"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: "The Victorian Book of the Dead," by Chris Woodyard

After reading this book, talking ravens just aren't good enough for Edgar anymore.
He wants a homicidal parrot.

Do you wake up in the morning saying, "Damn it, my life needs more undertakers who give out trading stamps!" Are you longing for stories about killer parrots? Post-mortem spontaneous combustion? Shrieking banshees, mourning bicycles, and, of course, corpse furniture?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, your answer is undoubtedly, "Hell, yes." Well, pine no more, my friends, because have I got the book for you.

As I have often said, no people on earth have ever done death quite like the Victorians. In "The Victorian Book of the Dead," long-time Strange Company favorite Chris Woodyard has done a masterful job in compiling from 19th-early 20th century newspapers, books, and journals an encyclopedic review of all the various ways our ancestors devised to turn bereavement into an epic trip down the rabbit hole.

This book is, in the author's words, "a historical look at the ephemera and material culture of mourning; a reflection of some popular Victorian attitudes towards death and the bereaved; and a macabre scrapbook." Perhaps only the ancient Egyptians rivaled the Victorians in ritualizing death--a practice that both fed and fed upon the simultaneous 19th century spritualism craze. Woodyard notes that "How we mourn our dead says something of who we are." What this book abundantly proves is that the Victorians, if nothing else, certainly "knew how to mourn." This trait, as Woodyard hints, could teach our modern death-phobic and materialist society a few lessons. Yes, the rituals of this bygone era were often silly or downright bizarre, but were such practices really necessarily stranger than modern day "happy funerals," with the ubiquitous "celebrations of life," and our habitual reluctance to confront the realities of death and mourning?

"Book of the Dead" begins, appropriately enough, with that popular staple of Victorian life, the Death Angel. Whether it took the form of an actual angel, a menacing skeleton, a little old lady, or a pigeon, Victorians loved their symbols of impending doom.

Harbingers of Death came in many forms. Woodyard examines the visions, banshees, Black Dogs, Women in Black, and other phenomena that tipped people off that it was time to break out the crape and yell for the undertaker. (Of particular note is the spiritualist who poisoned herself to ensure her prophecies of her own death came true--which certainly showed a rare sense of dedication.) My favorite in this category, however, is probably the Crumbling Phonograph Records of Doom. ("Your Hit Funeral Parade!") While most of the portents were ominous or frightening, there are also poignantly sentimental tales of the dead returning to tenderly escort dying loved ones to the Other Side.

The book's most macabre section deals not with the rituals of death, but the deaths themselves. As the old adage says, there are "a million ways to die," and by golly, the Victorians practiced all of them, and probably invented a few new methods along the way:

Death by growing a family of lizards in your innards.
Murdered at the hands...uh, beak...of an "evil-dispositioned" drug-addicted parrot.
Finished off by poisoned gloves.
Strangled by your own hair.
Eaten alive by rats.
Dispatched into eternity by a cow's moo.

Now, that's what I call really livening up the obituary column.

There is also a chapter dealing with those who made a living from the dead. Here we meet the Professional Mourners: Sometimes they were sable-clad ladies who advised newly-minted widows about the most chic all-black fashions, or, more commonly, they were literal funeral attendees-for-hire. Or perhaps jovial grave-diggers are more to your taste? Crazed cemetery guards? Tombstone Censors? Corpse barbers? Undertakers whose posh shops showcased coffins and headstones so dainty and elaborate that window-shoppers positively envied the dead?

The Victorian obsession with "correct mourning" inspired Woodyard's handy guide to "Crape: Its Uses and Abuses." Mourning wear, we learn, had an etiquette all its own that rivaled anything seen at the court of Louis XIV. Hanging that grim symbol of death outside your door had many possible uses besides the obvious: as a crude practical joke, a political protest, or simply a general display of disgust against the world. Or perhaps you would choose to display your sorrow with a black mourning bicycle? Hair jewelry? Wreaths from the dead person's clothes? Black cigarettes?

It was not just the living who had to concern themselves with the latest fashions: Elaborate burial clothing and swanky coffins for the dearly departed was a highly profitable business. Often, the deceased was buried showing considerably more style than they ever displayed while alive. Ladies sometimes made their own elaborate shrouds years before their death: a trousseau for their inevitable marriage with the Grim Reaper.

And woe be to the undertaker who neglected his trading stamps!
"Trading stamps with every funeral" is the placard that one may expect to see soon in the windows of up-to-date Chicago undertakers.

That two or three funeral directors on the Northwest Side of the city have adopted the trading stamp system to increase business was revealed yesterday when a bereaved widow cancelled an order at a downtown undertaker's because he would not give her some stamps.

Friends of hers, she said, who recently had deaths in their families were given trading stamps by the undertaker, and she insisted on getting the coupons or she would go elsewhere. 

The matter of trading stamps will be brought before the Chicago Undertakers Association at its next meeting. [page 243]

The above story was preceded by an anecdote about another new widow who demanded her stamps, declaring that "I've just lost my third and don't intend to lose a chance at a cuckoo clock into the bargain."

Despite all this careful preparation, Death has a way of spoiling even the most careful plans. "Book of the Dead" treats us to wakes where the "deceased" suddenly comes back to life to crash the party. Cats who attack the reverently laid-out corpse. And what would any collection of Funeral Horrors be without those cases where there were those irritating nagging doubts about whether or not the newly-buried had been well and truly dead?

But wait, there's more! Victorian publications were rife with exuberantly "grewsome" tales of funerals spoiled by exploding corpses, out-of-control hearses, mourners crushed by falling coffins, fatal illnesses caught from preparing the body for burial, and other unmannerly nuisances instigated by the dearly departed.

It is hard to top the spontaneously combusting corpse, though.

It was inevitable that all this post-mortem mayhem would result in some very uneasy spirits. There are many accounts of haunted cemeteries and morgues. Restless spirits would return to pester the living with wrongs they wanted to right, to avenge their murder, to give instructions about their burials (suitable burial clothes were a particular concern,) or simply because they were not ready to let go of this world. Such accounts appear throughout most of recorded history, but the Victorian era, predictably, brought forth a particularly weird and plentiful crop of such Gothic horrors.

Speaking of horrors, Victorian morbidity focused not merely on the spirits of the dead, but their corporeal remains. Stories abound of mourners refusing to allow the dead to be buried, preserving and petrifying them in various ghastly ways. Bones and various other body parts were kept as keepsakes. One enterprising widow "kept her family together" by eating her cremated husband's ashes. (Although "a little of him did perhaps go a long way.")

The high--or, if you prefer, low--point of this curious mania was devised by the Florentine professor Girolamo Segato, who developed a thankfully-lost method of petrifying human remains and turning them into furniture. Some of his handiwork still exists today.

Leave it to the Victorians to pair Ikea with Ed Gein.

"Book of the Dead" is, however, far from being a cheaply titillating assortment of ghoulish oddities. Woodyard's sober, respectful, and scholarly annotations make this volume an original look at a Golden Age in Death History. The stories dealing with the lonely, neglected burials of the poor and friendless, and the many pitiful descriptions of deathbed grief, remind us that the Victorian predilection for the outward trappings of mourning were often not mere show, but sincere demonstrations of profound sorrow.

Although most of us today do not relate to mourning bicycles or post-mortem photography, anyone who has ever experienced personal loss can empathize with the final entry in Woodyard's book: Reverend John Todd's description of the 1827 death of his nine-day-old son.
"I shall perish sooner than forget the feelings which I had clinging around our dear first-born. I know that we did not deserve him, and that it was all right; but my aching heart too frequently goes back to that dear lost one, and the gems of all the earth could not compensate for the loss of that one. Is he now alive? Shall we ever know him? Will that beautiful form ever come up again from the tomb? Oh, the agony of that moment when the little coffin-lid was actually closed! May God in mercy spare me from ever witnessing another such scene!"

In short, this book is not just fascinating history, but an excellent training manual for The Weird. Buy it. Study it. Read it to your small children before bedtime to ensure you raise really, really interesting adults.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent read that must be! The Victorians are, in my opinion, an unfairly maligned group of people. If we today view their obsession with death as morbid, what will future generations say about our obsession with sex? Which is the more frivolous? But really, even some of the most bizarre rituals surrounding death in the Victorian age were, as you wrote, "sincere demonstrations of profound sorrow." If we indulged in them now, perhaps we could put half the psychiatrists out of business.


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