She Paid the Bill.
“No, I haven’t any news of importance for you,” said M. J. Cullen, the undertaker, “but I can tell you a mighty nice little story, the truth of which my books will verify. It is about the noble action of a little girl who came to me about fifteen years ago. She was then about twelve years of age, and despite the fact that her outward appearance suggested parental negligence, she appeared to have a noble and honest heart. It was about seven o’clock of a cold July evening when she walked into my office almost frozen and crying bitterly. She asked to see me, and when I made myself known she stopped crying and told me a very pitiful story, that would soften the heart in the coldest of persons.
She said she lived near my stable; that her father was a drunkard and her mother was dead. She and a little brother seven years of age, of whom she thought the world, were cared for by the neighbours when the father was on a spree, and despite the father’s misconduct the little girl could not be induced to leave him. She kept the house and prepared the meals. She bore her lot philosophically and tried to be happy, but her whole peace of mind was almost wrecked when after about two weeks’ sickness her little brother died. He was her pet, and the two were much attached to one another.
She again burst into tears, and between heavy sobs she said that on account of her father’s evil ways there was no money in the house, and she did not know how her little brother could be buried. She had been told that the city would bury the remains, but when she looked into the manner in which such a burial would be performed—that the coffin would be a plain pine box and that instead of a hearse a waggon would take him to the cemetery she became almost frantic, and would not allow it. She then pleaded with me to bury her brother. She wanted him to have a white coffin, a white hearse, with white horses, and his remains to be taken to the cemetery. Crying bitterly, she said, ‘I will give you my word of honor to pay you as soon as I get the money.’
I was much touched by the story, and went to the home of the child and there learned the truth of her statement. The dead boy was laid on the bed, which was neatly made up by the little girl. I immediately took charge of the funeral, and complied with the every wish of the child; I never expected pay, and, although I thought of the story for some time after, I never expected to see the child again.
Not long since, while seated in my office, a handsome, well-dressed young lady entered, and, addressing me by name, called me aside. She asked me if I remembered her, and I was compelled to acknowledge my ignorance. Imagine my surprise when she told me of a little ragged child of fifteen years ago. ‘I am that little girl,’ she said, ‘and I have come, according to promise, on my word of honor to pay you the bill.’ ‘I looked over the books and found the account, and she paid it. She was married well, and her husband is a prominent and prosperous business man.”
Pauper burials and the interment of the dead in large cities, Frederick Ludwig Hoffman, 1919
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: For the poor, a pauper’s burial in Potter’s Field was as much to be shunned as going to the Workhouse. We have seen how unfortunates beggared themselves providing “decent” funerals for their loved ones and paid sums they could ill-afford into burial clubs, the resulting insurance money covering perhaps only part of the costs of a proper burial.
Here is what Mr. Wild, an undertaker, testifying about conditions in the London slums, says about the disbursement of those funds:
In benefit societies and burial clubs there is generally a certain sum set aside for the burial, which sum is, I consider, frequently most extravagantly expended. This arises from the secretary, or some other officer of the club being an undertaker. When a death takes place the club money is not paid directly: it is usually paid on the club or quarterly night following. The member dying seldom leaves any money beyond the provision in his club to bury him, consequently the widow or nominee makes application to the secretary, who tells her that he cannot give any money to purchase mourning for herself and family until the committee meets; this may be three months after the death; but, says the secretary, “give me the funeral, I will advance you a few pounds upon my own account;” so that the widow is obliged to submit to any charge he may think fit to make. I do not mean to be understood that this is always the case—I am sorry to say it is of frequent occurrence.
Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes, Edwin Chadwick, 1843
Decades later, the fleecing of the bereaved poor continued:
The following is typical of what happens almost every day. A father of four children, who was insured for £7 died. The widow informed an undertaker who called at the house that she was unable to make the funeral arrangements until she had received the money. ‘Do not let that trouble you,’ said the man. You can pay when convenient.’
“The widow is still wondering how the cost of the funeral amounted to exactly £7. The secret is that the insurance agent communicated the news of the death and the amount of the policy to the undertaker, at the same time drawing the usual commission for his trouble.
“When the woman returned from the ceremony she had not a penny left in the world, and for long her children have been pinched with the want of food. How long shall these men be allowed to fleece the poor in life and rob them in death?”
Star 28 October 1905: p. 4
The young lady who found a kindly undertaker to trust her for his fees was fortunate indeed!
For other stories of undertakers and mortuary mishaps, Mrs Daffodil is pleased to recommend The Victorian Book of the Dead. See also this previous post on the funeral arrangements for the son of a poor widow.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.