Funny bones macabre humour in the Dance of Death

The haunting tale of a married couple who tragically lost nine of their ten children in infancy and later died in a state of Dickensian poverty sounds like a fitting story for Halloween - but for many people in the 19th century this exposure to death was commonplace and people were all-too-familiar with the sight of a corpse.

The above tale describes the unfortunate loss experienced by illustrator Richard Dagley, who provided visuals for Death’s Doings, first published in 1822.

Death’s Doings belongs to a long tradition of the ‘Dance of Death’ theme, a recurring motif which depicted a corpse or skeleton leading the living in a macabre dance to their deaths. It was designed to prepare people for the inevitable, while avoiding vices such as drunkenness and gluttony – or Death will seize you all the sooner.

Drawings illustrating the ‘Dance of Death’ all share the same sort of macabre humour, which can be seen in some of Dagley’s images. Dagley’s version of Death, rather than being simply a menacing phantom, is very clearly a ‘character' who expresses joy in toying with the living.

His limbs are flexible and rounded as to suggest they are flesh-clad and with glee he adopts a variety of contemporary costumes and accessories, his features composing themselves into a whole range of expressions while toying with the humans he interacts with who have all been summoned by Death in the midst of their usual daily activities. Death was always around the corner in Victorian society and none could escape his clutches.

While modern views of death have certainly changed – we are far less used to the sight of corpses and less likely to treat death with macabre humour – elements of Victorian society’s views bleed into the modern day, including our own fascination with skeletons and dark-humoured japes during Halloween.