Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Buried by the Parish

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WE started on our long ride so early in the morning that when we reached the suburbs it was little more than half-past nine. We were not due at the cemetery to which we were bound until ten o'clock, and had barely a couple of miles further to go, but the roads were rough, and our load a heavy one. Indeed our procession consisted of three vehicles, each of which rested cumbersome on its springs. There was one hearse of the ordinary sort, and two "machines" half hearse, half omnibus, ingenious contrivances, economical, and for parish purposes leaving nothing to be desired, excepting at times when the receptacle for the coffins is taxed beyond its fair capacity. This, unfortunately, happened on the present occasion, and the result was that the decent screening curtain of the hearse portion jutted out in an ugly way, and when the wind blew the hanging was wafted aside, exposing the [-71-] ends of the rough elm boxes to the public gaze. There was happily no wind to speak of.
    Tuesday, as well as Friday, is a parochial burying day, and one could not but wonder how it fared with the string of black conveyances on Hurricane Tuesday in the midst of the furious blast and the blinding snow. Snow there was still, in cruel abundance. It lay heaped up on either side of the road so high that of those who walked in the narrow lane cut through it by way of a foot-path no more than their upper half was visible, while in the road the clogging mass so muffled wheel-tires and hoofs of horses that we glided along noiseless almost as sledges.
    Our number of living riders, all counted, and including coachman and "helps," was eighteen, of whom thirteen were mourners; of pauper bodies for burial we carried eleven. Within a mile of our destination we were in difficulties respecting the hearse. It did not get on well at all, and the end of it was we left it to make the best haste it could, while we with the two "machines" went on so as to put in an appearance and be in time according to our contract and the cemetery rules, which are planned so that this bi-weekly pauper business may be over and done with before respectable people bring their dead to be buried.
    Arrived at the church within the cemetery gates, we were enjoined by someone to look alive, for we were awfully late, and I began to wonder how much time would be consumed in carrying such a large number of coffins into the sacred edifice, and whether they would wait for the lagging hearse that at present had not hove in sight. But I was not aware of the peculiar rites and ceremonies attending pauper burial, nor, unless I am mistaken, did several of the weeping and shivering mourners themselves either understand or appreciate them. Those that were brought to be buried were not to be carried into the church at all.
    The thirteen mourners, seven of whom were women and little girls, were hurried out of the "machines" and beckoned by someone who stood at the church door, and as soon as they had all alighted the vehicles containing their dead relatives began to move off. The poor mourners, as though not knowing what to make of it, stood regarding the retreating coaches in a bewildered and beseeching kind of way, but the person, who continued to beckon, then exclaimed impatiently,
    "Come, make haste! This way! You're all behind!" and in they trooped.
    But barely had the last pauper mourner disappeared when a couple [-72-] of grave-diggers, I suppose to save themselves the inconvenience of walking through the snow, mounted up to the hinder part of one of the hearses. One of them lit a pipe. There was no great harm in the act, perhaps, but it jarred somehow with one's ideas of the solemnity as well as the propriety of Christian burial. I did not go with the mourners into the church. They would, I was assured by a communicative hearse-driver, be sure to " turn up again to see the last of 'em." I questioned this individual, who had seemingly enjoyed much experience in such matters, and he informed me that the bodies used to be carried into the church, but that the practice had been abandoned for several months past. I ventured the opinion that it was somewhat hard on the poor people, to which he retorted,-
    "And what about the contractor? Take our load this morning - eight 'growns' and three 'small,' and two of the growns regler horseloads of themselves. Fancy carting all that lot into church and out again when you're tied, and got to clear out by a certain time!"
    We arrived at the place of sepultre in time. It was at the extreme end of the cemetery and close by the boundary wall, in that part devoted to interments generally. There was nothing in the aspect of the ground to denote it as commoner than any other part, for the snow lay everywhere more than a foot deep, its surface unbroken, glistering beautifully in the bright sunshine, excepting where the pits were dug. The particular pit to which those we had brought were to be consigned was about forty yards from the path where the hearses halted, and there the pipe-smoking gravedigger and his mate alighted, to join two other grave-diggers, and the business of burying was immediately proceeded with, the presence of minister and mourners being for the present dispensed with. And certainly it was the most amazing funeral performance it was ever my lot to behold.
    There was but one grave, pit, trench, or whatever may be the proper name for it. How deep it was originally I cannot say. It was wide enough to contain, I think, three coffins, and when I looked down into it before our hearses were unloaded, there were to be seen several coffins, new and close packed, resting there. The friendly hearse-driver was by my side (smoking a short pipe) and I asked him if there had been other burials there already that morning. To which he replied, "Oh, them you see down there are some of the lot we brought last Tuesday." And will there be no earth put between them and those that are now to be buried?
    "What would be the good of that? They wouldn't pack half as neat-like, to say nothing of taking up space."
    "But am I to understand that it is customary to keep the grave open from time to time until it will hold no more?"
    "That's it. What would be the good of digging a hole big enough to hold a whole lot of em if you shut up before it was full."
    By this time the hearse that had been delayed on the road came up in a hurry and with the horses smoking, and all was ready to commence unloading.
    "Who's going down?" asked the grave-diggers amongst themselves.
    [-73-] "I'll take a turn this morning," remarked one of them ; "it's warmer down there than up here;" saying which he swung himself in at the mouth of the pit-hole, clambering down by means of the shoring timbers, and presently stood on the last arrangement of coffins previously deposited there.
    "They'll want a little shifting, Bill," called out one digger to his mate below.
    "I see they will," came up Bill's muffled voice. "Chuck down a plank-hook."
    The "plank-hook was shaped like a boat-hook, but much more massive and shorter in the handle, and having busied himself with it just as though he were adjusting a stowage of packing-cases in a warehouse cellar, Bill in a few minutes announced that he was ready, and that "they might bring 'em on as soon as they liked."
    The first instalment was but an insignificant one. Somebody brought it under his arm, as a not very heavy parcel might be carried. It was the coffin of a little child-a mere baby-made of bare rough elm like the rest, and looking somehow curiously unfit for an innocent little infant to lie in.
    "Where'll you have this?" the man asked of him who was down in the pit, at the same time thrusting it forward that he might see what it was.
    "Nowhere just yet - shove it a one side," was the response; "I'll find a corner for it by-and-by."
    And the little coffin was deposited on the snow by the pit's mouth, into which it sank of its own weight, and was more than half-buried. The arrangements generally presented a grim and striking contrast to the pomp and ceremony that attends the sepulture of persons of more consideration.
    A blue-nosed cemetery subordinate with a comforter wrapped round his neck and his coat collar turned up to his ears, stood at the pit's edge with a paper and a stump of a pencil in his hand, his business being to compare the name on each coffin plate with his list on the paper, and to cross it off as soon as a box was lowered. Seemingly it was nobody's business but that of the men in clay-stained habiliments to relieve the hearses of their burden, and they did it as decorously as could well be ex-[-74-]pected of rough men who are so habituated to this sort of work that they think no more of its solemn nature than do upholsterer's men of stowing trunks and crates in a furniture van.
    There was only one who lost his temper a little, and he was a young gravedigger, possibly new to the work. His grounds of aggravation were that almost every time when a "box" was brought up the slippery planks, and half breathless with their shoulder load, the bearers called to the man down below to know "how he'd have it "-he almost invariably replied, "Tother end for'ad," which necessitated the two or three bearers turning round, burdened as they were, within a very limited space. The raw-boned, broad-backed young digger merely muttered his wrath, however, and I should be sorry indeed to believe that he was in the least actuated by malice, or that it was anything but an unavoidable accident, when the aggravating man down in the pit presently came alarmingly close to a terrible and sudden end. There was a considerable amount of hurry, for the "checker off" with the paper and pencil had said "Get em in, get 'em in! We shall have the parson here presently." It was a box of large dimensions (one of the horseloads mentioned by the hearse-driver very probably) and the young digger stood with his lowering ropes at the narrow end, two men being at the other, when suddenly the first-mentioned ropes slipped off their holding, and the awful weight hung on the remaining rope, balancing like the beam of a scales. There was a cry from everybody to the man below to get out of the way or he'd be crushed. He didn't seem much put out, however, though his peril appeared so extreme.
    "Don't mind me," his gruff voice came up laughingly, "take your time ; I'm out o' sight if I ain't out o' danger."
    Knowing nothing of the hidden mysteries of that dreadful pit I can't, of course, explain what he meant or where he stowed himself; but he was all ready to receive and pack this last consignment when the rope had been readjusted and it was lowered to. him. I do not say it to their disparagement, but I don't believe that any man there - checker, parish hearse-drivers, or grave-diggers - gave one single thought to what it was the bare inch thickness of rough elm planking hid from their sight. They spoke of the coffins as "boxes," and of their differences as "short 'uns" and "long 'uns," and "wide 'uns" and "narrow 'uns," but there were instances. when this seeming callousness struck the observer as being inexpressibly shocking.
    "What next?" they would call down to the stower.
    "I can do with a narrow un'," was the answer, and the clayey men went off, and presently returned laden.
    "Put it down for a minute; I ain't quite ready," and the narrow box was laid on the snowy ground, and on its scanty tin plate was inscribed "Margaret -----, aged 19."
    Who was the Margaret that had come to this pitiful ending? What was the life she had led that this was the last of her, and that of all her kith and kin, there was not one to stand by the coffin of this young creature, to drop a tear or breathe a prayer for her, [-75-]  ere all that pertained to her mortal body was put away out of human sight for ever. What was her story, that this should be the last chapter of it? Was she one of the poor and poverty-stricken, a wretched, half-starved drudge of the factory or slop-shop, grateful at last for workhouse asylum, and glad to die and be at rest - or was she of a superior class, treacherously entrapped to sin, perhaps, and sunk at length so low that it mattered not to her where she hid her shameful head and died? Who can tell?
    There are Margarets who, departing this life, aged nineteen, would occasion such a clustering round their untimely graves of sorrowing relatives that the minister's solemn words would be unheard because of their sobbing. What a difference! There lay this poor girl, in her shabby coffin of parish make - contracted for and contrived with such severe economy that even the convenience of handles was denied it - all alone and desolate, with no one more sympathetic to attend her lowering into the grave than cemetery labourers and hearse drivers; leaving behind her no other record of how she passed away and when, except that afforded by the certificate the workhouse doctor gave, and the fact that the checker at the pit's mouth found her name on his scribbled list, and put his pencil through it. Apparently they have but small respect for the departed at a parochial burying.
    "Where's that small ?" inquired the packer in the hole, alluding to the little child that was laid aside at the commencement of the proceedings. There happened to be nobody on the spot at the moment but one of the drivers.
    " Here it is."
    "Let's have it, then."
    "You can't reach it down there," said the hearse-driver.
    "Can't you chuck it down to me?" returned the pit-hole man.
    But the hearse-driver declined, and it was lowered by a rope.
    Rather more than half the number of "boxes" had been borne from the black coaches to the pit when a straggling procession of men, women, and children was seen in the distance, and a very long distance it was, considering the depth of snow on the ground, making for the burying-place. These were the thirteen mourners, and dreadfully bad it must have been for the poor women if their shoes were thin and unserviceable, as the shoes of poor women sometimes are, to come shuffling through that icy cold and saturating mass that reached higher far than their ankles. But they needn't have hurried so; there was plenty of time for them. Say it took five minutes to unload a "box," carry it to the pit, de-[-76-]posit and pack it - and it must be admitted that that would be sharp work - and there were yet four to be so disposed of after the mourners had come up, there would be twenty minutes at least. And for that time or longer there they stood, shivering and huddled together, stamping their chilled feet in the snow, and with their teeth chattering.
    They did not approach the pit as yet - that was not allowed; but they gathered at the spot where the unloading was going on, and in some cases of course saw their loved ones carried off and put away, their only privilege being to follow them with their woeful eyes. There remained still some work to do when the minister arrived, and in his cold-looking white surplice, with a red comforter tied over his head and ears to protect him from the cold, he stood awhile shivering with the rest. But eventually the last load was deposited, and then the mourners hurried up and crowded round the pit, and while they looked down wondering, no doubt, which was which, the minister stood at the pit side, and in a brief two minutes he had said all of the Burial Service he had reserved to say, and nothing remained but to drive the forlorn thirteen homeward again, with a charitable stoppage at the nearest available public-house to be found on the frosty road, to bait the horses and refresh the drivers, and give the baker's dozen of poor benumbed mourners a chance of having a warm at the tap-room fire.

source: 'One of the Crowd' [James Greenwood], The Mysteries of Modern London, 1883