Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 9 - Last Homes of the Londoners

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THIRTY years ago, the last home of even a wealthy Londoner was a crowded vault beneath some church hemmed in by houses; while that of the poorer sort could hardly be called a resting-place, since, sooner or later, their bones had to make way for the more recently deceased, and were thrown to left and right by the grave-digger. Higher and higher grew the half-human churchyard, shutting out window after window of the many peopled houses round from outlook and air, and substituting for the one a wall of rank rich grass, whose greenness speaks not of life and spring-time, but of death and corruption, and for the other, the pestilence that walketh in the noonday and the [-42-] night alike. Even in the vaults of so-called fashionable churches, not only were no pains taken to render death less abhorrent, but it was positively made more hideous by circumstance. The tawdry pomp of crape and baton, of pawing horses and nodding plumes, and all the hired panoply of sorrow, went no further than the grave's mouth.
    I remember being present at a certain funeral in those days-a "first class interment," it was called, in the jargon of the undertaker - where all the outward respect that could be provided for the sad occasion had been purchased without regard to expense. Gentlemen in dusky pairs, and overcome with costly emotion, preceded the long procession, each furnished with what looked like a folded telescope, as though they would have followed with their bodily eyes the supposed direction of the late flight of the fashionable spirit. Then a dusky gentleman alone, bearing a board upon his head with ostrich feathers on it, exactly as the Italian image-boys carry their frail wares. Then another group of telescope-bearers. Then a sort of (muffled) [-43-] drum-major in the deepest mourning and despondency. After him the hearse itself, with a gentleman more than dusky - for he was a genuine black man - sitting beside the driver. The appearance of this person was calculated to excite sympathy even from the most callous spectator. He was bowed no less with years than with grief, and his short hair - which still retained the curl peculiar to his race - was as white as wool.
    I inquired of a relative of the deceased person who this individual was, for I did not remember ever to have seen him in that gentleman's household.
    "I dare say not," returned he; "for the fact is, I never set eyes on him myself before to-day. Mr. Mole, however, assured us that it would be the correct thing to engage him. 'An ancient and valued retainer of the family,' said he, 'is indispensable on such occasions as these, and a black man for this purpose is invaluable.' He is set down in the estimate at 3  16s., exclusive of the cambric handkerchief - which, to do him justice, [-44-] he applies to his eyes as continuously as is consistent with exhibiting his complexion to the general public.
    After the hearse came, of course, the mourning coaches, and a long train of private carriages, full, perhaps, of unmitigated grief - for there was nothing else in them. At the mouth of the dismal-looking vault we were all arranged in a certain order, while Mr. Mole distributed among us little packets of lavender-coloured paper, which I took at first to contain sugar-plums, but which in reality held gravel, refined to the delicate consistency of cayenne-pepper. "At the words 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust,' whispered he to each of us with a solemn smirk, "you will be so kind as to sprinkle the contents upon the coffin."
    And yet, I remember, when the grim pantomime was over, and the plumes were packed away, and the hired mourners (including the ancient retainer) consoling themselves for their bereavement in the neighbouring public-house, the coffin of the deceased person's late wife, who had been buried but [-45-] a few years back with the like magnificence, and next to which he had wished his own to be laid, could nowhere be found. The relative before alluded to, and myself, had remained behind to see that this request was carried out, and but for us it would certainly have been disregarded. We descended into the vault, and only after several hours discovered what we sought. All the coffins, without the least regard to the relationship of their inmates, were bound up in bundles of half-a-dozen each, and fastened together by means of huge black chains. How wretched was such a resting-place, contrasted with a grave that "takes the sunshine and the rains," such as the very humblest can command in a village churchyard!
    It is true that there are some few quiet and suitable spots for sepulture even in London-some very "snug lying" beneath the shade of deep-hidden city churches, and in cloisters, rarely or never trodden by the foot of a chance passenger. In the precincts of the Charter House, and about Westminster Abbey, there are several such places sunk [-46-] in shadow and silence, to which neither the noise nor the beams of highest noon can penetrate. In an inner court of the latter locality, I came but lately upon a half-obliterated memorial-stone, which cannot surely have met many eyes. The tablet states of the deceased that "through the spotted vaile of the small-pox he presented an unspotted soul to his Maker."
    In some old London churchyards, too, there are cypresses, and some, such as that in Camden Town, wherein Charles Dibden, the song-writer, is buried, are even planted with flowers.
    As a general rule, however, the Last Homes of Londoners of all ranks have been, until lately, a disgrace to our civilisation, and calculated in sensitive minds to add another terror to death. All this is now happily changed. It is almost impossible to take a long walk in any direction out of London without coming upon one or other of its beautiful cemeteries. These vary in size from about fifty to ten acres, but are all laid out in a similar manner. Each is divided into two unequal [-47-] parts, the smaller section being unconsecrated, and devoted to the reception of those not buried according to the rites of the Established Church. Such a distinction in such a place, seems pitiable enough; but it is dependent upon the nature of the funeral service only, and is not affected by the form of creed held by the deceased persons in life. In one of the cemeteries, there is a family vault whereupon is inscribed the important fact, that one part of it is consecrated, and the other not; but the flowers seem to grow equally well on both sides.
    Flowers and shrubs are to be found in more or less profusion in all cemeteries, but few trees, since the gradual extension of their roots destroys the graves, and rain-droppings from their branches damage the bead-stones. In all, too, there is one broad walk or carriage-drive, by the side of which are the most striking monuments, and in some, it is said, that ground cannot be purchased in that particular situation unless it is guaranteed that not less than two hundred pounds will be expended in [-48-] decoration. There are many monuments that have cost five times this sum, and which are certainly very imposing, but the effect, so far as pathos is concerned, is generally in inverse ratio to the money expended. Enormous blocks of granite or marble, with life-size figures of Faith, for instance, upon them, do not present that idea of tender sorrow, which a few sea-shells - his playthings during life, perhaps - scattered over a child's grave, convey. In cemeteries in poor neighbourhoods, these shells, and plaster-of-Paris Infant Samuels, form the most common decorations.
    What has been observed concerning the relative size of monument is equally true of length of epitaph. These are almost always affecting in proportion to their brevity, and this is especially true in the case of little children, where many words must needs be out of place. The surname of these little lost ones is sometimes not even mentioned. "Walter" is inserted on one headstone, accompanied only by the date; on another, "My [-49-] Poor Child;" and on another a most touching (although slightly misquoted) text, "It is well with the child. It is well." [2 Kings, iv. 26.]
    Very many foreigners find their last homes in London cemeteries, far away from the places where their fathers lie within the shadow of the Swiss mountains, or by the rapid Rhone, or beneath the Italian skies, or under the palm-trees of the still more distant East. "Wola Twoja," "Chinniah," and "Mahalath," although they have no other epitaph, yet surely speak not without pathetic eloquence. Most of these alien graves exhibit peculiar signs of care, as though their occupants, though dead, were not friendless, but the immortelles which generally hang about them are not adapted for this damp climate, and when once soaked with rain, resemble wreaths of rusty iron. There is no reference to their own land, or repining at the fate which cast their lot in life so far from home; but there is one unhappy Frenchman in Kensal Green, upon whose tomb his surviving friends and compatriots, I suppose, have inscribed [-50-] this libel against our Metropolitan climate. "suffocated in a London fog!" Humour and tenderness are twin sisters, and it is impossible, even while walking amid these groves of death, to refrain from an occasional smile at what we read. Most of the epitaphs are texts, and a few are quotations from well-known religious poems,* [* Gray's Elegy is laid under contribution for this purpose - as far as my observation has gone - in one single instance only. ] but the majority are either amateur compositions by surviving friends, or stock verses furnished by the stone-cutter. Conceive the compliment to the religious feelings of the departed, as well as to the skill of his medical attendants, conveyed in the following distich:

"Pain was my portion;
Physic was my food;
Groans were my devotion;
Drugs did me no good.

This is plain speaking; but the interpretation of the following lines, in Kensal Green, is hidden from the present writer altogether:

 [-51-] Grandchild of Rowland's apostolic man,
Seraphic messenger of God in Wales,
And she in youth her Christian course began,
Till death endured - Now it well avails."

The fulsome adulation of many of these compositions is very sad, and would be extravagant even if angels, and not men, were the subjects of eulogy. The well-known child's question, "But where are all the naughty people buried, papa?" cannot but recur to us as we read them; and when I came, the other day, in a certain place, upon a Captain Somebody, "Unattached," I protest it was quite refreshing, since everyone else but he, it seemed, had left a host of inconsolable friends.
    One or two of the original inscriptions are, on the other hand, at least applicable to the circumstances of the deceased person. In the unconsecrated portion of one cemetery may be read the following lines, an example considerably above the average of its class:

"Full many a flower that blossomed in his path
He stooped to gather, and the fruit he plucked,
That hung from many a tempting bough, all but
 [-52-] The Rose of Sharon and the Tree of Life.
This flung its fragrance to the gale, and spread
Its blushing beauties. That its healing leaves
And fruit immortal. All in vain
He neither tasted nor admired, and found
All that he chose and trusted fair, but false;
The flowers no sooner gathered, than they faded;
The fruits enchanting, dust and bitterness;
And all the world a wilderness of care.
Wearied, dispirited, and near the close
Of an eventful course, he sought the plant
That long his heedless haste o'erlooked, and proved
Its sovereign virtues, underneath its shade,
Outstretched, drew from his wounded feet the thorns,
Shed the last tear, breathed the last sigh, and here
This loved one rests in mote than trembling hope."

Of quotations of any length, perhaps the most appropriate is that which follows, copied from a tombstone in the consecrated part of time same cemetery, and inscribed, as will be seen, to the memory of one who perished young:

"Tis ever thus, us ever thus with all that's best below-
The dearest, noblest, loveliest, are always first to go.
The bird that sings the sweetest, the pine that crowns the rock,
The glory of the garden, the flower of the flock.
'Tis ever thus, 'tis ever thus with creatures heavenly fair
 [-53-] Too finely framed to bide the storms more earthly creatures bear,
A little while they dwell with us, blest ministers of love
Then spread the wings we had not seen,
And seek their home above."

The most favourite sepulchral style among the aristocracy appears to be the "Egyptian," and vast piles of Aberdeen granite are often erected after that pattern, with weird, and, to say truth, very pagan-looking figures guarding what appears to be the portal. The sphynx herself, however, would be puzzled to indicate whereabouts the entrance really is. Sometimes a mighty slab has to be removed in front of the seeming gate, and some-times the back of the gigantic mass, being assailed by levers, revolves slowly upon a central pivot, and gives admission to the ancestral tomb. In deference to this singular taste, I suppose, there is erected in the Highgate Cemetery a circular catacomb of this fashion, embracing a considerable space, from the centre of which - and unapproachable except by a ladder - there springs an enormous yew. The effect is sombre and stately,  [-54-] but evokes not the slightest throb of human sympathy. Those mighty, nameless doors, surmounted with coronets and coats of arms, are powerless to move the heart, in comparison with a grass-green grave set round with violets and primroses. It would, however, be a deception to let it be supposed that in all cases where flowers or fresh grass are found growing about a tomb, surviving friends must needs have set them there,  for a certain annual stipend to the Burial Company will insure the payment of these pious rites at their due season.
    The emblematical statuary is generally of a very stereotyped character, nor do the middle classes therein exhibit themselves one whit less artificial than their betters. Veiled women weeping over tea-urns - who might be ladies suffering from sea-sickness for all that the artist indicates to the contrary; tea-urns covered decently with a stone mantle; tea-urns in all their native deformity; broken lilies, broken columns, broken rosebuds; weeping willows, and especially frosted [-55-] weeping willows, without the least reference to the season in which the deceased person may have perished; doves bearing between their beaks huge open volumes, with texts inscribed upon their marble leaves - all these are to be found in mvriads in all the cemeteries, and so alike to one another, that each class might have been turned out by the same machine. There are not a few monuments, however, whose effect is really good, and many less ambitious ones which are exquisitely beautiful and touching.
    Among the former, the tombs of deceased hippodrome proprietors are very remarkable. That of the late Mr. Cooke, at Kensal Green, is surmounted by a well-executed horse; and opposite to this, singularly enough, is the sumptuous mausoleum of Mr. Ducrow, of Astley's. A tomb, also ornamented by a horse, forms a striking feature in Highgate Cemetery. It is apparently dedicated to some lady famous for her equestrian skill, since the epitaph commences-
"She's gone, whose nerve could curb the swiftest steed."
 [-56-] At Highgate, too, there is a massive memorial to Mr. Wombwell, "menagerist," in the form of a magnificent lion. A more gigantic animal of the same species adorns the monument to Jackson, the famous fencing-master and prize-fighter, in the West London Cemetery, whose epitaph is also singularly good. An architect, interred in the last-named spot, lies, appropriately enough, beneath a huge block of rough granite; and on the tomb of a French engraver, in the same place, his last and unfinished work is preserved in glass, and skilfully set into the headstone. Medallions taken from the life are not uncommon upon the graves of wealthy persons; and in Kensal Green there is a most exquisite chalk-drawing of a little child, taken a few hours after death, and inserted with frame and glass within the stone.
    Of all the Last Homes of the Londoners, Kensal Green is perhaps the most interesting, although by no means so favoured in position as some others. It is the oldest and the most extensive, and therefore the most repaying to the curiosity-hunter in  [-57-] its collection of Celebrities of all kinds. Within its fifty-three acres lie Lord and Leveller, Priest and Actor, Poet and Clown. His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex and half the late British peerage rest within a few yards of Feargus O'Connor. Thomas Barnes, the editor of the Times, sleeps his last sleep by "Barnard Gregory, the Satirist. Sydney Smith is on the same level with Richard Flexmore. Charles Kemble shares the same stage with Madame Vestris. Close to the beautiful monument of Thomas Hood stands the tomb of John Murray, for Death will make even author and publisher lie together in peace. Nay, the very doctors - so impatient of innovation - whose skill has been useless to avert Death's dart from themselves, here lie undisturbed and quiet in the same plot of earth with St. John Long, the "counter irritation" practitioner, and James Morison, the Hygeist.