“The Pomp and Farce of Death: Funeral Humor on the Popular 18th Century English Stage”
This paper examines the presence of funereal humor on the popular British stage during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries, English funereal practices once reserved for the nobility began to become available—though not without resistance—to the growing middle classes. As Paul Fritz has documented, a trade in undertaking and coffin-making had become firmly established by the end of the 17th century, making funereal pomp available to any who could pay for the services. Anxiety about the undertaker’s availability to all arose in part because of the potential it offered for confusions in social hierarchy. No longer were extravagant funereal and mourning practices the province of the nobility alone. Funerals began to signify wealth, rather than rank, and the elaborate funerals provided by undertakers offered surviving family members an opportunity to demonstrate—or construct—an image of their social status (Gittings 96). The undertaker’s rates rode the high tide of what the market would bear, and so booming was business that by 1720 undertakers sought incorporation in a joint stock company to extend the trade and its profitability (Fritz 247).
This association of death with trade and “stock-jobbery” brought the undertaker’s work into contact with the satirical discourses on projecting during the first decades of the eighteenth century, also a result of the swelling concerns surrounding class mobility. Indeed, this is the subject of William Hogarth’s satirical print, The Company of Undertakers (1736), which represents the company of “upholders” or undertakers as a troupe of popular comedians, harlequin-like:
To assess the relationship between the changing trade in of death and its treatment on the popular stage, I will take up a variety of less-well-known plays including Edward Ravenscroft’s The Anatomist; or, The Sham Doctor (1696), Richard Steele’s The Funeral; or, Grief a la Mode (1701), Susanna Centlivre’s A Bickerstaff’s Burying; or, Work for the Upholders (1710), and Benjamin Griffin’s The Humours of Purgatory (1716). Particularly, I look at the farcical treatment of coffins, burial, fears of live burial, embalming, and funeral pomp in entertainments that were themselves signifiers of the anxieties surrounding class mobility and the changing tastes associated with consumer culture.
Fritz, Paul. “The Undertaking Trade in England: Its Origins and Early Development, 1660-1830.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 28 (1994-5): 241-53. JSTOR. Web. 12 Oct. 2012.
Gittings, Clare. Death, Burial, and the Individual in Early Modern England. London: Croom Help, 1984.