Tuesday, 19 November 2013

                                                         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).
This came from Christianity beliefs as demonstrated in this quote, ‘According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.’  Since the soul was to be prepared, final rites were enacted on death beds and the Lords prayer, in which humility is a large part of the faith (Psalms 25:9) , ‘He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way’. This ultimately is what causes a clash and controversy when it came to graves being a symbol of status, a some saw it as a vain final statement  (quote). This is reflected  in Robert Browning’s poem, ‘ The Bishops Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church:

‘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” .
  The poor would have a small funeral as described here by Julie-Marie Strange, ‘Stripped of all mourning paraphernalia, the pauper coffin bore little of no indication of the individual personality of the corpse or those who mourned it.’ . They would still be provided with Christian Burials, the way to tell is if the tomb is facing eastwards as this was the way pointed towards Jerusalem. During this time there was also a tradition of placing coins on the eyes of the deceased which harks back to ancient Greek belief. Charon was the ferry man in the underworld and for those passed on to pay for their passage they would have coins placed over the eye, this is a strand of pagan belief , just as occult practices, found  intertwined in many Victorian rituals.  They would also often be placed in mass graves usually marked by a simple wooden cross for a head stone, incredibly humble in comparison to the upper class’ burial practices and would state a lot about the class of people buried. Over all the presentation of the dead in the form of their graves was of great importance and reflected not only the identity of the deceased but also the Victorian era itself.

Works cited:

(1)Rushkin, John. The Lamp of Memory.  Dover Publication.1885.
(2)Kuich, John. Schwarzbach, FS. The Victorians and Death. Journal. Page 875
(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.
(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 [148]

1 comment:

  1. I really like that fact you related your work to Robert Browning's poem, it fits in well with the context of your topic. I also kept thinking about Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff being obsessed with visiting Cathy's grave and his desire to be buried with her – he wants what you described as his ‘final statement’ to be with Cathy forever.