The Aesthetic Corpse in Nineteenth-Century Britain

  • Sarah Tarlow


This chapter is about dead bodies. It is about individual identity and the way that individual identity came to inhere in the body in a specific historical context — that of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Funerary practices which emerged in Britain at that time are different to those which went before. Even the use of individual coffins in which to inter corpses, although increasingly known through the early modern period (Gittings 1984: 13), only became really widespread in the nineteenth century. The increase in the use of coffins — as opposed to simply burying the dead wrapped in winding sheets directly in the ground — is indicative of a growing anxiety about the decay of the body. In the late medieval and early modern periods in most of Britain after a death the corpse was watched by family and friends at a wake. Family prepared the body for burial, which involved washing and wrapping the whole body, including the head, in a winding sheet, before putting it into the ground. The earth would then be scattered directly onto the wrapped body, as the Book of Common Prayer implies (Gittings 1984:114). Over the second half of the eighteenth century in much of Britain, particularly in southern and urban areas, the wake declined in importance. Instead, the body was viewed just before burial, after it had been privately prepared and positioned in the coffin. This points to a considerable change in sensibilities. I will argue here that funerary practices from the late eighteenth century represent attempts by the bereaved actively to pursue and construct emotional and highly individualised relationships past the point of death. The body of the dead individual is central to this process.


Nineteenth Century Eighteenth Century Individual Identity Religious Faith Dead Body 
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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2002

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  • Sarah Tarlow

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