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THE DEAD STILL AMONG US: VICTORIAN SECULAR RELICS, HAIR JEWELRY, AND DEATH CULTURE

  • Deborah Lutz (a1)
Extract

By the time the nineteenth century reached its close, it was already possible to look back at Victorian death culture with nostalgia. With the rise of secularism, the slide toward what Diana Fuss has called the death of death had begun. No longer was it common practice to hold onto the remains of the dead. Rarely would a lock of hair be kept by, to be worn as jewelry, nor did one dwell on the deathbed scene, linger upon the lips of the dying to mark and revere those last words, record the minutiae of slipping away in memorials, diaries, and letters. Rooms of houses were increasingly less likely to hold remains; no one had died in the beds in which the living slept. Walter Benjamin, who wrote often about what was lost in the nineteenth century, sees the turning away from death as going hand in hand with the disappearance of the art of storytelling. Writing in the early 1930s, he called his contemporaries “dry dwellers of eternity” because “today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death” (Illuminations 94). Avoiding the sight of the dying, Benjamin argues, one misses the moment when life becomes narrative, when the meaning of life is completed and illuminated in its ending. He privileges the shared moment of death, when relatives, and even the public, gather around the dying to glean final words of wisdom, to know perhaps, in the end, the whole story. Historian of death Philippe Ariès describes a Christian account of the final ordeal of the death bed, when in the moment of death the salvation or damnation of the dying is determined, thus changing or freezing, for good, the meaning of the whole life. Scholars of nineteenth- and twentieth-century death culture tend, on the whole, to agree that towards the end of the century, a process that began earlier reached a completion – that the death of the other not only became less of a shared experience among a community, but last things such as final words and remains were increasingly to be pushed to the back of consciousness and hence to the lumber room of meaning and importance.

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Victorian Literature and Culture
  • ISSN: 1060-1503
  • EISSN: 1470-1553
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