Victorian London - Death and Dying - Customs - Awaiting Burial 

    There is no part of the subject which I have considered with more anxiety than that which relates to delays in interment, and to the pro≠longed keeping of dead bodies in the rooms of their living kindred.
    Evils arising in this source are unknown to the rich. Soldered in its leaden coffin, on tressels in some separate and spacious room, a corpse may await the convenience of survivors with little detriment to their atmosphere. Not so in the poor manís dwelling. The sides of a wooden coffin, often imperfectly joined, are at best all that divides the decomposition of the dead from the respiration of the living. A room, tenanted night and day by the family of mourners, likewise contains the remains of the dead. For some days the coffin is unclosed. The bare corpse lies there amid the living; beside them in their sleep; before them at their meals.
    The death perhaps has occurred on a Wednesday or Thursday; the next Sunday is thought too early for the funeral; the body remains unburied till the Sunday week. Summer or winter makes little difference to this detention: nor is there sufficient knowledge on the subject, among the poorer population, for alarm to be excited even by the concurrence of infectious disease in a room so hurtfully occupied... On an average, there would probably be lying within the City at any moment, from thirty to forty dead bodies in rooms tenanted by living person...
    Among the wealthier classes, as I have said, this delay is practically unimportant, except in so far as every repetition maintains the pernicious custom. Scarcely on account of any risk arising to themselves in emanations from the dead, but mainly for the sake of influence and example, would one wish the educated classes of the community to adopt the usage of earlier burial. Our present practice is upheld by no law of necessity; nor for the most part does it represent any extravagance of grief, or fond reluctance of separation. Chiefly it subsists by our indolent acquiescence in a habit, which former prejudices and former exigencies established. Fears of premature interment, which had much to do with it, are now seldom spoken of but with a smile. The longer interval, once rightly insisted on as necessary for the gathering of distant friends, has now, in the progress of events, become absurdly excessive: in a vast majority of cases, all those whose presence is needed, live within a narrow circle; and the more distant mourner, who, fifty years ago, would have spent several days in coming from Paris or Edinburgh, can now finish his journey in twelve hours. It is much to be wished that, under these changed circumstances, an altered practice might ensue in the upper classes of society, fixing their time of burial within three or four days of death. Such example of wealthier neighbours aided by greater enlightenment and education among themselves, would greatly tend to detach the poor from many observances and delays, in relation to the dead, which, in their narrow dwellings cannot continue with impunity.

Dr John Simon, City of London Medical Reports, Special report on Intra≠mural Interments, 1852.

Wed. Feb. 29. ...  I broke off this writing to go to Lewes, where I spent a snowy afternoon. At 5.30 1 was home again. A telegram waited for me. "Mrs Gissing" is dead. Come at once. I caught the 7.45 train, and was at 7K by a quarter toll. Had telegraphed to Roberts who met me at the door, and stayed through the night with me.
   
Thursd. March 1. At 8.30 Roberts and I started for Lambeth. I felt an uncertainty about the truth of the telegram, and Roberts offered to go alone to 16 Lucretia Street, Lower Marsh, to make inquiries. I waited for him, walking up and down by Waterloo Station. He came back and told me that she was indeed dead. Thereupon we both went to the house; a wretched, wretched place. The name of the landlady, Sherlock. She told us that MHG died at about 9.30 yesterday morning. the last struggle beginning at 6 o'clock. They found my Eastbourne address on an envelope in a drawer. I went upstairs to see the body; then Roberts accompanied me to the doctor who had been called in, name McCarthy, West. Bridge Road. He gave us a certificate. Immediate cause of death, acute laryngitis. Roberts took his leave, and I returned to the house. Then a married daughter of Mrs. Sherlock went with me to see the undertaker, of whom a coffin had already been ordered, - a man called Stevens, whom we found in a small beer-shop which he keeps, 99 Princes Rd, Lambeth. Arranged for a plain burial which is to cost 6 guineas. Leaving him, we went to the Registry Office, Lambeth Square, and registered the death. Thence to Lucretia Street again, where I arranged with the Sherlocks that they should attend the funeral;  I am to give them £3. to buy mourning and pay their trouble and various expenses of late. After discussing these things, I went up to the room, to collect such things as I desired to take away.
    Let me describe this room. It was the first floor back; so small that the bed left little room to move. She took it unfurnished, for 2/9 a week; the furniture she brought was: the bed, one chair, a chest of drawers, and a broken deal table. On some shelves were a few plates, cups, etc. Over the mantelpiece hung several pictures, which she had preserved from old days. There were three engravings: a landscape, a piece by Landseer, and a Madonna of Raphael. There was a portrait of Byron, and one of Tennyson. There was a photograph of myself, taken 12 years ago, - to which, the landlady tells me, she attached special value, strangely enough. Then there were several cards with Biblical texts. and three cards such as are signed by those who "take the pledge," - all bearing date during the last six months.
    On the door hung a poor miserable dress and a worn out ulster; under the bed was a pair of boots. Linen she had none; the very covering of the bed had gone save one sheet and one blanket. I found a number of pawn tickets, showing that she had pledged these things during last summer, - when it was warm, poor creature! All the money she received went in drink; she used to spend my weekly 15/- the first day or two that she had it. Her associates were women of so low a kind that even Mrs. Sherlock did not consider them respectable enough to visit her house.
    I drew out the drawers. In one I found a little bit of butter and a crust of bread, - most pitiful sight my eyes ever looked upon. There was no other food anywhere. The other drawers contained a disorderly lot of papers: there I found all my letters, away back to the American time. In a cupboard were several heaps of dirty rags; at the bottom there had been coals, but none were left. Lying about here and there were medicine bottles, and hospital prescriptions.
    She lay on the bed covered with a sheet. I looked long, long at her face, but could not recognize it. It is more than three years, I think, since I saw her, and she had changed horribly. Her teeth all remained, white and perfect as formerly.
    I took away very few things, just a little parcel: my letters, my portrait, her rent-book, a certificate of life-assurance which had lapsed, a copy of my Father's "Margaret" which she had preserved, and a little workbox, the only thing that contained traces of womanly occupation.
    Came home to a bad, wretched night. In nothing am Ito blame; I did my utmost; again and again I had her back to me. Fate was too strong. But as I stood beside that bed, I felt that my life henceforth had a firmer purpose. Henceforth I never cease to bear testimony against the accursed social order that brings about things of this kind. 1 feel that she will help me more in her death than she balked me during her life. Poor, poor thing!
    Friday, March 2. In morning arranged my books roughly on the shelves; during papering etc. they have been lying in a great heap on the floor. In afternoon went to Lucretia Street, and saw her in her coffin. The face seemed more familiar to me. Gave Mrs. Sherlock the promised £3; funeral will be on Monday at 2 o'clock. A daughter accompanied me to a low public house, where the landlady had a pawn-ticket for H's wedding- ring, security for a debt of 1/9. 1 paid the debt, and redeemed the ring, from the broker's.- Cut a little hair from the poor head, - I scarcely know why, alas!

George Gissing, Diaries, 1888

 

    Funeral guests were beginning to assemble. On arriving, they were conducted first of all into the front-room on the ground-floor, the Peckovers' parlour. It was richly furnished. In the centre stood a round table, which left small space for moving about, and was at present covered with refreshments. A polished sideboard supported a row of dessert-plates propped on their edges, and a number of glass vessels, probably meant for ornament alone, as they could not possibly have been put to any use. A low cupboard in a recess was surmounted by a frosted cardboard model of St. Paul's under a glass case, behind which was reared an oval tray painted with flowers.. Over the mantel-piece was the regulation mirror, its gilt frame enveloped in coarse yellow gauze; the mantel-piece itself bore a 'wealth' of embellishments in glass and crockery. On each side of it hung a framed silhouette, portraits of ancestors. Other pictures there were many, the most impressive being an ancient oil-painting, of which the canvas bulged forth from the frame; the subject appeared to be a ship, but was just as likely a view of the Alps. Several German prints conveyed instruction as well as delight; one represented the trial of Strafford in Westminster Hall; another, the trial of William Lord Russell, at the Old Bailey. There was also a group of engraved portraits, the Royal Family of England early in the reign of Queen Victoria; and finally, 'The Destruction of Nineveh,' by John Martin. Along the window-sill were disposed flower-pots containing artificial plants; one or other was always being knocked down by the curtains or blinds.
    Each guest having taken a quaff of ale or spirits or what was called wine, with perhaps a mouthful of more solid sustenance, was then led down into the back-kitchen to view the coffin and the corpse. I mention the coffin first, because in everyone's view this was the main point of interest. Could Mrs. Peckover have buried the old woman in an orange-crate, she would gladly have done so for the saving of expense; but with relatives and neighbours to consider, she drew a great deal of virtue out of necessity, and dealt so very handsomely with the undertaker, that this burial would be the talk of the Close for some weeks. The coffin was inspected inside and out, was admired and appraised, Mrs. Peckover being at hand to check the estimates. At the same time every most revolting detail of the dead woman's last illness was related and discussed and mused over and exclaimed upon. 'A lovely corpse, considerin' her years,' was the general opinion. Then all went upstairs again, and once more refreshed themselves. The house smelt like a bar-room. 

George Gissing, The Nether World, 1889