The Angel of Death seems to be continuously hovering over London. While he may not visit a secluded village once in a year, he spreads his wings over some one of the myriad houses in the mighty city every six minutes, and bears away an immortal soul.
Ten times hourly does a mortal spark return to its Maker, leaving its earthly tabernacle to descend to the dust from which it sprang. And it is in consequence of the frequency of this natural separation -- due, of course, to the size of the Metropolis, and not to an exceptionally high rate of mortality -- that death is a great, ever-present fact in the world's capital. Patent in nearly all business thoroughfares is the industrial side of life's dissolution. In the shopping streets of the West-End are windows filled with mourning, the showcases of the principal firms which can, on occasion, put ladies in black in twenty-four hours. Wreath-makers, ranging from the manufacturers of the artificial article to the open air and the hot-house florist, are more scattered. The principal stand of outdoor vendors of "natural" wreaths forms an oasis in Upper Street, Islington. On the beaten track to the great gardens of sleep at Highgate and Hinchley, it is a halting place for many of the thousands of mourners who pass it in their frequent pilgrimages to the graves of dear ones gone before.
In Euston Road a collection of stones looking like a transplanted slip of cemetery marks the principal seat of an allied but much more important industry, that of the monumental mason. But it is by no means confined to this locality, being carried on near all the burial grounds. Hard by those in the far east are the humble establishments of the small men, whose "leading line" is the thirty-shilling headstone; in the west, north, and south are the imposing shops of firms which book orders for memorials costing; £2,000 or £3,000 and erect mausoleums representing a small fortune.
Still more diffused over the Metropolis is the "black trade." It and its adjuncts are everywhere, even in the semi-official world, for London is the headquarters of the British Institute of Undertakers. You cannot walk far without seeing a picture of the trade framed and glazed -- an undertaker and his men engaged on ominous-shaped boxes. In the Inner Belt the shop is occasionally the "dead man's hotel" -- the mortuary for deceased hotel guests and patients at nursing homes. When No. 490 is so unreasonable as to die, the manager of the hotel goes to the telephone with a frown; and as a result the black van rolls noiselessly up to a side door in the early hours of the morning. Ten minutes later the undertaker's men, moving silently in felt slippers, enter the death chamber, bear the corpse (still warm sometimes) down the stairs, and take it to the shop, there to rest till the grave is ready to receive it. Very often, however, such bodies are taken to mortuaries, where they are deposited until relatives or friends can be communicated with, and the funeral arrangements made.
But to see the heart of the "black trade" it is necessary to visit a certain huge establishment in the City. What a heart it is! Within its walls the retail undertaker can find every requisite, from a bit of "furniture" to a coffin or a tombstone. Nowhere are life and death more strangely intermingled. A vast stock of wood, such as would set up in business two or three timber merchants; shop after shop full of whirring, buzzing machinery; men at work everywhere, some on marble, some on brass, some making harness, some repairing carriages, some in a battery-room for electro-plating; coffin furniture by the ton, including handles worth £1, a pair; an enormous stock of "caskets" of all sizes and all materials, paper and wickerwork at one extreme, lead and brass at the other, from which customers can pick a fit as the needy purchaser in Petticoat Lane picks a suit -- these are a few of the main features that impress themselves on the memory. But there are many others, notably a fine stud of glossy, long-tailed "funeral horses," those high-strung, sensitive Flemish blacks which draw or follow the chariot of Death.
Burying proper -- the owning and managing of ground for the reception of London's dead -- is a still more important Metropolitan business. Besides Brompton Cemetery, which belongs to the Government; besides the numerous parish burial grounds; besides the many disused God's acres, which, notwithstanding that they have long been closed, find work for the living other than mere gardening and caretaking, inasmuch as some of the tombs are periodically repaired, in several cases under the supervision of City Companies; besides all these places of rest, there are the proprietary cemeteries at Kensal Green, Abney Park, Highgate, Nunhead, Canning Town, and elsewhere, as well as the several Jewish burial grounds. Every one of the larger of such establishments employs a small army. Go behind the scenes at Highgate, and look at the floricultural department. You are in a maze of beds and glass-houses, working in and about which is a regular staff of twenty-eight gardeners. Merely for bedding-out some 250,000 to 300,000 plants are raised every year.
Note, too, how the cemetery companies are affected by fashion. When the subterranean tombs at Brompton, Kensal Green, and Highgate were made catacombs were in great favour. Now they have as completely "gone out" as crinolines. At present the public taste is veering in the direction of cremation -- a change for which some provision was long since made in the great cemeteries. If you descend into the catacombs at Highgate, for instance, you cannot well miss the columbarium. The name is over the doorway. Peering through the gate beneath, you see a small chamber lined with pigeon-holes, in which are urns of various shapes, each containing a handful or two of dust -- man in his most inglorious stage. The number of such receptacles is, however, no measure of the popularity of cremation, because in many cases the incinerated remains are buried.
The largest cemetery serving the Metropolitan area is, of course, at Brookwood. Notwithstanding its distance from London, it has a gate, so to speak, in Westminster Bridge Road in the form of the Necropolis Company's private station. And, as that comes within our scope, we must see it. One minute we are in the thick of London's seething, roaring traffic; the next on a platform of a station which anybody who reached it blindfolded might momentarily take for a rural terminus. Nothing is lacking — even the big-faced clock, now indicating 11.45, is there -- except hobbledehoy porters and other rustic types. A glance round, however, dispels the illusion. The waiting-rooms -- one of which is allotted for the exclusive use of every party of mourners attending a privats funeral -- arc bright and furnished in admirable taste. While there is nothing funereal about them, no gloomy black with its morbid associations, they are free from any jarring note. The same good taste is shown in other parts of the station, which contains every convenience that can possibly be desired, including a beautifully fitted mortuary chapel. At the platform stands a train -- the train of the dead. On the door of the guard's van are two or three small cards bearing names, one of which, you notice, is the same as that on a similar ticket at the entrance to a waiting-room, while some of the compartments are reserved in like manner. Two mourners are already seated in readiness for the journey, silent, thoughtful, a little sad maybe. They are Chelsea pensioners, and they are taking to his rest an old comrade whom Death has claimed at last.
Thus are London's dead conveyed to Woking, normally at the rate of three or four thousand yearly, though as many as fifty bodies have been sent down in a day. Sometimes a "special" is ordered for the funeral of a great man, but as a general rule all classes alike go down in the regular daily train.
Another side of Burying London is an integral part of the life of the streets. It consists of funeral processions. And what contrasts these present to the seeing eye! We are in Whitechapel. From a greasy labyrinth, hedged on either side with sad-eyed Jews, winds the funeral cortege of a sweated Pole. Could simplicity further go? The hearse is merely a long black box on wheels, while the two carriages following it have not a vestige of ornamentation. None of the fripperies of death are here. All is strictly in accordance with Jewish law and custom -- all plain, all unostentatious, all dull and unrelieved black.
Pass we now to Mile End Road. From a shopkeeper's door moves a funeral such as the undertaker loves. In front are a string of doleful-visaged mutes, looking more sorry than man ever felt. Dickens is supposed to have killed those professional mourners, but they still survive in the East-End, and rise to the surface on the occasion of a " big" funeral. Next comes a gorgeous open car, on which rests the coffin of polished oak, piled high with flowers. Lastly, there are carriages a score. Altogether, it is a procession that will be held up as a pattern for years.
Across in the Borough we get a glimpse of another kind of funeral. A coster is being borne to his grave, followed by a winding tail of four-wheel cabs and pony-carts. And when we strike due west we join the crowd in front of a ducal town house, and there wait till a ruler of men is brought out for his last ride. Here, at the top of the social scale, simplicity is as much the keynote as it was at the funeral of the poor alien. Though there are elaborate funerals in the West-End, the tendency of Society is towards simplicity, and still more towards the repression of black. In some circles even sable horses are out of fashion.
Next to St. James's. A memorial service to a duke is to take place in the Chapel Royal, and a seat has been reserved for us. Unique is the scene the interior presents on an occasion such as this. Despite the deep mourning worn by the ladies, colour and light are predominant in all directions. On the communion table the famous gold plate gleams and flashes; below is a mass of palms and pure white blossoms; and before the pews on either side depend long festoons of flowers. Among the representative congregation there are more splashes of brightness, formed by the Levee dress and uniform of the Ministers, the Diplomatic Corps, the soldiers, and the sailors, all wearing their orders. The general effect, indeed, is brilliant.
And now it becomes even more so; for the gentlemen and boys of the choir enter, the latter in their gold-laced scarlet tunics and white Geneva bands. They come into the chapel singing the opening sentences of the Burial Service, which is substantially the service then gone through, only an anthem is substituted for the words of committal. Last of all arise the beautiful strains of Chopin's Funeral March.
If any one man could follow London's dead to the various cemeteries, he could witness almost every form of burial service known to civilised peoples. At a big London necropolis, such as that at Kensal Green cold clay is laid low with the most diverse rites. One day the impressive service of the Greek Church is held over mortal remains; the next a member of the Plymouth Brethren is interred with the utmost simplicity While a saintly minister of the Gospel is being buried, amid the silent prayers of hundreds of his flock, many of them wet-eyed in their own despite, in one avenue, a life-long iconoclast, ever without faith or hope, descends to an unhallowed grave in another, panegyrised but not prayed for.
Brompton Cemetery, in addition to affording such antitheses as these, is frequently the scene of a military funeral, a portion being reserved for Guards. And such a ceremony has a pathos all its own; the salute over the grave is alike an honour, a paean, and a knell.
Exceptional funerals of another kind take place in the East London Cemetery, where there is a plot full of Chinese and Japanese graves. Once a year, at Easter, the Limehouse Chinatown, or a part of it, visits this little necropolis, as the Roman Catholics visit their cemeteries on All Souls' Day. But the object in both cases is not, perhaps, exactly the same.
A strange feature of Oriental London is a Chinese funeral. By a yawning hole lies a coffin, on which the almond-eyed mourners proceed to place fish, flesh, and fowl. The fish is unrecognisable, the flesh a joint of pork, the fowl a veteran cock, cooked in its entirety, with head, neck, etc., intact. Basins of rice, on top of which are laid chopsticks, are also deposited on the cofiin, as well as a bottle of gin and some tea. Meanwhile, the mourners have lit their pipes and been laughing uproariously as if the whole proceeding were an excellent jest.
All being in readiness, the grave is sprinkled with the gin and the tea, after which the empty bottles are thrown away. Then the function becomes bewildering. Amid paroxysms of mirth and much kow-towing and rib-digging and gesticulation, the coffin is lowered into the grave, chop-sticks (bits of wood clipped in some chemical composition) and candles are burned, a suit of paper clothes and some imitation money set on fire at the foot of the grave. And then, lastly, the food is gathered together for the funeral feast later on, and the mourners depart.
On the other hand, there are several cemeteries at which one burial service is invariable, because they belong to particular bodies. In any of the Roman Catholic burial grounds you may see the same mournful procession day after day -- a procession headed by the priest reading the Office for the Dead, and immediately preceded by the little acolytes, one of whom carries the holy water for sprinkling the grave.
Similar uniformity obtains at the Jewish cemeteries. Let us, this bright Sunday afternoon, journey to the one at Plashet, in the East-End of London. From the little synagogue comes the sound of a wild, sobbing incantation. We enter. Immediately the central figure arrests the eye. It is that of the minister, who stands by a coffin in the middle of the hall, chanting the psalm in Hebrew, his voice rising and falling in minor cadences that vibrate the heartstrings like the most inspired music of sorrow. One of the alien slaves of the Ghetto is contained in the pall-covered coffin. All the last rites of his faith have been paid to him. As his weary spirit fled the appointed prayer was recited, and the professional watcher washed the body, clad it in ceremonial robes, and remained constantly by its side till the hour of the interment. A few more prayers, and the earth will close over him.
Presently the mourners -- all males -- break out into a kind of response. Then there is a sudden move. The coffin is placed on a bier, carried through the doorway, and, after 3 short halt just outside, conveyed straight to the rude grave which has been prepared for it alone. Never do the Jews place two bodies in one grave. The pall is withdrawn from the coffin -- that plain, unpolished, undecorated shell of deal in which the Jew, whether a Rothschild or a pauper, usually returns to Mother Earth. A moment later and there is an intermittent rattle as each of the party, the minister included, seizes a shovel and casts some gravel into the gulf. And now all is over. After the sorrowing relations have returned to the synagogue and repeated the Offices for the Dead, they will go home and hold themselves aloof from the world for a week -- the prescribed period of mourning.
Before we, too, depart we may as well be present at an essentially Jewish ceremony — the consecration of a tombstone. There is the memorial which is to be sanctified. At the top is a golden circlet gleaming in the sun, beneath a Hebraic inscription of which the chance English visitor may not divine the precise import, and beneath that again the pious aspiration, "May her sweet soul rest in peace." We have not to wait long. A procession emerges from the synagogue and forms a semicircle round the headstone. Having read aloud the inscription on it, the minister offers up prayers -- first in Hebrew, then in English -- and with a chorus of responses the ceremony ends.
It is a pleasing custom, this of consecrating a tombstone. To think that one day something of the kind may take place over our weak body, and that we may be remembered as what we wished and tried to be rather than as what we were, and that those we love will visit our grave -- to think this is to become almost reconciled to death.