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Death in Manchester

Jonathan Schofield finds joy in mourning at the People’s History Museum

Written by . Published on October 29th 2010.


Death in Manchester

Funny how things switch.

Once upon a time sex was the taboo subject and death wasn’t. Now death is more of the taboo and sex is everywhere.

Death is in the end fascinating. You could say it’s the only way to go. It’s a way of life for some, just ask the sponsors.

The People’s History Museum exhibition, Death and the Working Class, is a fascinating and diverting way to spend an afternoon, providing a lucid and cleverly delivered depiction of how the British have made a ritual of their mortal end.

Sponsored by Cooperative Funeralcare, the exhibition looks at the way perceptions of death and funeral customs have changed in the last 200 years. Mainly focussed on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there’s a large array of photos of funeral processions, posters and union banners. Specific items include a reconstructed parlour of a mourning family and an advert miners’ widows to apply for free coal.

The whole thing is enlivened by stories such as that of William Price, a Welsh mystic, who cremated his dead son in 1884, was arrested and put on trial by those who believed cremation was illegal (and pagan) in Britain. He argued that there was no legislation that made it illegal, won and set a precedent that allowed cremation to become a part of everyday death in 2010. His cremation in 1893 was watched by 20,000 people. Apparently the pubs in nearby Llantrisant ran dry.

For kids there’s a fun snakes and ladders were the object of the game is to survive the manifold hazards that could result in early death. A series of videos show various funeral rituals and processions.

The video from 1915 in Bury shows other things as well, and here I digress. All the working class women are wearing shawls which only show their faces. It would have been unseemly to uncover their hair in public back then.

What we are watching here is effectively a tradition of Lancashire hijab – one which was endemic less than 100 years ago. This ancient statement of female repression was made foolish by growing equality for women in the 20th century in the UK: maybe the hijab will go the same way, who knows?

If there is a fault in the exhibition, it’s that there’s not enough recent material. There should have been more about the last fifty years of funeral practice, where the melodrama and maudlin nature of 1800s' mourning is making a come-back. In graveyards now you find the nicknames of loved ones on tombstones, and even pictures of the dead as they were living. This borrowing from Southern European countries, from a Roman Catholic tradition, could have been better explored.

Having finished with the exhibition I went for a coffee in the Left Bank cafe in the building. I eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple in their fifties.

Man to woman, “they probably don’t get much opportunity do they?” “Who?” the lady said. “The Co-op funeral lot. They probably don’t get much opportunity to sponsor events or museums or companies, I bet?” he said, before continuing, “The Co-op Funeralcare Premier League wouldn’t sound too good would it? Nor, maybe renaming Old Trafford, The Cooperative Funeralcare Stadium.”

I laughed out loud and made the pair jump.

If some doom-mongers predictions come right about debt-ridden United then maybe that change of stadium name might be appropriate. Anyway pop down to the People’s History Museum if you can. Death is in the end fascinating. You could say it’s the only way to go. And it’s a way of life for some, just ask the sponsors.

Death and the Working Class is at the People’s History Museum (Left BankSpinningfields, City, M3 3ER. 0161 838 9190) until 2 May 2011. It’s free of charge. There’s also a handy free map showing some of the old burial sites of central Manchester if you fancy a stroll after the visit.

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Christopher BryanOctober 29th 2010.

I shall get along to this one. The last photography exhibit that I saw there was brilliant.

One thing though. Any idea why the new building features a whacking great big pillar in front of the reception desk?

Peter EarsOctober 29th 2010.

I love Confidential for brainy words such as these. Very good: 'The video from 1915 in Bury shows other things as well, and here I digress. All the working class women are wearing shawls which only show their faces. It would have been unseemly to uncover their hair in public back then.

What we are watching here is effectively a tradition of Lancashire hijab – one which was endemic less than 100 years ago. This ancient statement of female repression was made foolish by growing equality for women in the 20th century in the UK: maybe the hijab will go the same way, who knows?'

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