By Mary Elizabeth Hotz
Explores Victorian responses to demise and burial in literature, journalism, and criminal writing.
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Additional resources for Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England
The very moment when working-class families and communities gathered to enact their burial rituals, Chadwick marks as the deadliest and calls for the immediate removal of the body from the dwelling. In an early passage that delineates the dangers of death occurring in single-room dwellings, Chadwick first begins with the most predictable argument about miasma—but with measured shifts in emphasis: When the dissolution has taken place under circumstances such as those described, it is not a few minutes’ look after the last duties are performed and the body is composed in death and left in repose, that is given to this class of survivors, but the spectacle is protracted hour after hour through the day and night, and day after day, and night after night, thus aggravating the mental pains under varied circumstances, and increasing the dangers of permanent bodily injury.
29 Down among the Dead 19 Chadwick, however, focuses on the human agents of infection. By dismissing miasma from graveyards as “not an immediately appreciable evil,” claiming instead that the deadliest miasma emanates from the body in the first two days after death (SR, 41), he marks and makes ready for reform those among the lower ranks living in their homes. Those in the middle class, to their credit, from Chadwick’s perspective, were beyond the scope of his reform measures because, increasingly, they took advantage of the undertaker who would remove the body immediately from the home and arrange for burial either in a family vault or extramural cemetery.
Befriending death effaces respect and demoralizes character. Quoting a clergyman who alleviated “the sufferings in several hundred death bed scenes in the abodes of the labouring classes” (SR, 45), Chadwick writes about the dangers of this proximity to the dead: From familiarity it is a short step to desecration. . Viewed as an outrage upon human feeling, this is bad enough; but who does not see that when the respect for the dead, that is, for the human form in its most awful state, is gone, the whole mass of social sympathies must be weakened— perhaps blighted and destroyed?
Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England by Mary Elizabeth Hotz