The Art of Death (and Funerals)

Death scenes and funerals: not very Christmassy I know, but the subject of my book research for the last month.

During the course of my investigations into the way funerals are depicted and documented in literature, I came across a list put together by John Mullan for The Guardian: The Ten Best Deathbed Scenes in Literature. What Mullan’s list corroborated with my own research, was that nineteenth century literature, in particular, incorporates death scenes in abundance. Look no further than any book written by Charles Dickens. His stories are punctuated by the tragic and the sticky, mournful ends of characters he has encouraged us to both love and hate.

However, Dickens, like death, showed no favouritism towards his characters when it came to doing what was best for the plot and would often kill off someone, we as readers, would consider undeserving of such a dreadful fate. As two examples:

The death of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations is exceptionally sad. We are first made to fear Abel’s character: his treatment of Pip so shocking and sinister. But later we are made to love him, when he reveals to Pip that he is in fact Pip’s benefactor, not Miss Havisham. Towards the end of the book, when we learn, that Abel’s painful end, and the tragedy that marked his life, might have been prevented, his death seems all the more futile. But grace is given by Pip who lets him know that Abel’s only daughter, Estella, is still alive and loved. Abel dies a contented man.

The scene of Little’s Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop is also particularly heartbreaking, perhaps more so because she is but a child and has prepared herself for it by ensuring that her place of death is as comfortable as possible.

“Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. ‘When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.'” In the end, she is likened to an innocent unborn baby: “She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death” (542)

Dickens’ attitude to death was certainly a reflection of the time in which he was writing. Then, the death of a child, a mother or a father was commonplace; a devastating event to be borne by those that were left as best they could and that would surely be the making, or the ruin, of them. But what about what comes directly after a death in the practical sense? What about the funeral?

From my own research I have found there to be very few novels that include a funeral scene. Those that do include, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: the funeral of Mrs Joe Gargery in is described in vague detail; The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells, who devoted a whole chapter to the funeral scene of Mr Polly’s father  and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte in which there is a short passage relating to how Catherine Linton’s open coffin was dressed, but other than that, only the appointed day on which the funeral was to be held and a brief description of the plot of land in which she was to be buried is described. The ceremony itself is omitted.

Of course there are far more examples of funeral scenes in literature than I have given here, but still they do not seem to number as many in comparison to the number of death scenes written. It seemed that writers prefer to skim over funerals. Perhaps like we do ourselves in real life. We attend them with a heavy heart, but we don’t talk about them much afterwards.

I have been unfortunate enough to attend rather a lot of funerals in the thirty four years of my life so far. A good number when I was child. This was on account of my singing voice. It seems people like to be sung out, or at least their loved ones like them to be.

Strangely I always rather preferred singing at funerals rather than weddings. The reason: because I got to stand at the back in the organ loft to sing, which for someone who is actually quite shy, is a lot better than standing at the front. But more than that, it was a good place from which to people watch.

Funerals, in general, are awkward events charged with pent up sadness and emotion. British funerals particularly tend to be very restrained affairs, with tears held in check by handkerchiefs and will power. As well as a general avoidance of eye contact with the family of the deceased and brief, tight-lipped, sad smiles at strangers, a lot of squeezing goes on, mainly by the men in attendance. Nobody ever seems knows what to say.

Perhaps that’s why the pictures I found during my research speak about funerals better than the written scenes I came across. Here are some of my favourites:

The painting below is called ‘A Funeral Service in the Highlands’. It is by James Guthrie and was painted in 1882.


I love the cold, snowy landscape depicted here; the way it reflects the bleakness of death. A body covered in black cloth is laid across two chairs, in front of a ramshackle cottage. Surrounding it, a group of gruff men stand awkwardly, probably shivering the cold. The sky is dark overhead, though light on the horizon, indicating sunset, which is perhaps meant to have some symbolic meaning, associating the end of the day with the end of a life.

This next picture was painted by Anna Archer in 1891 and is simply entitled, ‘A Funeral’.

It is a different scene entirely from the Guthrie painting. It is quiet, calm and intimate. There is real warmth about Archer’s painting. To me this feeling of warmth emanates from the crowd of people in attendance: men and women and children and is enhanced more literally, by the salmon coloured walls that surround them. Perhaps they are listening to the old man with his back to us, talk about the deceased. Perhaps they are taking a moment of silent prayer. It is clear that deceased was well loved. The open wooden coffin is decked with wreaths of green foliage which almost seem too decadent against the simple, stark interior of the room, but again, belies the warmth of feeling felt for the person who has died.

Finally, ‘The Funeral of Shelly’ above, painted in 1889 by Louis Edouard Fournier, is a wonderful painting.

It depicts the funeral of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet who drowned in 1822. My research tells me that his yacht was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Spezzia, Italy. His body was cremated and his remains later buried at the Protestant cemetery in Rome. Fournier’s painting shows the funeral pyre on the shore, surrounded by three of the dead poet’s closest friends. From left to right they are the author and adventurer Trelawny and Shelley’s fellow-poets Leigh Hunt and Byron. In Trelawny’s own account of the event, ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron’, he described the hot August day on which the funeral took place.

I have yet to read Trelawny’s account and I’m intrigued to see how well Fournier’s painting has matched it. However, I imagine that it must have been a very bleak scene for those attending. But somehow, in this painting, by setting Shelley’s friends apart from the other guests and picking out their features more boldly than the rest, Fournier has captured the intimacy of the group. And this is what stands out for me, what makes the image of Shelly’s flaming corpse seem less shocking, less dramatic, more poignant and sad.

These paintings provide three very different depictions of a funeral, yet they are all linked by the way in which the private nature of mourning is presented. In each, much of the drama, the emotion related to the event, is taking place in the minds of the individuals present: some of them wrestling to keep their emotions in check. Perhaps some of them are not thinking about the deceased at all, but have let their thoughts wander to other less spiritual matters. What exists in common is a quiet, thoughtfulness, which extends to us as viewers. We are left to wonder about the deceased and look to the images of each funeral scene to tell us about their character. We make assumptions and judgements, we develop stories and backgrounds for them based on the way in which they are being buried; the clothes in which the guests are dressed, the types of flowers adorning the coffin. We do all of this by looking at a single picture.

When I think about this, I find it odd that funeral scenes are not more written about in literature. To me, they seem to provide an excellent situation from which a writer might derive or develop a story.



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