Grave & Victorian Identity
‘Of all the pulpits from which humans voice is ever sent forth, there is none for which it reaches so far as from the grave’- John Rushkin.
It is well known that the Victorians had a morbid obsession with death. Infant mortality, death due to labour and disease where widespread as shown by F.S Schwarzbach, ‘The over all mortality rate was 22% per thousand, and the infant mortality rates was roughly 150%( By contrast, 100 years earlier , the figures were 50% and 400%-500%)’ and so was part of everyday life for the Victorians. Their attitude to death was one of acceptance, just another fact of life but also of great fascination .
There were many cases were people came back to life after being dead a while and certainty of being dead and moving on to the next world became a great concern, séances became popular among other occult activities to communicate with loved ones to make sure they were at peace. It was also the era when the Gothic had developed and therefore architecture, ornaments and memorials became increasingly the focus of society’s’ attention. Architects also discussed and debates architecture and sculptures made. Augustus W.N. Pugin, a well-known Gothic architect one of the of the main designers of the Palace of Westminster said , ‘In pure architecture the smallest detail should have a meaning and serve a purpose’. And so a person’s identity, class and personality could be symbolised by their graves. These two things combined with the importance of identity and knowing ones place, in the strict class system of the age all came together and was displayed in cemeteries and graveyards. A person’s grave during this period, like in many other preceding ages was of great importance and became the final statement to the world as Rushkin’s aforementioned quote states.
Death itself to the Victorians was like falling asleep and traversing to the afterlife for judgement. This can be read in Robert Louis Stevenson’s , ‘ The Body Snatcher, 1884, ‘ To bodies that had been laid in earth, in joyful expectation of a far different awakening, there came that hasty, lamp –lit, terror-haunted resurrection of the spade and mattock’ (80).
‘And somewhat of the choir those silent seats/ And up into the aery dome where live the angels/…..And ‘neath my tabernacle take my rest/ wit those nine columns round me, two and two/ the odd one at my feet where anslem stands/ Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe..'
This shows, in a vain light, the preparations for graves and how everything would be thought out, partly with meaning but also as is the case in this poem partly for show to society. Here are some examples of elaborate graves by well-known Victorian gentry.
On example is George Eliot’s grave, in the formation of a large monument in one of England’s most famous cemeteries, part of the magnificent seven cemeteries of the age- Highgate. It’s large scale demonstrate the eccentric architectural side in relation to death in Victorian Britain.
Another grave the be noted is one of a person unknown, upon is sculpted an sleeping angel .
Another famous grave is that of Karl Marx in which, on top of a large stone, is a gigantic sculpture of his head.
This shows how everything was meticulously planned out, also signifying status and meaning of the body occupying the grave.
For the lower classes death was an entirely different business. Firstly the death rate was extremely high amongst the poor due to terrible sanitary conditions, inhabiting rooms with dozens of their people and the conditions in the streets or factories where they lived. There was also the issue of religious burial, sometimes denied by priests due to the late persons’ life contradicting church rules or a scandal , this occurred in the case of even the famous Lord Byron, a the head of Westminster abbey refused to bury him due to , “ Questionable morality” .
(1)Rushkin, John. The Lamp of Memory. Dover Publication.1885.
(2)Kuich, John. Schwarzbach, FS. The Victorians and Death. Journal. Page 875
(3)Pugin, A.W.N. Quote, 1841: http://www.ilikearchitecture.net/2013/09/quote-81-augustus-w-n-pugin/
(4) Robert Louis Stevenson The Body Snatcher. Strange Case f Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Other Tales. 1884. Oxford World’s Classics
(7)Browning, Robert. My Last Duchess and Other Poems. Dover Thift Edition. 1993.
(8)Body Snatching: http://cdn.ltstatic.com/2007/June/GQ674345_942long.jpg
(9)Unknown grave: Hightgate cemetery http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/Sepulcro_con_%C3%A1ngel.jpg
(11)George Eliot: Highgate cemetery: ()http://image2.findagrave.com/photos250/photos/2006/286/317_116084904263.jpg
(12)Carno, Carol Lorraine.Mad Lords and Irishmen: Representations of Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde Since 1967. Google Books
(14)Strange, Julie Marie. Only a Pauper Whom Nobody Owns: Reassessing the Pauper Grave c. 1880-1914, Page