On Thursday eevening I had the pleasure of talking to clergy from Sion College – and as well as their warm hospitality I found them altogether a sane, humane and reflective bunch.

The reflections following a tour of Highgate Cemetery.

Here is an edited part of the talk:

Victorians really knew how to say goodbye.

I suspect that those of you who were honest enough to tell others what you were doing tonight might have experienced some mild curiosity! Why would anyone want to think about death – a subject that is regarded almost as a perversion and airily dismissed as “morbid”, “abnormal” or “weird”. What I should like to do this evening is to take the briefest of overviews of aspects of the Victorian ‘way’ of death and open up a question or two for us.

You know that Death is everywhere. And we have to contend with a culture of a contemporary Britain where grief is suppressed and even denied. It is fascinating and important to ask how we and our cultures handle death – and to consider what, if any, place Christians might have in the theological nurture of  death, judgement and resurrection.

Yet disasters, massacres and tragedies are treated almost as entertainment. Something very unpleasant is going on: death is now experienced vicariously as the reality of it becomes unfamiliar. In some instances, the sudden deaths of individuals have induced something rather like mawkish mass hysteria, regardless of the fact that the public personae involved appear largely to have been creations of the image-makers. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a process of semi-deification or bogus beatification that has been as unnerving as it has been distasteful. Religion is a dynamic force: a decline in orthodox religion has called forth demons.

 There is a danger that the legacy left to us by the Victorians might be   undervalued. Some of us might want to live in the past but the only point of doing so is to learn from it!  There is a vast residue of the Victorian celebration of death, and in these writings we see the architectural, artistic, cultural, historical and social importance of 19th-century cemeteries, their buildings and monuments. Here is a society that understood death and befriended it. Victorians really knew how to say goodbye!

The Victorian age was one of expansion, inquiry, reform, idealism, invention, entrepreneurial endeavour and much more. But it was as an age of urbanisation that it has perhaps impinged most on the collective consciousness.  

In 1800 the population of London was 1 million. By 1850 it had gone up to 2.3 million. Among other shortages caused by rapid population growth, there was a lack of space to bury the dead. Up to that time people had been buried primarily in church graveyards, but London graveyards simply ran out of space. There were instances of body snatching, bodies left out to rot or not buried deep enough (at least two feet), and bodies cleared from graves too soon.

This movement of the population challenged how a society should dispose of the dead. The Victorians did not deal with the disposal of the dead in purely utilitarian terms. As we have seen they created remarkable landscaped cemeteries, splendid mausolea and noble monuments.  

In 1832 Parliament passed a bill encouraging the establishment of seven private cemeteries in a ring around outer London, to provide ample space for burial. These are known today as the Magnificent Seven. The first to open, in 1832, was Kensal Green, followed by West Norwood (1837), Highgate Cemetery (1839), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840), Abney Park (1840), and Tower Hamlets (1841).

Garden cemeteries provided the models for Victorian modes of interment – properly run, decently planted “to absorb deleterious gases” and embellished with monuments and mausolea. No 19th-century town or city was regarded as able to function properly without one.

If cemeteries had been merely responses to urban crises, however, they would not have been laid out with such care to double as arboreta and botanic gardens. Cemeteries were aids to education, providing instruction in architecture and sculpture, botany, biography, elevating thought, morals, taste and much more: in short, they were seen as a powerful means of raising the tone of society. They reflected too a society with a shared Christian conviction committed to the practice of faith.

So it was not only a question of adapting the English landscaped garden as a place of burial, but also of catering for a new tenderness towards the dead that evolved during the Romantic movement and the religious revival of the 1830s. In the new cemeteries, whole families could be reunited in death.

Victorian graves tended to be much more elaborate than modern graves. It was expected that a middle-class family would spend as much as it could afford on a monument appropriate to the deceased’s (and the family’s) social status. Monuments were usually symbolic – either religious (crosses, angels), symbols of profession (whip and horseshoes for a coach driver, swords for a general, palette for a painter), or symbols of death.

The most common symbols of death were: urns – classical symbol of Roman cremation; wreaths – symbol of eternal life, as it’s circular (with no beginning and no end) and made of evergreens (never turn brown, so never die);broken columns – classical symbol of life cut short; upside-down torches – the inverted torch symbolizes death, the burning flame (which normally would be extinguished when the torch was turned upside-down) symbolizes the flame of eternal life and the Christian belief in resurrection.

Victorian funeral processions were considerable spectacles. The awesome state funeral of the duke of Wellington in 1852; and the funeral ceremonies of humbler individuals could also be impressive affairs and certain funerals could become great public events.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, there was a massive outpouring of decorous grief and public commemoration, including the erection of many monuments. His entombment in the specially built mausoleum at Frogmore followed the tradition in his native Germany.

Compared with the inventiveness, robustness and often poignantly beautiful way in which the Victorians responded to bereavement (including ephemera such as mourning clothes, mourning jewellery, accessories, appropriate black-edged stationery and an etiquette that helped to protect the bereaved from unwanted intrusion), the inadequacies of today’s rituals (or lack of them) depress with their banalities.

 In the Victorian age, however, death was arguably embraced rather than feared. In comparison to today’s secular society, Victorians held stronger convictions to the teachings of the Bible – the doctrine of the eternal soul and an eventual bodily resurrection.

The traditional Christian ideal of the ‘good death’ was still exceptionally powerful in I850, though its realisation varied widely according to class, religion, age, gender and disease. Christian mourning rituals and the belief in family reunions in heaven helped to reconcile some parents to high infant and child mortality. Moreover, the solace of the private and social memory of the dead was complemented by visible symbols of remembrance such as paintings, photographs and death masks of the deceased, and mourning jewellery.

Attitudes to death were transformed between I850 and I9I8 by the decline in religious beliefs and the significant fall in the death rate, which shifted the likely time of death from infancy to old age.

The Great War helped usher in an era of dramatically improving health. Death was increasingly deferred to old age. As dying became institutionalised and under medical control, control over funeral arrangements passed further from bereaved families to funeral directors, a process aided by the popularity of cremation. At the same time, greater liberal and secular attitudes led in the I960s to legal reforms in capital punishment and suicide. The secular climate encouraged a wider range of beliefs about life after death, challenging traditional Christian beliefs. New models of ‘the good death’ were developed by the hospice movement. New attitudes to grieving slowly emerged, challenging the more private expression of grief formed by the two world wars. More open expressions of grief accompanied the series of highly publicised disasters in the I980s and I990s, notably with the death of Princess Diana.

The gradual passing of authority for death from the dying and their kin to professional specialists such as undertakers and doctors is a development increasingly criticised in the later twentieth century. The growing interest in the history of death can be seen as one facet in reversing this process and returning decision-making to the dying and bereaved.

Edward VII’s succession in 1901 underlined a change in attitudes, as the world began to open out, psychologically as well as physically. But it was World War I that finally put the nail in the coffin of Victorian mourning. So many young men died for what seemed senseless reasons that Christian faith – and with it attitudes to death and mortality – was shaken to the core. The fallen men were lost or buried in France, and suddenly Victorian monuments seemed overblown, monstrous, and inappropriate. Almost overnight, lavish displays for the dead disappeared.

You are experts in the way of death immersed as you are in experience and the unstudied wisdom that comes from reflection on our hopes and fears. I wonder how many of us are actively preparing ourselves for death – and what it is about the modern way of death that we find so surprising or just distasteful! What place has our wisdom in the evolving map of death? Do we know how to say goodbye?

 All of us swim in the one sea of our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such life-lines and preservers as we might draw about us: reason and science, faith and religious practice, art and music and imagination. But in the end the wall go down, we all sink, we all die.  Perhaps only the most blessed of us  can learn to say goodbye with grace? Whether death can be rescued from the prevailing world of medicine within which the high priests of the body (the medical profession) control and dominate. In the end, neither science nor medicine, reason nor raw intellect can undo death.  Some of the more interesting people that I have accompanied on along this part of their journey die as they  (and we) live: un-reconciled to mortality. Perhaps that’s the most honest starting point for  us who work in this area and indeed for those whose lives are shaped by personal experience of loss and change. So within this struggle there is pain and regret and a rather beautiful unresolved humanity. It is our humanity that makes us mortal, not our creeds, whether they be theological, scientific or psychotherapeutic.

Can we recover and nurture the chaos of an imagination fired by feeling?

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