In England it was common for favours such as rings or gloves to be given to people at funerals in medieval times. ‘Mourning rings’ became more commonplace in the 16th century and lasted into the early 1900s.
While the very poorest could not afford them, relatively modest individuals would at least try to leave money for rings for close family members. Everyone attending the funeral of a rich person might get a ring.
Jewellers kept stocks to be engraved; typically they were gold and might feature a motto, as well as the name of the deceased. Designs including skulls and crossbones, often in black enamel, were common, but jewels were not, although jet became popular in Victorian times.
The basic idea of the mourning ring was, of course, to remind the wearer of the loved one they had lost, and sometimes might incorporate a lock of the deceased’s hair. The Victorians even had brooches and jewellery made from braided locks of hair.
The First World War put an end to many customs. The loss of so many young lives made extravagant and complex funerary etiquette seem self-indulgent and silly, and the giving of rings died out. The custom’s last gasp was a brief fashion in America during the 1930s and 40s for rings made of Bakelite and bearing a little photo of the deceased. Mourning rings are now collectors’ items.
Answered by: Eugene Byrne, author and journalist