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Those dear heavenly friends

10 November 2023

In a new book, Ian Bradley contrasts the Victorian attitude to death with our own


A 19th-century advertisement from Peter Robinson’s, which had a shop in Regent Street, in London, specialising in items of mourning

A 19th-century advertisement from Peter Robinson’s, which had a shop in Regent Street, in London, specialising in items of mourning

“HOW fares it with the happy dead?” The question that Alfred Tennyson, the nation’s favourite poet, posed at the midway point in his widely read epic In Memoriam, itself published at the midway point in the 19th century, struck a deep chord with his contemporaries and compatriots. The Poet Laureate both represented and helped to shape the Victorians’ view of the afterlife and their hope of heaven.

His question mark is significant. Like Tennyson, many Victorians approached the subject with a degree of hesitancy and uncertainty, faintly trusting, as he did, the larger hope. But they shared his conviction that the lot of the dead is essentially a happy one and that, as “the breathers of an ampler day for ever nobler ends”, they enjoy a better and happier life in heaven than the living do on earth.

The Victorians thought, wrote, preached, and sang a great deal more about death and what might follow it than we do today. Novels were in no small measure judged by and appreciated for the power and pathos of their deathbed scenes, with those involving Paul in Dombey and Sons and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop generally reckoned to be among the best and most affecting.

Ninety hymns in the 1889 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern deal primarily with the experience of death and dying. By contrast, there is not a single hymn on the subject in its current successor, the 2013 Ancient and Modern: Hymns and songs for refreshing worship. Nonconformist hymnals provided similar fare, as in the substantial section of the 1886 Congregational Psalmist Hymnal headed “Death and the Grave”.

Some of the most popular parlour ballads of the period feature heroic deaths, cold and cheerless tombs, and deep-sea graves. They were sung to suitably hushed and sepulchral melodies, none more so than that provided by the life-loving Arthur Sullivan for Adelaide Procter’s maudlin verses about meeting “Death’s Dark Angel” and hearing the last Amen in heaven, which made “The Lost Chord” the bestselling song in Britain throughout the last quarter of the 19th century.


THE tone of these literary and musical treatments of death was overwhelmingly positive. They reflected a widespread outlook among Victorian Christians that death was something to be looked forward to rather than dreaded. It is not surprising that historians often refer to “the Victorian celebration of death”. Its wider cultural manifestations included ostentatious funerals and mourning rituals with extensive use of floral tributes; black crêpe; jet jewellery; black-edged writing paper, cards, and envelopes; tears embroidered on handkerchiefs; and the wearing of mourning dress for months, and sometimes several years.

The Victorian age saw the rise of the funeral industry and the emergence of a new profession, undertakers, who took over many of the functions previously performed by the clergy. In a similar and parallel way, death moved beyond the confines of the church, as cemeteries took over from overcrowded church graveyards. The first cemetery in London opened in Kensal Green in 1832 — the same year as the Glasgow Necropolis opened — and between 1850 and 1900, 66 cemeteries were established in the capital, filled with elaborate monuments more often than not surmounted by weeping angels.


AT ONE level, this focus on what might be called the accoutrements of death was a result of increasing wealth and the rise of an affluent middle class. For the historian David Cannadine, “The Victorian celebration of death was not so much a golden age of effective psychological support as a bonanza of commercial exploitation.”

The ostentatious funerals, extensive rituals, and paraphernalia of mourning were “more an assertion of status than a means of assuaging sorrow, a display of conspicuous consumption rather than an exercise in grief therapy, from which the chief beneficiary was more likely to be the undertaker than the widow”.

This is also the view of the French historian Philippe Ariès, who wrote several books about changes in Western attitudes towards death over the past thousand or more years. He relates the growing interest in death in the 19th century largely to socio-economic factors, with rising wealth enabling the development of elaborate funerals, grand cemeteries, and a whole industry of mourning.


I DO not myself agree with this analysis. The prime reason that the Victorians focused so much more on death than we do today is surely because it was an ever-present reality, directly touching more people much more closely and much more often than it does now. Nowadays, it is quite common for people to have little if any direct experience of death until late adulthood.

One hundred and fifty years ago, there were few young adults who had not experienced the loss of a close contemporary, and many children had witnessed the death of a sibling. Death mostly happened at home rather than out of sight in a curtained-off hospital bed or care home. It was more public, more physical, and altogether more present.

The statistics behind the Victorian experience of death are stark. The average life expectancy of someone born in Britain in 1837, the year of Victoria’s accession, was just 39 years, less than half the current figure of 81. In London, the average age of death for tradesmen and clerks was 25, and for labourers just 22.

Infant mortality (death within the first year of life) stood at 150 per 1000 births and actually rose through the century, reaching 160 per 1000 births in 1899 — the current level is just over three per 1000. In Manchester, in 1840, 57 per cent of working-class children died before reaching the age of five, and the 1851 census revealed that 55 per cent of the population of Liverpool died before the age of 20. Infectious diseases, notably smallpox, consumption (tuberculosis), cholera, scarlet fever, measles, typhus, diphtheria, and whooping cough were the main causes of death, both in children and adults.


IT WAS not just the working classes and those dwelling in the squalid, overcrowded slums of large industrial cities who suffered high levels of infant mortality. In the spring of 1856, while living in the airy and spacious deanery in the genteel precincts of Carlisle Cathedral close, Archibald Tait, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife, Catharine, lost five daughters aged between one and ten years to scarlet fever in the space of five weeks.

The almost unbearably moving journal that Catharine wrote about this experience illustrates how the death of children prompted thoughts of the next life and, in the case of strong Christian believers like her, an absolute certainty that the dead were destined for heaven, where they would in time be reunited with their family and friends.

Gathering together her surviving children after the first death, of Charlotte (Chatty), who was just five, Catharine tells them that “the Good Shepherd had come for her and taken her into His arms to heaven.” Sitting later beside Chatty’s open coffin, she reflects that “we know that we shall see her again, though not in this world.”

Despite her own enormous sorrow, she finds herself asking as she sits by the bedside of the third child to die, Frances, aged four, “If her home in Heaven is ready, should I wish to keep her here?”, and after the last death, of Mary (May) at the age of eight, she records simply “she has gone home.”


THE reaction of Catharine Tait to her daughters’ deaths underlines that the Victorian view and vision of heaven was developed out of a desire for consolation and comfort in the face of intense grief, driven above all by pastoral considerations, with the heart ruling the head, and characterised by trusting — whether faintly, as in the case of Tennyson and many others, or much more surely as for Catharine — “the larger hope”.

It is the constant, inescapable encounter with it — not least in respect of children —that explains the Victorian preoccupation with death. This also produced a certain familiarity, which resulted in there being much less fear of death than there is today.

The Victorians did not share our modern obsession with keeping people alive at all costs, regardless of the quality of that extra life. Nineteenth-century doctors, patients, and their families generally agreed that the terminal phase of an illness should not be prolonged by drugs or other medical intervention. They used the word “euthanasia” approvingly to signify a calm and easy death without the negative connotations that it has today.

The overriding view in the medical profession, across the churches and in society at large, was that dying was a natural process that should be allowed to take its course, and not prolonged or resisted with the kinds of intervention which are widely practised today.


This is an edited extract from Breathers of an Ampler Day: Victorian views of heaven by Ian Bradley, published by Sacristy Press at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-78959-291-7.

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