Accepted paper:

Urban working-class funerary customs in Britain, c.1850-1930


Helen Frisby (University of the West of England)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the creative mixture of the modern and magical which characterised the urban working-class funeral in Victorian and early C20th Britain.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores the complex, creative mixture of the modern and the magical which characterised the urban working-class funeral in Victorian and early twentieth century Britain. The arrival of industrial modernity in nineteenth century Britain occasioned a dramatic demographic shift: between 1801 and 1851 the population mushroomed from 8.9 to 17.9 million. Furthermore the concentration of this booming population in industrial conurbations (by 1860 ten towns accounted for 25% of the population) led to considerable strain upon the municipal infrastructure, including the arrangements for dealing with unprecedentedly large numbers of dead. Historical attention has hitherto largely focused on rational solutions to this problem, as proffered by Edwin Chadwick and other contemporary funeral reformers: notably the replacement of churchyards with suburban 'Garden cemeteries', and the recommendation that urban working-class families be compelled to remove their dead to public mortuaries. History has furthermore rather assumed the inevitable success of such self-consciously progressive funerary reform initiatives, and the supposed concomitant decline of much older old, non-rational funerary customs as imported from the Victorian countryside. However this paper explores an alternative narrative, in which emergent modernity creatively co-existed with much older magical and quasi-magical funerary customs in the urban environment - often well into the twentieth century. Indeed, it will be argued that it was such creative tension between the magical and the modern which positively enabled the urban working classes to navigate, and to adapt to, the pains and uncertainties of everyday life in the modern industrial city.

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Designing death: fashioning ends of life and beyond