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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 86

VI.—Public Burial of the Dead

VI.—Public Burial of the Dead.

It is part of the imperfection of the existing Poor Law statistics that none exist as to the number of pauper funerals. The proportion of these to the total deaths must, however, be very large. Many persons are buried by the parish who were not in receipt of relief when alive. If 13 per cent. of the deaths in London are those of persons actually in the workhouse or Poor Law infirmary; if over 22 per cent. die in some public institution or another; if in the rural districts 30 to 40 per cent. of the deaths of persons over sixty are those of paupers; if 10 per cent. of the population obtain relief during any one year, and 20 per cent. of those over sixty-five are permanent paupers; it is probable that at least one-third of our funerals are already paid for from Poor Law funds.

To be "buried by the parish" is felt by the poor to be a disgrace and a dishonor to a greater extent that can easily be realised. The aged laborer, who will rely without shame on the parish doctor, use page 15 without disgrace the Poor Law dispensary or infirmary, and accept without dishonor the bitter bread of out-door relief, revolts against the pauper funeral, and starves himself to hoard the sum necessary to avoid this last humiliation. Yet so hard and so demoralising are the conditions of life of the great mass of the population, that it seems probable that at least one-third of them fail to maintain even this "final rally on the narrow ledge" of dignity and self-respect, and are eventually carried down to a pauper's grave.

There is, of course, nothing necessarily degrading in a public funeral. In the case of a soldier, a sailor, or a member of a religious order, the collective provision for burial is accepted as a matter of course. It is merely that we have deliberately chosen to make this particular form of public funeral—the lot of one-third of our brethren—an additional anxiety during their lives, a source of bitterness during their last moments, and a stain of disgrace to their relations. We have failed in our effort to abolish the public funeral, and have succeeded merely in making it one more pang to the dying, and one more engine of demoralisation to the living. Has not the time come for depauperising our parish funerals? We do not even take the trouble to make the burden easy to the poor. We charge unnecessary and irksome fees for the mere privilege of burial; we permit, in some cases, an absentee rector to levy a toll on all burials from his district, wherever and by whomsoever performed; we allow the provision of cemeteries to become, in many places, a matter of private speculation, and a source of unnecessary individual gain; and we leave the sorrowing household to bargain with a tradesman for the means of performing what is essentially a public duty. There seems no reason why the collective organisation of the people should not be utilised to minimise the trouble and expense of the burial of the dead.

In Paris the whole of the cemeteries are public property, and the funerals are conducted by what is virtually a public organisation. The one "undertaker "is the Company of "Pompes funèbres," chartered and subsidised by the municipality, and under its supervision and control. Funerals are provided according to a definite scale of charges, varying from nothing to the highest amount demanded by Parisian taste. It does not seem an impossible dream that we might one day "municipalise" our undertakers, expanding the existing "Burial Boards" into a complete municipal department for interments, the minimum charge being fixed low enough to enable even the very poorest to enjoy the luxury of paying something for the last offices to the loved dead.

But we shall one day go a step further. The expenses of burial must necessarily be shared among the living; and Death knocks at the door of every household, on an average, once in ten years. Why should we add to the trouble and economic disturbance necessarily incident to death by levying a toll on burial? The disposal of the dead is a matter of common concern; the fulfilment of this public duty presses crushingly on the poor in their hour of greatest need; "communism in funerals is not likely to lead to reckless increase in the demand for graves; and anv simnlitication of the expenses now incurved would be a great boon.