The Wealthy and Their Departed

In “Poverty and Death”, Mary Barton attends the funeral of Ben Davenport. The passage describes a distinction between the treatment of the poor and the rich that exists after death. In the case of funerals, the rich construct huge tombstones and hold loud, decorated funerals, while the poor share their sorrow in silence and in black. Further in the passage, the funeral is detailed as “a simple walking funeral, with nothing to grate on the feelings of any; far more in accordance with its purpose, to my mind, than the gorgeous hearses, and nodding plumes, which form the grotesque funeral pomp of respectable people.” (73). The decorated funerals serve the purpose of competition as the phrase “..with nothing to grate on the feelings of any…” indicates funerals for the wealthy aim for people to feel guilty for the lack of an extravagant funeral. She claims that the “simple walking funeral” is more respectable because it is “far more in accordance with its purpose”, which is to give honor, respect, and remembrance to the life and legacy of someone who has passed on. Additionally, in describing these tombstones for the rich as “a wooden mockery of stone respectabilities”, once again, the passage depicts the manner in which the rich honor those passed on as more so embarrassing rather than commendable or “respectable” (73). The paupers are left with dead bodies “piled until within a foot or two of the surface”, shallow graves for those deemed less important to society yet, according to the passage, treat each other with greater respect in their burial than the wealthy (73). The comparison in the sentence regarding the “walking funeral” in contrast to the “gorgeous hearses” carries a sarcastic tone, insinuating that the wealthy are so removed from the true purpose of a funeral that they do not show or have respect for their own people enough to have a respectable funeral, they are decorated and pompous and lack genuine compassion. In this way, the passage highlights the sentiment of the impoverished that they are more respectable and honorable than the rich who partake in grandiose and unvirtuous displays of funerals and burials. 

The sentiments highlighted in this passage are one explanation for a portion of the frustration of many Chartists, like John Barton. These individuals in the novel vent their anger toward the wealthier factory owners who treat their workers unfairly yet fail to treat their employees with basic compassion. Just before the death of Ben Davenport, Wilson rushes to the Carsons looking to request permission into the Infirmary. To Wilson’s surprise, John Carson does not “pretend to know the names of the men [he] employ[s]” and Harry, who seems to only be half-listening to the conversation, digs around in his pocket for change and gives it to Wilson “for the ‘poor fellow’” condescendingly (70). The reaction of both Carsons explicitly shows the lack of compassion the wealthy share contrasted with the nursing aid of the poor to their own ill neighbors.

2 thoughts on “The Wealthy and Their Departed”

  1. This is a great look at how everyday class divides build up to cause resentment amongst the working class. Though the novel does not equally examine upper class daily lives, it greatly highlights the disparities for the few times it does. Additionally, there is another, less directly compared moment which your post made me immediately think of. On page 202, the book briefly spotlights the Carson girls and their fatigue from dancing the night before. Comparatively, the working-class characters cannot literally afford to be tired, and must push on in order to survive.

    1. This is a good example of the disparity between the working class and the upper class. I think it also goes to show how people in positions of authority handled problems by essentially paying them off- anything could be fixed with enough money. The Carsons don’t care about the details of the issue, to them it’s insignificant as long as it doesn’t affect them directly. Even the policeman that breaks up the fight between Harry and Jem doesn’t seem inclined to make the fight his business unless Harry tells him to- and he has been noted to have been “sauntering about for some time, unobserved”. He also asks, “Shall I take him to the lock-ups for assault, sir?” instead of dragging Jem off immediately, implying it’s not really worth his effort.

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