August 9, 2013

Pomp at the Grave: Editorial on Funeral Expenses, 1894

From page 10 of the Portland Oregonian on February 4, 1894:



Costly Caskets, Plumed Hearses, Wired Flowers and Somber Crape Mean Mockery of the Dead.

NEW YORK, Jan. 30.--[Special Correspondence.]--Who is to be considered--the living or the dead?  Do you know what I mean?  Put yourself in the place of the man who is earning $75 a month; he has a bit of a home, two or three children, and, by the care and economy of his wife, they live along without getting into debt; and yet, because illness will come to the rich and the poor alike, because there may be a desire to lend a helping hand to an erring brother, there is no money saved.  One day death comes to that little flat which represents home to these people.  It may be the baby who is dead; it may be the oldest child; and sorrow of sorrows, it may be the wife, or else, Gold help them! it may be the man himself.  The first awful grief over, somebody says something about the funeral.  You and I shrink with horror from the funeral trappings, and yet they must come.  There may be a little money given here and there, from one and another of the family, but the undertake glibly reminds the living that so much will have to be paid for the box which holds the casket without the soul; that so much must be paid for the horrible plumed hearse that carries that which you love, living or dead, and that behind it must come a troop of carriages filled with so-called friends, who absolutely enjoy the morbid curiosity that induces them to look at you in your grief.

Well, you give the little money that you have; you think how you loved that dear, dear one, and you feel as if somebody insists upon it that you must not fail in the outward respect due.


And then for months after there must be money saved; you must give up the idea of doing what you wish for the living until you have paid for this wretched pomp shown to the dead.  And the boy who wanted to go to school another year is forced out into the world, and the girl who was anxious to study something, that she might in the future give a helping hand, has to stay at home and shed quiet tears over her disappointment.  All because a miserable, mean conception of what is right and what is wrong says that you shall bind yourself for many months to the dead and ignore the living.  I can't tell you how much I feel about this.  I have seen it, and while i know that a loving pride dictated it, still I felt that if the dead could come back and speak, they would ask that only a quiet resting-place be given to them, that only a willing prayer be one that comes from a home garden, and not that which passed through the hands of the florist and been wired by him to form what he calls "a most affecting token."


You see the great wagon full of flowers going out; it seems to you the expression of kindness.  Nine times out of ten it is the expression of policy, and many a man has robbed his own to buy the floral wreath that he felt bound to send to the home of his employer because death had entered it.  And what is the result?  Ask anybody in the cemetery, and they will tell you that those who prey on the dead, and there are plenty of them, take the ribbons off the palm leaves, break off the freshest of the flowers, and carry away the wire frames that were the foundations of the anchor, or the cross, or the crown, and sell them.

Well, after a while you have paid the undertaker's bills. And then, because somebody else's child has one, you feel that you must put up a marble monument, and for a year or perhaps two you act the thief to the living to gratify what is, after all, not a duty to the dead, but your own vanity.  You think, perhaps, that I am a little severe.  There is not today one human being who has a greater respect for that very reason I cannot see them made an excuse for extravagance, nor can I endure their going out of this world being made a sort of a festival lay for the mere acquaintance and the gossip.  What do I think is right? I'll tell you.  The first duty you owe is to the living, but you can give your love and reverence to the dead without interfering with that.  Take up the form that you loved, put it in its plain wooden box; if you wish, have a little plate with its with its name on it, but I think at the last great day neither God nor you will need to know the dear one; bury it quietly and with just a few simple services, and then come back home and go on living.  Let in the bright sunshine, and if you think, as you will many times, of that one who is no more on earth, you will think with love and not with horror as you would if, after the gorgeous funeral, each month found you worried to get together the money necessary to pay for what was simple ridiculous.


When the son of the Prince of Wales died, his father and brother walked three miles behind the caisson on which the coffin rested, and after them walked all those who wished to pay respect to the dead prince; none of the women, for one the other side they think, properly enough, that nervous, excited, tender-hearted women are out of place in cemeteries, and that it is the duty of the men of the family to bear the heaviest burdens.  Here, if that had been the soul of a salesman, or a man in the middle class of life, there would have been eight or ten expensive carriages to be paid for, and the family would be put in debt for months.  I feel all this just now very much, because on the other side of humanity I have seen so much of what I call the burden of the dead.  I know that until the wiser of our people insist upon funeral services being simpler, funeral trappings quieter, and announce the possibility of a great grief without yards of crape, that this burden will rest upon the poor forever and ever.


The other day Mr. Van Million died.  His life hadn't been any two remarkable for its goodness, or its kindness, or its virtues, but still he was dead, and that can all be forgotten.  In the old race of death, Mr. Van Million is surrounded by blue violets and white lilies, by costly orchids and palm leaves, and all the wreathes and bunches of flowers are tied with great, broad ribbons.  And Mrs. Van Million enters the room to go to church, a moving mass of crape, that any woman who looks can estimate at its enormous cost.  And the church is open, and a well-known prima donna, well known alike for the beauty of her voice and the wickedness of her life, sings almost exquisitely.  And later on, at the grave, the Reverend Doctor Velvet makes a picture of himself as he looks up to the blue skies above him and carefully reminds God Almighty that in this, the loss of our dear brother, there has gone from us one who was most prominent, who was kind and good, and who will, without doubt, occupy in heaven that position in which he would find greatest happiness and be nearest to the great white throne."  And the Reverend Doctor Velvet knows that in his trousers pocket is a check for $1000 from Mrs. Van Million, thanking him for his goodness and for the thoughtful consideration that prompted him to give up the afternoon of his valuable time to her in her sorrow.  Undoubtedly, she felt this way--the Van Millions' wives and daughters love them, but it has been suggested to her by some one who knew that it was customary to give this monetary courtesy.

He values his time well.

You, who happen that day to have gone to look at a little baby's grave, pass this group, raise your hat and stand still for a moment; you know that when that baby died, you had gone to the Reverend Doctor Velvet, and told him that you earned $15 a week, and that you wanted some prayers said over your dead child, you know as well as I do, that the man who is supposed to preach the doctrine of Him who died that you might be saved, would instantly find a pleasant excuse for not doing as you asked.  Do I blame the clergy?  I do, most emphatically; I do not care to what church they may belong, I insist upon it that when it comes to a question of burying the dead, the rich and the poor stand alike in the presence of God, and that no man has a right to refuse to do his duty by them, and that no man has a right to accept money for the consolation that he gives the living and the prayers that he says for the dead.

If Mrs. Van Million realizes in her sorrow that there are others in this world who suffer, then she can give her check where it will do most good in memory of the dead; but the horror of paying a clergyman for speaking words of consolation has made more men lose faith than anything else in the world.

Why can't you be a little brave about your dead?  Why can't you say, when the breath has left the body, that no stranger hand can touch it, and robe it in anything it had worn in life; why won't you put it in a plain box, without embellishments of silver or gold; have it carried in a dark coach, and followed to its resting-place only by those who loved it while there was life in it?  How can you, if you have a heart, permit the mere curious to look at your dead?  How can you allow the people to whom she who is dead never spoke, never know of, to look at and criticise her, when she lies there helpless, unable to say a word?  What is the matter with the men and women?  They can write beautiful sentiment, they can talk of truth and art and love, and yet they permit their dead to endure vulgar stares, that living would have horrified them.  Why can't you have the moral courage, when death comes, to give to that dear body, because of your reverence for it, the simplest and sweetest of ceremonies, in which only those who loved it while it was alive take part?

I do not grieve the less because I refuse to go in debt for a crape gown, and yet the woman of moderate means thinks the world will believe that she did not care for the one who has gone before unless she gowns herself so that she looks gloomy and puts a heavy veil between her and God Almighty's sunshine.

If only the dead could come back and tell us!  If they could only say: "My dear ones, you do not make me believe less in your love or in your remembrance of me by all this folly, and I beg of you to go on and live your lives as you have done, and make me a living memory among you and not a dead one."  Who is to blame? I am afraid it is the people who have plenty of money, and who have thoroughly imbued all the rest of the world with the idea that respect to the dead is shown by long processions, by expensive caskets, and by the wearing of stuffs so gloomy that it makes death seem horrible rather than restful.  


We could all learn a less on from the gentle Quakers.  Among them the coffin in which the poor or the rich man sleeps is perfectly plain; he is laid in the ground about the meeting-house, and at his head is put a little stone--they are all alike--on which his name is engraved.  When a hundred years have gone by the stones are taken up, the ground is plowed over, and behold, it is ready to receive more sleeping forms, those closest to the living of today.  I have heard this called hard-hearted, but I do not think it is.

When the last great day comes, and the trumpets ring out its call, and you and I and our dead stand waiting to hear our names called, we may be very certain that the sin of avarice will not be forgiven because the mahogany casket cost $1000; that the sin of impurity will not be overlooked because the handles on it were solid silver; that the sin of dishonesty will not be wiped out because there rested above us a monument of the finest Carrara marble. [?ineligible] day the rich and the poor will really stand together in the sight of God, and this mortal shall put on immortality without there being any question of coffins or hearses, of funeral sermons or wired flowers, or lying obituaries; but it will be asked of each one.


There will never be a question of the treatment given to the dead body, but all will tend toward "How did you do your duty toward God and those whom he entrusted to you?"

Think it over; it's worth while, and make up your  mind, if grief comes, that you are going to do your duty to the living, and not make your sorrow an everlasting one by combining with it the horror of debt and the continual depriving of what belongs to the living that you may feel that you have done like the rest of the world to the dead.  You don't want to be like the rest of the world.  You want to be honest, clear-headed and clear-hearted, fearing no man and doing that which is right.  And the right way to treat your dead is to give them tender respect and put them in the warm arms of Mother Earth so quietly and so simply that your grief will have due honor given it because you have not attempted to frame it in vulgarity and ridiculous display.  Am I right?  I do believe I am.  And I prove my belief by putting to my opinion my name, which is ____________  BAB.

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