Don't Know Dickens

Charles Dickens, that is.

Death and Ritual in Victorian Society

A man can die but once.

–Hugh, Barnaby Rudge


During the semester, we’ve established that Charles Dickens understood and recreated Victorian social issues in his work, including poverty, prostitution, drugs, prisons, and many other problems. One topic that reoccurs in his novels is death and dying, which was certainly an issue in Victorian Britain. It is important to note that the death rate had also been high in the 18th century: “During the 1700s more people died in London than were baptised every year” (“Health and Hygiene“). In the 1840s, the death rate was 25.2 per 1,000. The 1850s saw some improvement with 23.6 per 1,000, and the 1860s was 24.3 per thousand (“London in the Nineteenth Century). Death affected all segments of the population; in fact, the life expectancy in the 1830s was 29 (“London’s ‘Great Stink’ and Victorian Urban Planning“), and infant mortality rates were high.  Fortunately, the improvement in the mortality rates continued: “Life expectation increased in England and Wales between 1850 and I900 because conditions in the large cities were ameliorated mainly because of improvements in water supply and sanitation in conjunction with the increased efficiency of local administration (Woods and Hinde 53). Because “death was a common domestic fact of life for Victorians…they developed elaborate rituals to deal with it” (“A Victorian Obsession with Death“), including mourning rituals involving photography, jewelry, and elaborate cemeteries.

Options for medical help were limited, and death was still dealt with inside the household: Victorians had to attend dying family members, so death was very much a part of their lives, and deathbed watches happened at home, not in hospitals (Hunter). Besides death, there is the process of dying, and dealing with that was also a difficult undertaking: “the process of dying, in a period w

The Poor Man’s Friend

hen diagnosis and treatment were fraught with uncertainties, and pain management was primitive, would wring the heart.” (“One. Frail Treasures: Child Death and the Victorian Novel”). When Esther Summerson becomes seriously ill in Dickens’ Bleak House, she does not go to the hospital; instead, she sequesters herself at home for weeks as she tries to limit contact with those she cares about. Her story ends happily, but many Victorians faced different outcomes when they experienced illness and disease.

For those left dealing with the deaths, the “highly conventionalized social customs and funerary rituals eased the transition from the deathbed to the bed that is the grave” (Wheeler). By examining such customs and rituals, we will see that Dickens was not being overly interested in death and dying; instead, the representations of death in his novels appear accurate and not exaggerated.

Queen Victoria

It always seems appropriate to begin studies of the Victorians with the queen–particularly since she is known for her mourning of her husband. When Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria mourned him by dressing in black and setting out his clothes and medicine each day for forty years (Hunter). She also wore a bracelet with charms and locks of his hair (“Victoria Revealed“). Queen Victoria withdrew from public life, although she did return to public view in the 1870s and 1880s (“Victoria”).  For people experiencing death, “there were strict rules on mourning etiquette — what one wore, what one did or did not do, and how one communicated the news of death. Black-edged stationery informed friends and relatives of the loss of a loved one” (“Condolence Letters Spurred by the Penny Post”). With such an archetype of mourning in charge of the country, it is no surprise that the people followed her and other notable people’s lead.

Duke of Wellington

The Duke of Wellington was not a mourner, though; he was the dead body that became a huge spectacle in his state funeral in 1852. As the national hero who defeated Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Wellington had earned the public’s love and he had willed his body to the crown upon his death. Although the Victorians had developed a “distrust of the dead” because of fears of decaying flesh and the fumes given off that were a public health risk (Pearsall 367), the Duke was not buried for two months as London prepared for his elaborate funeral:

“Flesh and bones were, we are assured, carefully contained in Wellington’s case. While it was customary to place the bodies of those whose survivors could bear the cost in three coffins, the middle one of lead, Wellington’s was encased in four coffins, one of lead twice the usual thickness, even before it was known that interment would be both long deferred and widely witnessed. The coffins–of pine, English oak, lead and mahogany–were described and illustrated in copious detail in the press. The outer coffin was in crimson velvet, though to view its exterior was to be made aware that the Duke’s body lay in its coffins like the smallest figure at the center of a set of Russian dolls.” (Persall 372)

His coffins were elaborate, and his laying in state was also eventful with 235,000 visitors and two deaths from the rush to get inside the chapel (Pearsall 373-374). The funeral car–which was quite the sight, with elaborate decorations and a team of twelve horses–made its way to Saint Paul’s Cathedral where he was interred. Clearly, this was an expensive funeral, and it helped establish what mourning should look like.

In “Burying the Duke: Victorian Mourning and the Funeral of the Duke of Wellington,” Cornelia Pearsall points out that Charles Dickens criticized the Duke’s funeral in Household Words because the events were more about the spectacle than the Duke. Dickens’ “Trading in Death” attacks expensive, showy funerals as “dishonor to the living, as inducing them to associate the most solemn of human

Dickens expresses his opinion about the Duke’s funeral in “Trading in Death.”

occasions with unmeaning mummeries, dishonest debt, profuse waste, and bad example in an utter oblivion of responsibility.” He praises those, like the Queen Dowager, who requested simpler burials than state functions. Dickens lists what he found offensive with the Duke’s funeral, like the sales of refreshments, advertisements for rooms with a view of the procession route, the request for extra clergymen in their surplices, and the sales of autographs and relics of the Duke’s. Dickens does not hold back his opinion of the event: “we must yet express our hope that State Funerals in this land went down to their tomb, most fitly, in the tasteless and tawdry Car that nodded and shook through the streets of London on the eighteenth of November, eighteen hundred and fifty-two.” While the Duke’s funeral was not the typical funeral, some of the practices were not so unusual, which was more than likely part of Dickens’ problem. These elaborate funerals were “ripping off” the public and corrupting society, and Dickens reacted against the waste of money.

Funeral Procession


While mourning clothes and behavioral expectations were traditional though greatly amplified elements of public death, the Victorians also added a new element to the grieving process: process. A quick Google image search for “Victorian death photography” yields a plenitude of images, some tasteful and others disturbing. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, people could afford a photography session (“Victorian Post Mortem Photography” ). These postmortem photographs “served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased; this was especially common with infants and young children” (“Victorian Post Mortem Photography”). Such photographs might have included the corpse alone or with the family.

Postmortem Photography

Another type of photography, spirit photography, focused more on the mourner than the mourned (Cadwaller 14): “the basic composition of each is the same: a centralized sitter (the camera’s focal point) with a “spirit” hovering to the left or right of the frame” (Cadwaller 14). Since “phys

Spirit Photography

ical displays of grief were undesirable in both men and women” (Cadwaller 16), the photographs gave mourners a way to grieve–even as it assured them that there was an after-life.

*Interesting side note: This search triggered an article about Obama releasing death photographs of Osama bin Laden. Maybe this issue is not “dead” after all.


One of the most important materials to mourning jewelry was hair, particularly in the 1840s and 1850s (Gitter 942). For the Victorians, the “exchange of hair tokens were activities of the utmost dignity and importance” (Gitter 942), and not only exchanged in times of death. In fact, “popular magazines urged young ladies to learn the art of making hair jewelry themselves to guard against tradespeople” (Gitter 942) because tradespeople might make substitutions with the hair. This idea is reflected in the title “Trading in Death” that Dickens used in his article about the Duke. People were making money in funerals, and some were not above scamming grieving people.

Wearing carefully woven hair of a deceased loved one may seem morbid or maudlin by twenty-first century standards, but it was common practice for Victorian mourners for it provided an outlet for grief in an era not known for excessive emotion. (Cadwaller 13-14)

Hair Jewelry

Much like the clothing of mourning and photography, jewelry allowed mourners a way to follow social conventions, but also privately express their grief, since the items typically carried meanings not guessed at by outsiders. Maybe that is why Rosa Bud’s mother’s ring is important to Mr. Grewgious in Edwin Drood; it is not only a piece of jewelry, but it is also a symbol of mourning. He remarks, “See how bright these stones shine…And yet the eyes that were so much brighter, and that so often looked upon them with a light and proud heart, have been ashes among ashes” (Dickens 196). After giving it to Edwin, Mr. Grewgious claims, “I have prized it so much!” It is clear that the value to him is not monetary, just as it is clear that he does not express his true emotions aloud for Rosa’s mother.


Dickens’ frequent use of cemeteries reflects accurately the importance of cemeteries in Victorian society. According to John Kucich, “Dickens’ undisguised fascination with death reflects and entire social climate, for the Victorians invented cemeteries, mourning stores, and burial clubs” (59). To make matters both interesting and worse, Victorian cemeteries and churchyards were overcrowded, and John Claudius Loudon “advocated several burial grounds, equidistant from each other, and at a constant radius from the centre of the metropolis” (Curl 141). Victorians “realized that the population of London increased by a fifth in the I820s, and that the average number of new burials was two hundred per acre, an idea of the hideous conditions that prevailed in the old burial-grounds may be gained” (Curl 141). No wonder people were worried about dead bodies and their danger to society.

The Garden Cemetery Movement began, which considered not only the layout of the cemeteries, but also the soils (not London clay because it preserved bodies), fences, chapels, roads, drainage, marking system for the graves, and trees and shrubs (Curl 142). His decisions seemed to be guided on practicality (like choosing evergreens over deciduous trees because of fall foliage) and tastefulness (no flowers because “a state of repose was essential” (Curl 142)).

Loudon was confident that, if his ideas were implemented, all cemeteries would be as healthy as gardens or pleasure-grounds, and indeed would form the most interesting of all places for ‘contemplative reaction’. (Curl 145)

Like Dickens, Loudon was also a social reformer. He opposed common graves in London for the poor; instead, he argued for land outside of the city, but close to the railway for easy transportation (Curl 146). That coupled with his concerns over the decomposition of bodies in the cemeteries and the usefulness of cemeteries as parks in addition to burial suggests that he was thinking of health of the community. As one might expect, security of graves was a part of planning because the Resurrection Men visited cemeteries for cadavers (curl 137). He even published his articles on “The Principles of Landscape-Gardening and of Landscape-Architecture applied to the Laying out of Public Cemeteries and the Improvement of Churchyards” into a book (Curl 134).


Victorians faced harsh realities–particularly those living in urban environments like London. Even something as normal in life as death was a sensitive issue because of social expectations, rituals, and practicalities–like disposal of bodies. Rituals that might be interpreted as weird or morbid like the postmortem photography and jewelry make more sense when considered in the context of how they Victorians were expected to grieve, which was without showing emotions. Interestingly, death was, in way, welcome, as the Punch cartoon suggest because the Victorians experienced true suffering.

Does this affect how one might understand Dickens’ characters? Definitely. Mrs. Dedlock, Esther’s mother in Bleak House, does not seem as cold and removed when she and Esther are reunited only keep their relationship a secret. It would be unfitting for her to cry or bemoan the denial of her child all of those missing years–her daughter was dead to her because she cannot acknowledge her. Her grief would be private.

The setting of Edwin Drood in the dark, sinister cemetery makes more sense given the condition of churchyard cemeteries before the Garden Cemetery Movement. One of the references in the article “John Claudius Loudon and the Garden Cemetery Movement” mentions that only workers could find the graves, and Durdles immediately came to mind.

(As I completed research, I constantly came across the example of Little Nell and her death scene.)

So, Dickens may not be overly interested in death–well, no more than other Victorians anyway. The Victorians had to figure out solutions to so many social issues–many of which continue to be issues today–and without as much information as we have today. While some of what they did may not make sense to us, it is clear that people like Charles Dickens tried to make improvements while at the same time acknowledging their own problems in society.

Works Cited

Banerjee, Jacqueline. “One. Frail Treasures: Child Death and the Victorian Novel.” Victorian Web, 2007. Web. 4 May 2012. < banerjee1.html>

Brown, Robert. “London in the Nineteenth Century” University of North Carolina. Web. 6 May 2012. <>

Cadwaller, Jen. “Spirit Photography Victorian Culture of Mourning.” Modern Language Studies 37:2 (2008): 8-31. JSTOR. Web. 5 May 2012.

Curl, James S. “John Claudius Loudon and the Garden Cemetery Movement.” Garden History 11.2 (1983): 133-56. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2012.

Daunton, Martin. “London’s ‘Great Stink’ and Victorian Urban Planning.” BBC History, 2004. Web 4 May 2012. < social_conditions/victorian_urban_planning_01.shtml>

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “Trading in Death.” Household Words. 27 November: 241-245. Online http://

Golden, Catherine. “ Condolence Letters Spurred by the Penny Post.” Victorian Web, 2010. Web 4 May 2012. <>

Gitter, Elisabeth G. “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” PMLA 99:5 (1984): 936-954. JSTOR. Web. 6 May 2012.

“Health and Hygiene.” British Library. Web 8 May 2012. <>

Hunter, Lyn. “A Victorian Obsession with Death.” Berkeleyan. Web. 5 May 2012. <http://>

Pearsall, Cornelia D. “Burying the Duke: Victorian Mourning and the Funeral of the Duke of Wellington.” Victorian Literature and Culture 27:2 (1999): 365-393. JSTOR. 4 May 2012. 

“Victoria” BBC History, 2012. Web 5 May 2012. <>

“Victoria Revealed.” Historic Royal Palacies. Web. 4 May 2012. < kensingtonPalace/WhatsOn/VictoriaRevealed>

Wheeler, Michael. Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Woods, Robert, and P.R. A. Hinde. “Mortality in Victorian England: Models and Patterns.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.1 (1987): 27-54. JSTOR. Web. 4 May 2012.

Pearsall, Cornelia D. “Burying the Duke: Victorian Mourning and the Funeral of the Duke of Wellington.” Victorian Literature and Culture 27:2 (1999): 365-393. JSTOR. 4 May 2012.



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