Dickens´s Treatment of Funerals in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield
Charles Dickens´s view on funerals in Victorian England is widely known. The descriptions of burials in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield mirror that “[s]howy and elaborate funerary display had been a longstanding grievance with” him (Garnett 3). Beside this critical view on burials and its procedure and features, the funerals in these narrations differ noticeably in the way they are presented and in the way they are treated by the author. By comparing Dombey and Son with David Copperfield and by carefully analyzing the funerals pictured in these narrations, one has to admit that there is no overall critique view on this particular Victorian custom. As a matter of fact, Dickens finds fault with the histrionic character of funerals, the absurd rules and conventions of this ritual and the funeral homes that consider a human being´s death a bonanza. But still, the funerals in Dombey and Son and David Copperfield have the function of expressing grief or even the meaning of connecting characters to each other. Especially Dickens characterization of Mr Omers funeral does not only mirror Dickens´s reservation against burials. Hence, Dickens finds fault with the Victorian funeral´s theatrical and ritual character as well as he questions an excessively enrichment by death. Yet, as it is expressed in David Copperfield, he tones down his critique by the positive characterization of the undertaker Mr Omer and his family. To justify this thesis, the funerals of Fanny Dombey, Paul Dombey and David´s vistit at Mr Omer´s will be analyzed on the way they are treated by the author.
The presentation of Fanny Dombey´s funeral expresses Dickens´s critical view on its ritual character. The first paragraph of chapter three in Dombey and Son indirectly focuses on the rules of this burial and the society that apparently has to evaluate it, represented by the “neighbourhood at large”, whereas the content of the ceremony, the deceased Fanny, is left out (DS 23). Subsequently, only the form or the procedure of this custom is used to signal grief and mourning, while these emotions are omitted in the presentation, so that the burial appears to be absurd.
The actual funeral is merely hinted at by the assurance that the process of the funeral took place to the entire satisfaction of its participants, which are “the undertaker” who managed the ceremony and the “neighbourhood” who is supposed to rate it (DS 23). The undertaker appears to be more than just a service provider but a master of ceremonies, and the ceremony he conducts becomes a show because the word “‘performed’” already hints at theatrical aspect of Victorian funerals. Since a show needs an audience, the neighbourhood functions as an allegory for the public opinion or the rules of Victorian funerals. Additionally, this neighbourhood is presented in a passive way, what makes it become a rather helpless participant of the ritual, and is addressed by a kind of instruction: “the neighbourhood [...] is generally disposed to be captious on such a point and is prone to take offence at any omissions or shortcomings in the ceremonies” (DS 23). Therefore, the narrator draws attention to the funeral´s formal aspect, evokes the impression that people obey the spectacles rules without questioning them, and that this very form is more important than the content of the burial, which is in this case Mrs Dombey death.
As well as the roles of the undertaker and the neighbours take in the funeral, the characterization of Mr Dombey´s household underlines the critique on the ritual character of the burial. The idea of a perfectly rehearsed procedure in the funeral is reinforced by the enumeration of the servants, beginning with those who are closer to the “small world” of Mr Dombey´s house like the cook, and stopping at those who are in constant contact with the “great” world like the footman (DS 23). Further, each of them is cited with a characteristic but clichéd phrase on the subject of Mrs Dombey´s death (“she was a quite tempered lady”, “who´d had thought it”, “it seemed exactly like a dream”, DS 23). This can either allude to the burial´s theatrical character, since the attendants are presented like actors reeling off their lines, or once more hints at the conventions of the burial which are obeyed by people without examining their meaning.
What is remarkable in Fanny Dombey´s funeral is that she is nearly left out: Her name is not mentioned, but merely alluded to by the euphemism “the deceased lady” (DS 23) and, later, by the more openly paraphrase “the dead and buried lady” (DS 24). Just like any description of emotions referring to her passing, her identity is left out of the description of the ceremony. The omission of her name and thus, the decedent´s identity, are left out of the scene to draw the reader´s attention to the form and rules of the funeral. However, it can be suspected that Fanny´s buriall is illustrated in greater detail by another action than the criticized ceremony. The wrapping up of Fanny´s furniture in “winding-sheets” (DS 24), the “picture-frame of ghastly bandages” that seems to trap the “buried lady” (DS 24), the “chandelier or lustre” compared to a “tear” and, lastly, the smell of “vaults and damp places” (DS 24) represent various stages of a burial, from the preserving of the dead body to the mourning for the deceased and to the description of the grave itself, which is supposed to be placed in Mr Dombey´s house. By picturing the actual funeral in the packing up of fanny´s furniture, Dickens separates the rules of the Victorian burial he finds fault with from the actual burial.