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Trading in Death

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Commercial Products (Commodities); Material Culture; Shopping; Advertising
Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
Health; Diseases; Personal Injuries; Hygiene; Cleanliness—Fiction
Newspapers; Periodicals; Journalism
Other Details
Printed : 27/11/1852
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume VI
Magazine : No. 140
Office Book Notes
Views : 1287

The Duke of Wellington died on 14 September and his state Funeral took place on 18 November. It was planned on a more magnificent and elaborate scale than any previous such occasion in the nation's history and, given Dickens's detestation of costly and elaborate funeral ceremonies, it is not surprising that he reacted negatively to all this. 'I think it a grevious thing,' he wrote to Miss Burdett Coutts on 23 September, 'a relapse into semi-barbarous practices...a pernicious corruption of the popular mind, just beginning to awaken from the long dream of inconsistencies, monstrosities, horrors and ruinous expenses, that has beset all classes of society in connexion with Death' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, pp. 764–5). In the same letter he expressed his belief that it would be useless to publish any remonstrance on the subject until the wave of public emotion had subsided. 

In the event he considered 'the Military part of the show, was very fine', but strongly deplored the Funeral Car (brainchild of Prince Albert; now to be seen in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral): 'for forms of ugliness, horrible combinations of color, hideous motion, and general failure, there never was such a work achieved' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 805). He set out the grounds of his general objection to the whole business in the following article. 
      His allusion at the end of para. 1 to the 'indecent horror' of overcrowded burial grounds would have recalled to HW readers' minds his powerful handling of this theme a few months earlier, in the fourth monthly number of Bleak House (June 1852) which begins with Ch. 9, 'Our Dear Brother', describing the pauper burial of Nemo in a 'hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed'. His reference in the following paragraph to the admirable simplicity of the late Queen Dowager's funeral recalls his approving article on that event in The Examiner (15 December 1849; see Vol. 2 of [the Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism], pp. 172–5). 
      For numerous examples of the sort of advertisements Dickens is deploying in this piece, see The Times for 17 November 1852. Among them is the following: 

Would to God Night or Blucher were come! The meeting of Wellington and Blucher at La Belle Alliance painted by T. J. Barker. Messrs Leggatt, Hayward and Leggatt have much satisfaction in announcing that this deeply interesting picture is still in their gallery on view. The Duke himself inspected the picture and pronounced it 'very good, very good indeed'. This expression from him stamps the picture with the value of truth...

Barker was chiefly celebrated as a painter of battle scenes; this painting of the meeting of Wellington and Blucher was done by him in 1851 for Alderman Moon, a printseller. 

Literary allusions 

  •  'that vain shadow...in vain': The Book of Common Prayer, Psalm 39:3; 
  • 'a great gulf set...': Luke 16:26. 
Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851–59 (1998). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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