Stages of Death


I have always been fascinated by death, related customs and the dying process. Although naturally a part of life, it is still pinpointed as taboo. For many people, myself included, it is a topic shrouded in mystery. When something is unknown to me, I often develop a curiosity about it, often leading to a passion. Such a situation led to my interest in mortuary science.

Many past cases of believed vampires were actually due to the misunderstanding of the dying process, which basically follows as such:

Post-mortem, the fastest and first step is pallor mortis, Latin for ‘paleness of death.’ This stage is most visible in those with lighter-toned skin and is caused by the lack of blood circulations in the capillaries and therefore body. Pallor mortis can begin minutes after death.

The second stage is algor mortis, or coldness of death. This describes the reduction in body temperature  following death. Until ambient temperature

Livor mortis is ‘discoloration of death’ and it is a function causing usually bluish-purple discoloration of the skin due to the pooling of blood in the dependant parts of the body after death. Note that the blood will gravitationally migrate to the lowest point in the body. After about 12 hours, the lividity becomes fixed.

The next and most well-known is rigor mortis, also known as stiffness of death. This stage lasts approximately 36-72 hours (2-3 days). Rigor mortis is a chemical change (the loss of adenosine triphospahate, ATP) to the muscles in a body, causing them to stiffen up. It tends to start around the eyes and other smaller facial muscle groups and thus spreads downward to the larger muscles.

After this time period, during secondary flaccidity, the muscles relax again. This is due to the decay of your muscles, allowing them not to be as contracted as they were in rigor mortis.

Next, decomposition begins to set in. Decomposition is when organic substances (i.e. your body) are broken down into simpler forms of matter(helped along by natural decomposers, such as maggots and scavengers such as vultures). After a body begins to decompose, putrefaction begins.

Putrefaction is when bacterial enzymes cause destruction of soft tissues in the body. Essentially, the bacteria living inside your body eats its way out, resulting in things such as gas buildup, bloating, swelling, skin slip, and liquefying tissue, all leading to the final result of skeletonisation.



The drug that I have chosen to place a spotlight upon is ethoxyethane, more commonly referred to as ether.  This drug intrigued me because I have always had a rather profound interest in the customs and such of the Victorian era. I remember at some point at about ten or eleven years of age reading about ether frolics. To this day, I remember what I learned, which was admittedly quite basic, and now I have researched more.  At first glance, what is seen as a rather unassuming, colorless liquid is actually quite a potent anesthetic.

Discovered in 1275, its hypnotic effects were noticed by German botanist and chemist Valerius Cordus in 1540, and its sleeping ones by Paracelsus. In 1794, ether began being used as a medical treatment. Prior to this, surgery had to be quick, yet it still caused immense physical pain and mental trauma for those brave souls who underwent it. Ether was at first mainly administered via pouring it on cloths and having the patient inhale the drug. The results were not always satisfactory and somewhat uncertain, and thus later and somewhat more successful methods involved rather complex apparatus, complete with valves, glass tubes and vessels. With these later methods, the ether was often vaporized for use.

In the 1800s, ether had a reputation for being used as a recreational drug. Starting in the 1840s, ‘ether frolics’ became a rather prevalent activity for some medical students- the ether was ingested during these parties, resulting in an emotional high, less controlled motor skills, immunity to pain, and memory loss. In fact, ether was sometimes taken instead of alcohol, since it was legal and the church did not forbid it as they did alcohol.  Ether was sold in pubs along with alcohol, as well as in shops.

A problem with ether was that doctors did not really have a way to control the amount of the drug inhaled by a patient and thus the patient could end up waking up during surgery, or having an overdose- not waking up at all. Some of the dangerous side effects of ether on humans are vomiting, nausea, breathing problems, low blood pressure, and arrhythmia. Today, ether has been replaced by other anesthetics that are less flammable, more effective, and safer.  In conclusion, this drug was a seminal one that helped medical science forge ahead and create safer and more pleasant surgeries for everyone.

Ether is administered to a patient.

Ether is administered to a patient.

Death in the Victorian Era


Modern society calls death prohibited, unmentionable…taboo.Society has not always considered death to be a forbidden subject. Please bear in mind that the Victorians took death in the highest regard. Most families would rather go to the poorhouse than have a parish funeral for a deceased relative. The cemetery (Side note: graveyards must be within church grounds, cemeteries need not be. There is a difference!) was considered a perfectly appropriate place to go for a walk with your family or suitor. There were all sorts of societal rules for mourning techniques (as well as some superstitions) as compiled in a (in no way complete) list below:

  • Post-mortem photographs,  i.e. daguerreotypes taken of the loved ones (particularly infants and children) after they had died. If you think for a moment about the fact that most children would not have had their photographs taken pre-mortem (mainly because the young had untimely deaths) this custom does seem more logical. However, for these photographs, pupils and rosy cheeks were often painted onto the deceased beforehand!
  • Societal rules on appropriate mourning attire-mainly dependant on the intimacy of the relationship between you and the newly dead, as well as the gender of the person in mourning. There were various manuals that one could consult for proper mourning attire and etiquette, such as Cassell’s or The Queen. Men often only wore black gloves, cravats, and hatbands with their usual dark suits. Women, on the other hand, had a significantly more complex and detailed code. For deepest mourning, clothes were to be the colour of spiritual darkness, i.e. black. Dresses for this type of mourning were often made of paramatta silk or bombazine, which was cheaper. (and also worn by many of the widows in Dickens’ novels) These frocks were trimmed with the hard and scratchy crape, which is often tied to mourning as it does not combine well with other articles of clothing.  After a specified period, ‘slighting the mourning’ occurred, that is to say, the crape could be omitted from the wardrobe of the wearer. As mourning continued, the inky hues could be lightened to white, grey, or mauve. This process was called ‘half-mourning’. Jewelry-wise, one would wear jet, a fossilized form of coal also known as lignite, during the first stage. During the second stage, jewelry either including or composed of the deceased’s locks of hair was to be worn. Children were not expected to wear full mourning clothes, although some girls did wear white dresses. Widows were meant to wear full mourning for at least two years (Queen Victoria wore full mourning after her husband Albert died…as well as asking her servants to put out clothes for him and set him a place at meals.), whereas everyone else presumably suffered less. For child-to-parent mourning (or vice versa), the time was one year; for siblings and grandparents, six months, for uncles and aunts, two months, and four weeks for first cousins (Begging the question of how long Poe mourned his wife).
Lady in Mourning

A Victorian-era lady in mourning.


Now, as for superstitions:

  • The Victorians believed that it was bad luck to keep any mourning clothes (particularly crape) in the house after mourning ended.
  • After someone in a household died, it was obligatory that all the mirrors in the house were covered. If a mirror in the house fell and broke, it was believed that someone in the home would die.
  • If someone died in their home, all clocks were to be stopped at the precise hour of death or bad luck would ensue.
  • When a body was displaced from the house, it was to be taken out headfirst, so as not to beckon others to follow.

Grave robbing was rampant in the Victorian era. The main cause of this crime was actually robbers digging up graves and stealing the bodies for doctors and students at medical institutions. This allowed advancement in medicine, however, as you can imagine, the relatives of the deceased weren’t exactly thrilled. Thus, a range of intriguing protection methods ensued. Such as coffin alarms, simply a bell attached to the headstones with a chain connected to a ring worn on the finger of the cadaver! Another option was the classic iron ‘cage’ or mortsafe, as pictured below.

Mortsafe at Logeriat Church, Scotland

An example of a mortsafe at Logeriat Church in Scotland.


My advice is, if you are interested in this topic, to read more about it at your local library! The Victorians had numerous peculiar customs, about death and otherwise. I would recommend you read Horrible Histories:Vile Victorians written by Terry Deary and illustrated by Martin Brown. The rest of the series is brilliant as well. They were my childhood.