Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 9. The Familiarity of Death

"Jinny sends her love, and she would like black wool to knit a comforter on two needles for her sister, her mother being dead."

How that poor little message might be, and how often is, misjudged. Not but that Death does indeed wear a more familiar and less terrible aspect to those who see it more closely and more frequently than we ourselves. The shock of associating the dead still face with the face that was known and loved, is little of a shock to those who have learnt to know death as a common visitor; and have been used to do for themselves and see done the little manual tasks of preparing the body for the grave. To move the coffin lid and let friends and even well-meaning strangers look in, is nothing to be shuddered at and endured, but rather a solace and a comfort; only it by no means argues insensibility. Yet even here one must not forget that while with the average it is so, yet there are many minds of finer sensibilities and keener imaginations, to whom such things are torture borne because it cannot be avoided.

"I wish they wouldn't go looking at father so," said one poor girl. "I don't seem to be able to bear the way they keep moving off the lid and looking at him. I wish they'd let him lay quiet." And she said it with her eyes turned away, and her lips trembling.

And that evening her face wore the same look when the Secretary of the Phoenix Club came to view the body, and give the order for the payment of the money due. He was dressed in his Sunday best, and his face wore an expression of sympathy that was genuine, as well as of the solemnity which he knew to be appropriate. We went up into the room, silently one after one. The member of the Phoenix; the brother of the dead man, a countryman grizzled and sturdy, much overcome by his brother's death; his wife, a kindly, tidy countrywoman; the eldest son, a boy of sixteen, whose eyes were still red with crying; and the poor girl herself.

There we stood in the shrouded gloom, the table pushed aside, the coffin resting on chairs, and the faint sick smell of death in the room.

The coffin lid was drawn away, and the Secretary of the Phoenix and the brother of the dead man looked down for a few moments in silence. The boy sobbed loudly, and the poor girl turned away.

"Ah," said the Phoenix Secretary. "He's very much changed, our brother is, since I seen him last."

"Yes; he's much changed. I shouldn't have known him, I shouldn't indeed," said his own brother.

There was a pause. The loud noises came up from the street below, and the shrill, piercing music of a street organ. The man made a gesture towards the street.

"He never could abide them organs," he said. "They used to worry him more than anything."

Nothing troubled now the dead still face that lay bound round with the face cloth, emaciated with sunken eyes.

The Phoenix brother let a few moments elapse, and then he turned and said, still in a subdued voice:

"Is this the young woman, the daughter of our brother?"

"This is the young lady," said her uncle, with a sudden accession of dignity; and he closed the coffin as he spoke.

A few more words, and the Phoenix brother departed, with slow, heavy steps; all followed him. But the girl coming last closed and locked the door with a sudden, half passionate movement.

But in the majority of cases the feeling would have been rather of a soothed dignity of sadness. And, indeed, it is well it can be so, while there is such a terrible lack of mortuaries in which the poor body can lie while waiting for burial. The lack of these threatens health at least; though happily often it causes no mental distress to have the coffin standing for days together in the sleeping or living room of the family. But when this is so, when meals and business talk have to be carried on in the presence of death, death must grow familiar, and be robbed of the awe which is not wholly horror.

Still in some cases, and perhaps in more than one would think, such a necessity causes keen anguish.

There was one poor mother devoted to her children, with a pure passionate devotion, the edge of which poverty had not dulled. Her eldest child died. He was her favourite among them, a winning, attractive boy. She nursed him day and night, but it was of no use. The poor little frame, ill-nourished as it was, succumbed.

There he lay on his little chair bedstead in their one room; the two other children, too young to understand, as merry as ever and as mischievous; wanting to pull off the sheet and look at Harry.

The mother sat there from morning to night, dry-eyed, with a terrible look of anguish on her face.

"I can't eat and I can't sleep," she said. "How could I eat when I see him lying there? And I can't sleep at night. Why, till it gets too dark I've got my eyes fixed on his little bed; and when it gets too dark to see, why my eyes is fixed on the corner where I know he is, and I can't move them off it; and then when the light comes I see it; and if I drop off a minute it's only to jump up because I think I hear him crying to me."

It is horrible to think that such a refinement of torture must be inflicted as things are now. She was almost out of her mind when the day of the funeral came. After the poor little body was out of her sight, she gradually came back to her natural self.

It is not strange when death is so familiar that the fact of leaving life and going out into an unknown land should be, to a great extent, robbed of awe. It is spoken of freely as a likely contingency; it happens so often in the sight of the poor; and an experience through which so many friends and acquaintances and relatives have gone cannot remain acutely terrible, especially to minds which are not gifted with lively imagination.

A nurse in a hospital who, while on night duty, had sometimes as many as four deaths in a night, said that she had never seen one person afraid to die when the last hour came. As a rule weakness and pain have brought on a condition of exhaustion which makes a return to active life a distasteful thing to contemplate, and sickness is not a condition of ease to the poor, nor death surrounded with the cultivated horror of the imagination. Religion comes in rather as a soothing, than as a terror. Repentance, memory of past misdeeds, always an effort, is impossible to the enfeebled mind. One hears again and again:

"She went off very quiet and happy at the last; not a bit of a struggle. She said she was very happy to go to Jesus. She didn't seem to want to stay."

So it is in most cases, that death comes as a gentle end to sickness and weariness, not as the King of Terrors to an unwilling victim.

Of course, a sudden death, a death coming to end a career of obvious open wickedness has its horror to them; but not in the case of indifferent or even careless lives.

For all this, of course, death is made more of an occasion, as measured by expense, much more of an occasion than marriage, or birth, or any one other event. And the gorgeous funerals with the hearses, the mourning coaches, the black plumes, the deep crape; all these, though undesirable if one could lift ideals high enough, have yet their good side. The insurance system has its evil aspects, but it has its good aspect too. As a woman, whose mother had been in receipt of out-relief for many years, and died without having been insured, and would therefore, in the natural course of things, have had a pauper's funeral, said to me, "I went to see what it would be like; for we're pretty hard up and didn't know how we could manage to bury her. But it was too dreadful­just a plain box and sawdust inside. I couldn't let her lie like that, so I paid for the lining of it and making it a bit nice."

Surely in many cases this is true not false sentiment, and this and more lavish expense may be the uncouth sign of the affection of a spirit that cannot ask, "To what purpose is this waste?" Something better and higher might supplant it, but we should make sure that we are not anywhere rooting out the symbolism of a fine feeling, and filling its place by the dictates of a sordid common sense.

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