1x03 | Paupers' Burials & Funeral Pyres
When we think of the Victorian era, we think of their obsession with death. It was every Victorian’s goal to achieve "the good death", which involved dying at home surrounded by loving family members who got to hear your profound last words. You would get to say goodbye to everyone and go into the afterlife spiritually prepared. Sometimes, people would even avoid giving narcotics to someone who was dying just because they wanted them to be fully conscious so they could have good last words.
Victorians wanted a "good death" as well as a proper funeral. If you were wealthy, you could afford a pageant of a funeral, with a coffin draped in black fabric, placed on a black hearse, pulled by black horses wearing black plumes. You would be buried in a well-kept cemetery with a headstone featuring any number of symbolic images. But what if you were poor? None of that would have been affordable, but since a proper burial was the last symbol of your worth in life, being buried as a pauper was shameful. The cost-effective option of cremation was not really available until the 20th century, though it was gaining attention thanks to one of the most eccentric characters of Victorian Britain.
My name is Lenore, and I’m The Victorienne.
If a British Victorian didn’t have much money, they might still sacrifice basic necessities to pay for a funeral. Some people started saving up their money early in life to pay for their own funerals. They could also join burial clubs, which were organizations like insurance companies that collected fees every week. The fees were based on your age and the type of funeral you wanted and when you died, the burial club stepped in to pay for that funeral.
The more affordable graves, especially in cities, weren’t always ideal. The landowners running the cemetery sometimes crammed as many bodies in the space as they could. There might have been twelve coffins stacked in one burial plot. If there were more bodies than they could handle, they sometimes threw a few into the city sewers (which, as you can imagine, did not help sanitation problems).
The poorest of people would end up having pauper’s funerals, which were paid for by the local parish. Their grave would likely be communal, unmarked, and shallow. This wasn’t just shameful for your family but it also put you more at risk for being dug up by grave robbers. In Victorian England, grave robbing was a pretty common thing, since that was the main way medical schools and researchers could get cadavers to use in dissections. Initially, the only bodies they could legally get were those of executed murderers. Fortunately, I guess, there just weren’t that many criminal corpses to go around, so doctors began hiring grave-robbers, known as "resurrection men", to bring them bodies. Most of those bodies had been buried recently but sometimes the resurrection men would resort to murdering someone who they thought wouldn’t be missed to procure a fresh corpse.
There are obvious reasons why you wouldn’t want to end up on a dissection table, but in Victorian times it was widely believed that your body needed to stay intact if you were going to be resurrected when the time came. So, grave-robbing wasn’t just a physical or legal violation, it was interfering with the fate of a person’s soul. If you were rich, you could avoid this in a few different ways.
One was to hire someone to watch over your individual grave or the whole cemetery. You could also be entombed in a mausoleum or you could put an iron grate over the grave so no one could get to you in the first place. Grave robbing became less of a concern after the Anatomy Act of 1832, but that act created new problems for the UK’s poorest citizens. According to the act, if someone died in a public workhouse, a prison, or an asylum, then their relatives had seven days to make funeral arrangements. Once those seven days were up, the body could be "donated" for dissection, much like the unidentified bodies of the Paris Morgue, which I talked about back in episode one.
Later in the 19th century, an interest in the less-expensive process of cremation very slowly developed. At the Vienna Exposition of 1873, Professor Lodovico Brunetti of Padua showed off a model of his cremation apparatus. One of the people who saw it just so happened to be Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson. The following year he published a book about cremation and became a vocal supporter of the process. He believed cremation would help with sanitation problems that sometimes came from overcrowded urban cemeteries like the ones in London.
Despite the endorsement from Sir Thompson, what brought more public attention to cremation didn’t actually happen for another ten years, and it was because of a rather unorthodox character: Dr. William Price.
Price trained as a doctor in London before returning home to Wales where he campaigned for expanding voting rights and Welsh independence. Because of his politics, in 1839 he had to flee to France. During a trip to the Louvre he had a ~religious awakening~ and decided to go back to Wales both to continue his political work and to revive what he believed to be the ancient Welsh religion. Price became an Arch-Druid and a vegetarian, both of which were unusual in Victorian Britain. He argued for the abolition of marriage, because he believed it enslaved women. Though eventually, he did end up getting married to a woman who was significantly younger than him. The couple had a son who they named Iesu Grist, which is Welsh for… Jesus Christ. When the baby died in 1884, Price decided to cremate him in a funeral pyre because he believed traditional burial was bad for the earth.
As I mentioned earlier most British Victorians believed your body needed to remain intact if you were to be resurrected, so cremation was seen as sacrilegious. The people in Price’s town were outraged when they saw the funeral pyre and they formed an angry mob. The police rescued Price, and then arrested him for illegally disposing of a corpse. He was taken to court where a judge decided that cremation was technically not prohibited by law, thereby making cremation legal. When Price died in 1893, he was cremated in a ceremony on the same hill where he first attempted to cremate his son.
Eventually, some Victorians would accept the practice of cremation but it didn’t become normalized until after WWI and the 1918 flu pandemic. Expensive, dramatic Victorian funerals were already falling out of favor as the world modernized, and the mass number of deaths due to the war and the pandemic meant that adhering to Victorian mourning practices would have been overwhelming. On top of this, scores of men were dying on battlefields, their bodies disfigured, so people started changing their minds about the physical requirements for resurrection. Today, over 77% of people in the UK are cremated and funerals are much simpler. The times have definitely changed.
[music fades in]
If you’d like to support this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes and if you’re able, consider becoming a Patreon donor. You’ll have access to exclusive content and you’ll be helping me offset production costs. You can find me at patreon.com/victorienne and if you have a topic suggestion for a future episode, please email email@example.com.
Thanks for listening.