mortem photography, and the Victorians’ obsession with the occult.
The best way to present the material is in the form of a story. You can use actual historical figures or create representative composite characters. For example, your deceased could be an older woman who died from blood poisoning due to an abscessed tooth. This would give you an opportunity to talk about the lack of antibiotics and how what are now considered minor complaints often became fatal.
If you don’t have enough staff or volunteers to play all the roles, consider contacting the community theater or a high school or college drama club.
All cast members should be in costume. Check vintage clothing stores, Halloween shops and community theater costume collections. Dark pants and white shirts work for the guys. For women, a black shawl atop a dark sweater or blouse with a long black skirt is perfect. A few years ago I bought some cheesy floor length vampire capes at a discount store. They worked great.
Setting the Stage
You need the following props.
- A coffin – It does not have to be a real coffin. Check craft stores and the Halloween supply places that spring up in malls in the fall. You can probably pick up a light-weight prop coffin for next to nothing. Don't worry about how it looks. It will be very convincing after you drape it in black cloth and cover it with flowers.
- Black fabric – Get yards and yards of the cheapest black fabric you can find. Drape it over tables, mantles, cover the pictures and mirrors, pin it up at the windows.
- Wilted flowers – Fresh flowers were too cheery for a Victorian funeral. Ask a local florist if you can have the flowers they’re throwing away. Place vases (no water) of droopy blossoms around the rooms. Cover the top of the coffin with the remaining dead flowers and wilted greenery.
- Black ribbon – Buy a spool of black ribbon and tie it on everything. Tie bows around the doorknobs, on lamp bases, flower vases, banisters and newel posts, festoon the chandeliers.
- Black wreath – Get a cheap straw wreath at the craft store and wrap it in black cloth or black ribbon. Hang it on the outside of the front door.
- Further decorating ideas – Close all the drapes, turn off the lights, place all framed photos face down. Some funeral homes have amazing collections of vintage paraphernalia including undertakers’ tools and equipment, corpse clothing, photos, mourning cards, etc. Check with local antique dealers for mourning clothing and jewelry. If you can borrow any of these items for your program, it will deepen the experience for your visitors. Make sure to acknowledge any outside organization that participates.
Facebook is the perfect place to promote The Victorian Funeral Tour. Post updates about the condition of your soon to be deceased person as a run up to the program. Present it as a developing story.
Hold a dress rehearsal, take lots of pictures of your cast and use the images on Facebook and in other marketing materials. Take photos while you’re decorating for the event. Invite the local media in for a behind the scenes peak and allow them to take pictures of the decorations.
Consider including a teaser in some of your posts. For example, ask why the Victorians covered the mirrors or stopped the clocks. This should get people commenting and help spread the word about the upcoming event.
Invite those attending the program to wear mourning attire or dress as they would for a modern funeral. Adults love to find excuses to dress up around Halloween and donning a special outfit for the event helps people get in the immersive mindset before they even leave home.
If you’d like to read a detailed case study of a Victorian Funeral program, check out The Collaboration Kit, a practical how-to ebook written specifically for people working in local history tourism.