Victorian London - Death and Dying - character of funerals and undertakers

see also Charles Manby Smith in The Little World of London - click here

Of all cold, formal, uncharitable, and un-christian-like sights to be seen in London, a funeral is certainly the greatest, combining as it does all of these characters, in addition to several others for which no expressive name can be found.
    Among the aristocracy when a person dies, unless he is some great general or other public character, no one attends the funeral except the immediate family of the deceased. Friends of the family send only their empty carriages. I have frequently seen a magnificent hearse, attended by many hired mourners and one carriage containing the immediate family of the deceased following the hearse, then a long train of empty carriages of all kinds and descriptions. Among the lower classes funerals consist of a hearse and one carriage, but always attended by hired mourners. These mourners are composed of the very lowest of the low; they are generally as drinking, gambling, and murderous a set of men, or devils, as ever abode within the walls of a jail. They dress in black with a long alpacca gown trimmed with velvet thrown around them. From their hats to their feet flow two long ends of a bow of white Irish linen. Their duty consists in standing at the door of the dwelling wherein lies the deceased, for some hours before the time of the funeral; in drinking all the liquor they can in the meantime, and in walking beside the hearse at the funeral. Each one of them carries in his hand a staff over the top of which is folded a piece of linen similar to that worn on the hat. Their chief duty is to mourn the fate of the department.
    Every undertaker thinks it incumbent on himself to outdo every other undertaker in ridiculing the dead. The shops exhibit from the ground to the roof all kinds, sizes and shapes of coffins; beautiful epitaths for the tomb of the dead; neat positions for "laying out;" and pictures of funerals underwritten thus:- "funerals got up in this style for 10," or plainer funerals, for less money.
In every manner possible or imaginable, are the dead made a mockery and a mere mercenary affair. It is easy enough to talk of a person's being insensible to everything done to his body when his pulse shall have ceased forever to beat, but I am led to doubt very much whether best christian of modern days would die in London as easy as he would out of it. Custom is a great deal, and Londoners must have got accustomed to this manner of treating their dead. . . . It is said that at the presen time in London, it is more difficult to find room for the dead than it is for the living. The city graveyards have been dug out over and over again. They now build vast catacombs near the city, and to these hundreds are daily carried. "The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the equinox? Every hour adds unto that current arithmetic which scarce stands one moment."

W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859

I can quite well recollect the orthodox funeral of the fifties and sixties when two red-nosed men, similar to those in George Cruikshank's picture, stood outside the door from early morning until the funeral was over, each bearing a mysterious bauble, something like a broom tied up in black silk squares at the head and finished at the middle of the stave with black silk bows. These worthies were called mutes, and were supposed to stand motionless, no matter what the weather; indeed, a rather good story was told about a couple who, on a very cold winter day, sent in to ask for "a glass of somethink 'ot to keep them alive." Unfortunately, the request was made to a man who had neither generosity nor humour, and who in return sent back a message: "Nonsense! Certainly not! if they are cold, tell them to jump about and warm themselves"  - the idea of the melancholy, silent, black-garbed mutes jumping hilariously about on the doorstep not having struck him as being either indecorous or absurd! The hearse itself was a nightmare: an enormous black vehicle, crowned with nodding plumes of ostrich feathers, the number and splendour of which determined the financial status of the "corpse," or the esteem in which he was held by his friends; the four splendid black horses, with tremendous manes and tails, were adorned with more plumes of feathers on their heads, and great velvet coverings on their backs, and as all the attendants wore vast cloaks, and wide silk hat-bands round their hats, and the mourners were one and all provided with hat-bands and wide scarfs of silk and black gloves, and were lent cloaks by the undertaker, I leave my readers to imagine the actual amount of money that used to be spent, often enough at a time when the unfortunate survivors could ill afford it. I am glad to say that in one place I was instrumental, at the price of a frightful disturbance with my father-in-law, in doing away with one of these abominable customs. Not only were the scarf and hat-band worn at the funeral, but all the male "mourners" used to don these cheerful articles on the following Sunday, and sit in a row with the ladies of the family to listen to funeral hymns and a sermon. This was more than I could stand; the relationship in question was distant, and the family immediately concerned was yet more distant; all the same my husband was expected to appear in public in this extraordinary guise. I would have none of it, neither would I don more than grey and black for a distant connection had only seen once in my life. I can well recollect the stir in the congregation when we appeared clad much as usual, but I was not prepared for the speechless rage that met us outside at the abode of my father-in-law. I let him storm; it didn't hurt me and he could not interfere; but never again did hat-bands and scarfs appear in that special church: itself nowadays goes to the opposite direction and, despite all the efforts of the Court, bids fair to disappear altogether.
    I quite well remember my aunt, who was the wife of a doctor, never bought herself a black silk dress; neither did another aunt, whose husband was a lawyer. They used to collect all the hat-bands and scarves of the year and take them to some undertaker's: who in the country, at any rate, was always a haberdasher as well: and he always exchanged them for so many yards of silk cut off the same piece, the hat-bands and scarves differing not only in the shades of black but in the quality of the silk as well. The gloves were also treated in the same way, and were exchanged for others, either for husband or wife as was required at the time. Gloves were much more worn by men than they are now; clergymen were expected to wear one at least in the pulpit, and a Welsh parson told me he always had to have packets of gloves made for him for the left hand only. He would wear one and carry the other; when the one he was wearing became shabby he would carry that and wear another from the packet. He was obliged to wear one glove; two were too troublesome, and as he had to be economical, Dent obliged him in the manner described above.
    I am not quite sure if the amount of money spent on flowers nowadays for a funeral does not require some caustic pen to write on the subject; but, at any rate, the expense is more equally distributed, it does not all fall on the unhappy family itself. 

Mrs. J.E. Panton, Leaves from a Life, 1908

see also Alfred Rosling Bennett in London and Londoners - click here