Mr. Sowerberry, who appears in Oliver Twist, is the first of Dickens's undertakers but hardly the last. The novelist's determination to expose the falsity of the pomp and ceremony of Victorian burial practices seems to have been a lifelong obsession. In his late novel Great Expectations (1861), the necessary concomitant of a materialistic society is a want of feeling in those who make a business of death like Mr. Trabb. His​ punctilious delight in display contrasts the ​genuine ​grief of honest Joe Gargery. Joe speaks for Dickens when he tells Pip the kind of burial and mourning he would prefer: “I meantersay, sir, as I would in preference have carried her to the church myself, along with three or four friendly ones wot come to it with willing harts and arms,” but he cannot follow his own wishes, he tells Pip, because “it were considered wot the neighbours would look down on such and would be of opinions as it were wanting in respect.” At this point, Trabb, the undertaker, orders the mourners to act out their grief:

"Pocket-handkerchiefs out, all!" cried Mr. Trabb at this point, in a depressed business-like voice. "Pocket-handkerchiefs out! We are ready!" So, we all put our pocket-handkerchiefs to our faces, as if our noses were bleeding, and filed out two and two; Joe and I; Biddy and Pumblechook; Mr. and Mrs. Hubble. The remains of my poor sister had been brought round by the kitchen door, and, it being a point of Undertaking ceremony that the six bearers must be stifled and blinded under a horrible black velvet housing with a white border, the whole looked like a blind monster with twelve human legs, shuffling and blundering along, under the guidance of two keepers — the postboy and his comrade.

As Dickens makes clear, the fault here lies not just with Trabb but with the entire community, which “highly approved of these arrangements, and we were much admired as we went through the village.” Pip finds himself particularly annoyed by “the abject Pumblechook, who, being behind me, persisted all the way as a delicate attention in arranging my streaming hatband, and smoothing my cloak. My thoughts were further distracted by the excessive pride of Mr. and Mrs. Hubble, who were surpassingly conceited and vainglorious in being members of so distinguished a procession.” The “worldly-minded” Pumblechook continued to distract Pip during the graveside service “when those noble passages were read which remind humanity how it brought nothing into the world and can take nothing out, and how it fleeth like a shadow and never continueth long in one stay” (Chapter 35).

Three illustrators depict Sowersberry. Left: Mr. Sowerberry by J. Clayton Clarke ("Kyd"). Middle: Mr. Sowerberry by Sol Eytinge, Jr. Note the coffin-shaped snuffbox! Right: At Mrs. Gargery's Funeral by Harry Furniss. Click on images to enlarge them.

Dickens's experience of funerals and mourning

By the time he came to write the funeral chapter in 1861, Dickens had had plenty of experience with contemporary undertakers and Victorian funeral and mourning rituals. First came the loss of his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Ball Dickens. There was a silver lining to that: Elizabeth died on 26 April 1824, not long after the young Dickens's father John had entered the Marshalsea debtors' prison. Her legacy of £450 would help her son, on his release from the Marshalsea under the terms of the Insolvent Debtors Act (1813), to repay his creditors in the following month. John Dickens had only been incarcerated for fourteen weeks, but the relief for his family when he was free again, and solvent, must have done much to comfort all of them in their family loss. A death that is known to have affected Dickens much more deeply occurred when he was twenty-five. It was that of his beloved sister-in-law, seventeen-year-old Mary Hogarth, under his very roof, on 7 May 1837. With tragic irony, this was the Sunday after he had experienced a double triumph, learning of the extraordinary sales of Pickwick Papers, and the success of his farce, Is She His Wife?, or, Something Singular!, which was staged at the St. James's Theatre. There would be more deaths and funerals: a decade later, John Dickens died a few days after surgery for a urethral infection (31 March 1851); that episode, with all its mourning duties, was followed shortly by the wrenching death of Dickens's last daughter, the infant Dora Annie Dickens (16 August 1850-14 April 1851). All that night, the mourning father watched over his daughter's body, supported by his friend and fellow journalist Mark Lemon.

The Funeral in Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, and David Copperfield

These events, of course, cast a shadow over his description of Mr. Trabb's stuffily conducting the funeral rites of Mrs. Joe Gargery in the 1861 novel, but the novelist had dramatized his disgust with Victorian undertakers much earlier in Oliver Twist, which contains Sowerberry. The glum Mudfog undertaker, whose snuffbox is a miniature coffin, works hand in glove with the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble, and the guardians of the workhouse as the official "disposer" of paupers' corpses, doubtless at a tidy profit. In the April 1837 serial instalment of the novel shows Oliver, now apprenticed to the local undertaker, working as a funeral "mute" — a person dressed in deep mourning who follows the funeral cortege, simulating grief.

In the fifth chapter of Oliver Twist Dickens gives readers a behind-the-scenes view of the shabby side of the funeral business. The scene begins with “Oliver, whose legs were not so long as his master's,” running to keep up with the funeral procession. But arriving at the “obscure corner of the churchyard in which the nettles grew, and where the parish graves were made,” the mourners and undertaker’s party discover that “the clergyman had not arrived . . . and the two mourners waited patiently in the damp clay, with a cold rain drizzling down.” After more than an hour the clergyman appears, “putting on his surplice as he came along.” The “reverend gentleman” reads “as much of the burial service as could be compressed into four minutes,” hands his surplice to the clerk and leaves, abandoning the mourners to their grief.

"Now, Bill!" said Sowerberry to the grave-digger. "Fill up!"

It was no very difficult task, for the grave was so full [of other burila], that the uppermost coffin was within a few feet of the surface. The grave-digger shovelled in the earth; stamped it loosely down with his feet: shouldered his spade; and walked off, followed by the boys, who murmured very loud complaints at the fun being over so soon.

At this point, Dickens turns our attention to the mourners when Bumble tells the grieving man,

“Come, my good fellow! . . . They want to shut up the yard,” at which point “the man who had never once moved, since he had taken his station by the grave side, started, raised his head, stared at the person who had addressed him, walked forward for a few paces; and fell down in a swoon. . . so they threw a can of cold water over him; and when he came to, saw him safely out of the churchyard, locked the gate, and departed on their different ways.

"Well, Oliver," said Sowerberry, as they walked home, "how do you like it?" [Oliver Twist, Chapter 5, "Oliver Mingles with New Associates. Going to a Funeral for the First Time, He forms an Unfavourable Notion of his Master's Business."]

From this early novel onwards, Dickens seems to have a deep suspicion of the artificial sympathy of undertakers, as well as a near-revulsion of the theatricality of nineteenth-century funerals, an antipathy much in evidence in his description of Mrs. Joe's funeral in Great Expectations. In Dickens's novels, undertakers do not always bask in the limelight of his sharp criticism, but he has little positive to say about the aptly named Mr. Mould, who presides over Anthony Chuzzlewit's funeral rites in Martin Chuzzlewit:

Mr. Mould's men found it necessary to drown their grief, like a young kitten in the morning of its existence, for which reason they generally fuddled themselves before they began to do anything, lest it should make head and get the better of them. In short, the whole of that strange week was a round of dismal joviality and grim enjoyment; and every one, except poor Chuffey, who came within the shadow of Anthony Chuzzlewit's grave, feasted like a Ghoul.

At length the day of the funeral, pious and truthful ceremony that it was, arrived. Mr. Mould, with a glass of generous port between his eye and the light, leaned against the desk in the little glass office with his gold watch in his unoccupied hand, and conversed with Mrs. Gamp; two mutes were at the house-door, looking as mournful as could be reasonably expected of men with such a thriving job in hand; the whole of Mr. Mould's establishment were on duty within the house or without; feathers waved, horses snorted, silk and velvets fluttered; in a word, as Mr. Mould emphatically said, "Everything that money could do was done." [Chapter 19, "The Reader is Brought into Communication with Some Professional Persons, and Sheds a Tear over the Filial Piety of Good Mr. Jonas]

The keynotes here are exploitation and insincerity, as the undertaker provides an elaborate and expensive panoply, as if the massive expenditure on theatrical properties can bring meaningful consolation to the mourners and ease their grief at the loss of a family member. Nevertheless, massive expenditure on such trumpery seems to be a middle-class expectation.

Mr. Omer, the kind-hearted Yarmouth undertaker who presides over the funeral of Mrs. Clara Murdstone and her infant in David Copperfield, provides a contrast to the undertakers in Dickens's other novels. The narrator, David, reflecting upon the role that Mr. Omer played in his mother's obsequies, recalls him as "a fat, short-winded, merry-looking, little old man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of his breeches, black stockings, and a broad-brimmed hat" (Chapter 9, "I Have a Memorable Birthday"). However, even so sympathetic a character as the gentle, philosophical Mr. Omer cannot dilute the sense that a Victorian funeral is about things rather than people, more about conspicuous expenditure than genuine depth of feeling:

If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone's dress, and our black clothes. [Chapter 9]

Related material


Richardson, Ruth. Dickens and the Workhouse; "Oliver Twist" and the London Poor. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 2012.

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Created 19 February 2015