A Poor Woman’s Burden: The Fear of Erasure in the Era of the Victorian Cemetery

‘What did a poor woman work for, but in hopes that she should be put out of the world in a tidy way.’

A significant impact of the rise of the ‘New Regime,’ as Thomas Laqueur argues in The Work of the Dead, was how the cemetery contributed to the ‘pauper funeral,’ or the dismal, bare-boned service and eventual disposal of bodies that was fated to the working class and poor of nineteenth century British society.

The Burial of the Dead

What we deem as appropriate and respectful in regards to how we care for our dead and how we bury them has changed over time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodies were buried in shrouds – coffins did not become commonplace until the nineteenth century, where “no funeral, however miserable” was without one. The nineteenth century also saw the birth of the cemetery, which came to replace the churchyard as the ‘proper’ place for burial. There were benefits to this. No longer did a non-churchgoer or excommunicate have to fear what would happen to their remains upon their death. They could choose their plot and their grave and have as grandiose a ceremony as they wished. The cemetery ushered in a new era of possibilities; of cosmopolitan, secular burial.

However, the ‘New Regime’ was (and still is) not an entirely welcoming place of rest. With the advent of the cemetery, capitalism entered the burial process. Thus, the cemetery became exclusionary in a monetary way, setting the stage for a burgeoning funeral industry.

Financial Insecurity Leads to Exclusion 

The stigma that the poor of Victorian England faced while alive did not disappear once they were dead. “In life the pauper was a drain on the commonwealth; in death she was a pure waste, a relic that might only be redeemed if it could somehow find a use in anatomy theaters, or, more fantastically, in marling the field.” Even widows, “who had once kept a good house” had to live with the fear of falling into the margins of society if they failed to remarry and secure their economic wellbeing. Financial insecurity meant uncertainty when it came to how a body would be treated in death. It also meant probable exclusion from the new community of the dead that lie in the cemetery.

The Fear of Erasure

The worry that one’s body would be improperly disposed of – or worse, lost, was a real fear held by the poor in nineteenth century England. To be unable to afford a proper funeral in the cemetery meant that a poor person would be fated to have a ‘pauper funeral,’ which was essentially to be “put away on the parish,” i.e. in a common grave, which was at risk of being “disinterred and tossed” at any time. To be excluded from the new community of the dead, the one that slumbered beneath the grounds of the cemetery, and the ones who occupied the minds and memory of the living, meant that a poor person was completely erased from society. Her identity was lost to oblivion. This is why a proper funeral became “a matter of utmost importance” for the poor – it ensured personal identity would not be lost.

Burial Clubs: The Foundation of Community and Identity

“If the Victorian working class saved for anything,” says Laqueur, “it saved for death.” The poor lived frugally in the hopes of saving enough for a proper burial. They also joined collection societies, friendly societies, or invested in burial clubs, small communities that saved communal funds and saw to it, to the best of their abilities, that none of their members would receive a ‘pauper funeral,’ as exemplified in the case of a dying factory girl in late Victorian England:

Her friends in the [burial] club when told that there was no hope of her recovery clubbed together before her death to buy a wreath for her coffin. The[y ] were exceeding[ly] anxious that she should live long enough to see it.

Burial clubs helped lessen the fear of “falling irrevocably from the grace of society, of exclusion from the values of one’s culture,”and ensured the poor would be interred into the same community of dead that welcomed their richer counterparts.

Source: Laqueur, Thomas. The Work of the Dead. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Print.

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