It was a fine summer Sabbath evening in June, and we were knocking about among the tombstones as usual, making our observations upon life and character, when our attention was arrested by a plain coffin, borne upon the shoulders of four men in black, and followed by eight chief mourners, all in decent but humble suits of sables. The chief mourners were eight children—four boys and four girls: or, to speak more correctly, three boys and three girls, with two little ‘ toddles,’ mere infants, straggling in the rear. The eldest boy and girl might have been about fifteen and fourteen years respectively; the next, twelve and eleven; the third pair between seven and eight; the youngest, as we have said, between infancy and childhood. The eyes of all spectators were upon the bereaved ones as they stood around the grave, yawning to receive their only parent and provider; and few were the dry eyes of those that behold the melancholy group— the eldest boy looking fierce and manlike, the rest weeping bitterly, save the youngest pair, looking wonderingly around, as if marvelling what all the ceremony might mean.
“Cutting funeral, that, sir;” observed a little pursy man in black who stood near us; “werry cutting funeral, indeed,” repeated the little man, blowing his nose violently.
“Who are they?” we enquired, not without anticipating something like the little domestic history we were favoured with by the nose-blowing little man in black.
“Horphans, sir—every one on ’em horphans; that’s their mother as is a bein’ buried, sir.”
“Yes, sir; she was a ‘spectable woman—highly ‘spectable, indeed— werry wirtuous, poor woman, sir—paid rates and taxes in the parish for twenty year. I ought to know it; for I’m one of the overseers—I am.”
“I should like to hear something of the family.”
“Should you, sir? Well, you shall hear; but it’s a melancholy story— wery melancholy, indeed. You must know, sir, there wasn‘t a more decenter couple in this parish than Thomas Mason and his wife, Jane; they were well to do, and doing well; every body respected them, for they paid their way and was civil to their customers. Well, Thomas fell in a decline, sir, and died; but he didn’t die soon enough— for his sickness wasted all their substance, and the business was neglected, so the family fell into poverty: but the poor widow struggled on, and the exertions she made to maintain them little ones was really the wonder of the neighbourhood. ‘Mr Smith,’ says she to me, when I offered some relief, ‘I won’t trouble this world long, and parish money shall never cross my palm; but when I’m gone, you won’t see my desolate orphans want a morsel of bread.‘ So, poor woman, she was right; for she soon sickened, and was bed-ridden for thirteen months; and them children, as you see a standin’ ’round their mother‘s grave, worked themselves to an oil to keep her from the hospital–much more the workus. The girls worked all day; and boys and girls sat up all night, turn and turn about, with their poor mother–she was sorely afflicted, poor woman. Well, sir; when she died at last, our vicar went and offered his assistance, and told the children, of course, the parish would bury their mother ; but that there hobstinate boy, him that’s a givin’ his orders, wouldn’t hear of it, and blowed up the vicar for mentioning such a thing. So the vicar comes to me, and says be, Mr Smith, these here young Mason’s is the oddest babies as ever I see, for they’ve sold their bed and all their things to bury their mother; let‘s make up a purse for them, and there’s my sovereign to begin with. Says I, sir, never mind, I‘ll bring them right; and the parish shall bury the poor woman, so that’ll be so much saved: and with that I goes off to Poppin’s court, and into the fust floor; there was the poor woman dead, and the room stripped of all the furniture and things. Says that there youth, ‘ Mr Smith,‘ says he, ‘ I’d be wery glad to see you another time, but we’re in great grief for our mother bein’ dead, and we hope you‘ll excuse us not askin’ you to sit down.’ Lord love you, sir, there wasn’t the sign of a chair or a table in the room, nothing but the corpse, and a bit of a plank. Says I, ‘my boy, I’m sorry for your grief, but I hope you won’t have any objection to let the parish manage your poor mother’s funeral.’ With that, sir, the boy flares up like any think, whips up a poker, and swears if he catches the parish a-comin‘ to touch his mother, he’ll brain the lot of ’em: ‘Mother lived without the parish,’ says he, ‘died without the parish, and she’ll be buried without the parish!’ With that he opens the door, and shews me down stairs as if he was a suckin’ markis: that‘s the story on ’em, sir; and they’re a riggler hindependent lot as ever I see. God help them, poor things!”
And with this the little man blew his nose once more, as the group of motherless children, reformed in their sad order of procession, and with streaming eyes, and many repeated last looks at their mother‘s grave, departed to their naked home.
Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 52, 1842
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Just as going to the “work-house” or, in the United States, the “poor farm,” was a disgrace—the last humiliation of the desperate— being on the parish dole was seen as a mark of shame. A “pauper’s funeral” was considered equally degrading: the coffin, if there was one, was of the cheapest wood, nothing more than a coarse shroud was provided, and burial was in the Potters Field where one would lie cheek-by-jowl with the stranger, the unchristened, and the immoral. Shuddering at the prospect, many persons went into debt to pay for a respectable funeral.
If anyone could have used financial assistance, it would have been the bereaved Mrs Mason and her brood of eight, but her pride would not allow it. One hopes that Mrs Mason’s children saw happier days and, when they had families of their own, purchased extensive life-insurance coverage to protect their loved ones from a similar, sad fate.
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.