Rattle his bones

Charles 5 Comments

There’s been quite a lot of nattering in the papers lately about the society-shaming rise in the number of what they like to call pauper funerals. Yes, shock horror, more and more people are dying without leaving enough money to pay for their funeral. So, even in this day and age, they suffer the, er, terrible indignity of a pauper’s funeral.

What does this mean exactly? It ought to mean that indigent modern-day skint corpses are wheelbarrowed stark and naked through the streets either to the anatomist or to a communal pit, serenaded along their way by jeering urchins—hoodies in new money—chanting “Rattle his bones over the stones; / He’s only a pauper whom nobody owns” – except in a twenty-first century rap version, of course.

Back in the day a pauper’s funeral was a matter of terrible stigma. But the regrettable truth (from the media point of view) about today’s indigent funerals is that they are pretty much indistinguishable from anybody else’s. Sure, if it’s a burial, you’ll go in a grave beneath or atop strangers. Such a big deal? Terrible stigma?

What’s more, all paupers aren’t the same. There are different sorts of modern-day ‘pauper’ needing to be funeral-ed. There are those who die alone, all family contacts having predeceased them or simply walked off the case. There are homeless anonymous people (John Does, they call them) hauled out of canals. I think we can be pretty proud of the way society looks after blameless folk such as these as, also, those who have to have a public health funeral because their relatives refuse to arrange a funeral for them.

Not all dead paupers are to be pitied, though. Some of them are downright feckless. Could they have saved up enough money for their funeral? Yes, they could. Instead, they die leaving a godawful mess for others to clear up. I remember the partner of a man who steadfastly refused to make provision for his imminent death. When he died his partner shouldered responsibility, applied to the social fund and doubtless, in time, received a contribution towards the cost of the funeral – but it won’t have been enough to spare her months, probably years, of debt. By contrast, I recall the ne’er do well who, glimpsing the Grim Reaper’s shadow, saved up in a year and a bit enough money out of his Disability Living Allowance to pay for a very decent funeral. It was the height of good manners.

The number of people dying alone will, as the population ages, continue to rise. Nothing anyone can do about that. But if the number of feckless paupers rises steeply, the state has a choice: bring back the stigma or bring back the universal death grant.

It’s not pauper funerals but the level of the social fund payment which shames society. It doesn’t lead to proper old-fashioned pauper funerals, it simply beggars those who are left.

That rhyme in full:

There’s a grim one-horse hearse in a jolly round trot;
To the churchyard a pauper is going, I wot:
The road is rough, and the hearse has no springs,
And hark to the dirge that the sad driver sings:–
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns…

Poor pauper defunct! he has made some approach
To gentility, now that he’s stretched in a coach;
He’s taking a drive in his carriage at last,
But it will not be long if he goes on so fast!
Rattle his bones over the stones;
He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns…

But a truce to this strain! for my soul it is sad
To think that a heart in humanity clad
Should make, like the brutes, such a desolate end,
And depart from the light without leaving a friend.
Bear softly his bones over the stones,
Though a pauper, he’s one whom his Maker yet owns.

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Rupert Callender
13 years ago

And there lies the origin of the modern funeral director’s obsession with hearses…”He’s taking a drive in his carriage at last.”

Death Matters
13 years ago

Charles, the real qualification of a pauper’s funeral is how much love and meaning and care has gone into it, not how much pomp and expense it entailed.

It is not only irresponsible that people leave the expense to others or the state, it is also a sad reflection on their inner poverty. In terms of self-worth, most modern funerals are unfortunately done for the destitute.

Charles Cowling
13 years ago

Ah, what a good point (” In terms of self-worth, most modern funerals are unfortunately done for the destitute.”) Thank you for that, DM. And for all your other recent comments. You nourish our thinking.

12 years ago

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