Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Imagine picking up a well-thumbed penny novel by an unknown Victorian author at your secondhand bookshop and, on starting to read it, discovering to your surprise that a family of undertakers is depicted in a favourable light.
We’re used to Charles Dickens, who loathed undertakers as much as he despised Jews like the money-hording reprobate, Fagin, in Oliver Twist, and the mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Of course Scrooge didn’t warm to Christmas, he was the wrong religion!
Like Dickens’s Jewish caricatures, his undertaker, again in Oliver Twist, is a piece of work: a hunched, scrawny, ashen-faced, hand-wringing ghoul, waiting for death like a scavenger crow, ready to prey on vulnerable mourners, to oil cash out of them and then count it with miserly glee. When his shop bell rings, he salivates like Pavlov’s dog. Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly.
Crow, dog, spider, I’m mixing my metaphors, carried away by the melodrama! In truth, I cant even remember much about the undertaker in Oliver Twist, but I know he was a creep.
Has the funeral business fully recovered from its wrecked reputation during the 19th century? Again employing artistic license, let’s return to the depiction of goodly undertakers in my ‘obscure Victorian novel’.
The main characters are a kindly father and his son, who makes the ladies of the borough swoon with his dashing looks and upright gait, complemented by impeccably-tailored mourning attire. Of an evening, conversation flows freely over candle-lit dinners with mother and daughter, a picture of domestic bliss as their hard-earned income provides for contented family life.
On days off, the son walks out with the haberdasher’s pretty daughter, the romantic interest of the story. At work, father and son work diligently in their tidy wood-panelled shop. When the doorbell chimes, they greet mourners courteously, perfectly judging the balance between sympathy and providing wares and services from coffin to coach and horses. Their seemly manner is second nature: besides, to be obsequious would be bad for business, as would cold salesmanship.
They witness suffering through their work. Despite medical advances, death, along with the decline towards death, is all around, a natural part of everyday life: mothers burying their babies; men struck down in the prime of life leaving the family facing the workhouse; visits to homes where the matriarch is laid out in the same bed in which she’d been born, and at which she’d watched her own parents die. The presence of death is even more stark in the slums across town, where life expectancy is far lower than that experienced by our undertakers.
They’ve seen changes in their trade, too. Grandfather, an honest, ruddy-faced artisan, had been a cabinet-maker who built coffins on demand in the village. They did things simply back then, and without much professional assistance. Father is of the new generation who joined the growing numbers migrating to the city where he set up shop specifically as an undertaker.
Since Prince Albert’s untimely death, the Queen seems to have inspired a cult of mourning influencing all walks of society. The last important event in a person’s life, funerals have long been a rite of passage like baptism and marriage, but increasingly families seem intent on outdoing their neighbours with ever more spectacular funeral processions.
Father, a rational sort, finds the trend somewhat baffling, especially when some people virtually bankrupt themselves with additional black-plumed horses, extra coaches and a parade of professional mutes. On occasion, he’s gently advised less affluent customers to rein in their funeral ambitions. As an act of paternalism towards his housekeeper, he’s also waived costs so she could give a relative a send-off which she couldn’t otherwise afford.
The son, with youthful impatience motivated by aspirations to maximise his savings before asking the haberdasher’s daughter to marry him, expresses frustration at his father’s seeming softness in business.
Father rebukes him: ‘It is dishonest to exploit the pride and vanity of those who don’t see the virtue of living within their means,’ he says. ‘We would no longer merit the trust bestowed upon us if we were governed solely by the biggest and quickest profit. What goes around comes around, my son’.
The son grudgingly accedes to his father’s moral wisdom. They carry on serving the community as usual, the son slowly but surely making progress towards his goal of establishing his own marital home.
Then things start to go wrong. A popular newspaper is serialising a novel featuring a manipulative undertaker who is so grotesque he makes Uriah Heep seem like David Copperfield. Soon, the newspaper’s editor is publishing journalistic stories attacking, in general terms, the practices of real-life undertakers.
At first the people of the borough turn in subtle ways. Father and son notice visitors to the shop seem resentful and suspicious. When shown a coffin, they frostily enquire if there are cheaper models that will nevertheless impress onlookers. In time, they notice passers-by glaring at them through the window, or even wagging their gloved fingers, or shaking their umbrellas. ‘Shame on you,’ one shouts outside the door. ‘Bog off to where you came from,’ says another.
‘Why are we being demonised?’ says the son. ‘We only provide what they need, and sometimes we even advise them to spend less than they want to’.
‘We’re being tarred with the brush of the greediest members of our trade,’ says the father. ‘While the unscrupulous undertaker in the newspaper is fictional, there is indeed vice in our midst that’s giving us all a bad name. There’s no smoke without fire. But, fear not, justice will prevail, and good will out in the end.’
One night, they wake up with fright to the sound of baying drunks in the street, followed by an empty gin bottle crashing through their shop window. Venturing downstairs later, they see, painted in bold letters across the door, the words: DISMAL TRADER. By the side of these words is a rough image of a diamond-shaped coffin. Daubed in haste in the dead of night, it resembles the Star of David.
‘What the Dickens’, exclaims the son, ‘we’re not even Jewish’.
He then notices an envelope on the doormat, addressed to him in the handwriting of his fiancée. The ink is smudged, as if by tears.
To be continued…