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Book review: Rites of Passage: Death and mourning in Victorian Britain by Judith Flanders

22 March 2024

John Pridmore reviews a study of Victorians’ approach to mortality

I SERVED my title in the parish of St Martin, Camborne, in Cornwall. Over the porch of our ancient church was carved the injunction “Remember Death”. My memory of those years was that we did just that. Church was where you went to acknowledge your mortality.

But that was long ago. Even in Cornwall — a county deeply distrustful of the newfangled — things have moved on. In this absorbing study of attitudes to death and mourning in 19th-century Britain, Judith Flanders shows how seismic have been the ways in which we deal with death since Victoria’s reign. In our time, death has become effectively “outsourced”, as she neatly puts it. Death has been relocated from home to hospital, hospice, or care home. Once always with us, now it’s usually somewhere else.

Our contemporary institutionalisation of death means that “the sickroom” is no longer called for in the typical household. That old-fashioned term is the title and subject of Flanders’s first chapter.

Here, we meet the much-bereaved Archibald Tait, Dean of Carlisle, five of whose eight daughters died from scarlet fever in swift succession. The tale, tragic as it is, was not untypical, and Flanders’s vivid text, here and in subsequent chapters, provides us with many further examples of the constant proximity of death to the Victorians. (Rites of Passage demolishes, once and for all, the view, once widely entertained, that earlier generations were so used to the death of their children in infancy that their loss made relatively little impact.)

We move from the sickroom to the deathbed itself. The Victorians lingered at the deathbeds of their loved ones. What they observed there provided material for a vast literature descriptive of “the good death”, both fictional and non-fictional — especially of children. Thousands drew comfort from Charles Dickens’s depiction of the demise of Paul Dombey and Little Nell. Writers rather less skilled than Dickens flooded a market avid for accounts of edifying deaths. Flanders ably covers this huge, if unappealing, field, not sparing us citations from Mary Martha Sherwood’s egregious History of the Fairchild Family.

Later chapters of this fascinating study turn from death as a familiar domestic occurrence to death as a contentious social issue requiring public regulation. Flanders deals in turn and at some length with such issues as infanticide, suicide, and — enter “the resurrection men” — the exhumation and marketing of dead bodies sought after by medical students and others eager to examine our insides.

Many questions troubled legislators seeking to bring some order to the then prevalent chaos in such areas of public life. They asked, as we do: What is due to the dead body? What, if any, are the rights of the corpse?

Behind such questions lurk others, greater still, that do not fall within the remit of a social historian. They need the mind of a public theologian, someone such as Ian Bradley, whose recently published Breathers of an Ampler Day: Victorian views of heaven has been well received (Books, 2 February).

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney, in east London.


Rites of Passage: Death and mourning in Victorian Britain
Judith Flanders
Picador £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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