Ocean Funerals: The Sea and Victorian Cultures of Death

Kirsty Reid

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

6 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Maritime mortality rates were declining on passenger ships in the nineteenth century, but witnessing a death and funeral during an ocean voyage nevertheless remained a common enough experience. The article explores reactions to ocean funerals on nineteenth-century British and Irish emigrant ships and also more broadly. While shock and distress inevitably figured large, other responses, including acceptance, enthusiasm and even degrees of voyeurism, were not unusual. Moreover, in common with Victorian audiences more generally, at least some emigrants had an appetite for the sensation and spectacle of the ceremony. Broader cultural interest in the ocean funeral meant that it featured in a wide range of forms including popular journalism, narrative accounts of journeys and didactic literature. Emigrants consequently did not embark as blank slates but carried with them a well-established and familiar repertoire of ideas and images about the ocean funeral. Religious beliefs about the resurrection of the soul were likewise a source of consolation. Others found comfort by depicting the ocean as a spiritual site ¿ likening the sea to heaven, for instance ¿ or in the belief that an ocean burial was more natural, simple and therefore meaningful than a funeral on land. The growing significance of the sea in Victorian culture also played an important role in helping contemporaries make sense of, and come to terms with, an ocean funeral. Religious ideas about life as a spiritual journey enabled many Victorian men and women to look to the ocean as a way of thinking through bigger questions about life and death.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-54
JournalJournal for Maritime Research
Volume13
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2011

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