A small stone with a simple inscription marks the grave of Charles Dickens, famous English novelist, in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey:
BORN 7th FEBRUARY 1812
DIED 9th JUNE 1870
This was at his own wish. He wrote in his will "that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb... I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works...". Dickens died at his house, Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent and it was presumed that he would be buried at Rochester Cathedral although an Order in Council did not permit any interments in the churchyard there. Public opinion, led by The Times newspaper, demanded that Westminster Abbey was the only place for the burial of someone of his distinction. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Dean of Westminster, after being approached by John Forster and the poet's son, readily agreed and the funeral was strictly private, following Dickens' own instructions.
The grave in Poets' Corner was dug at night by the Abbey's Clerk of Works and on the following day, June 14th, at 9:30am three coaches arrived in Dean's Yard (to the south of the Abbey) with the hearse. Only twelve mourners attended, made up of family and close friends, together with the Abbey clergy. So Dickens was buried in the almost empty and silent Abbey, the funeral service from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer being read by the Dean. On the top of the plain coffin was laid a wreath of ferns and roses, with single red and white roses down each side and a circle of white roses at the foot. The coffin-plate inscription was the same as that inscribed on the stone.
It was agreed that the grave should be left open, as by mid-morning reporters from all over London were clamouring to know when the funeral was to be held. Thousands of people from all walks of life came to pay their respects at the grave and throw in flowers. The grave was closed on June 16th and Stanley preached a memorial sermon on the Sunday following the burial.
Each year on the anniversary of Dickens' birth a wreath is laid on the grave. To the west of Dickens lies George Frederick Handel (d.1759), the great composer, on the east author Richard Brinsley Sheridan (d.1816), on the south Richard Cumberland (d.1811) dramatist, and, later on, to the north were buried the ashes of Thomas Hardy (d.1928) and Rudyard Kipling (d.1936).
Life and career
Charles was the second of eight children of John Dickens and Elizabeth (Barrow). His father was arrested for debt in 1824 and young Charles had to work in a shoe-polish (blacking) factory until he could resume his education. Later he became a legal clerk and then a reporter in the House of Commons. His first writings appeared under the signature 'Boz' (a pet name for his brother). The Pickwick Papers was his first major success and Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby soon followed. He married Catherine Hogarth in 1836 and they had ten children (Charley, Mary (Mamie), Kate, Walter, Francis, Alfred, Sydney, Henry, Dora and Edward) before they separated in 1858.
A bi-centenary service and wreath laying was held at the Abbey on 7th February 2012.
Two prayers by Dickens
We humbly beseech thee O Father that we may be honest and true in all our dealings, and gentle and merciful to the faults of others, remembering of how much gentleness and mercy we stand in need ourselves; That we may earnestly try to live in thy true faith, honour and love, and in charity and goodwill with all our fellow creatures; That we may worship thee in every beautiful and wonderful thing thou hast made, and sympathize with the whole world of thy glorious creation. Amen.
Hear our supplications on behalf of the poor, the sick, the destitute, and guilty, and for thy blessing on the diffusion of increased happiness, knowledge, and comfort among the great mass of mankind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - Charles Dickens
"Dickens. A Life" edited by N. & J. Mackenzie (1979)
"Poets' Corner" by James Wilkinson, available from the Westminster Abbey shop
"Charles Dickens and Dean Stanley" by Arthur Adrian, in The Dickensian Sept. 1956 [about the funeral]
For the Museum at 48 Doughty Street London see www.dickensmuseum.com and www.charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk
Gad's Hill Place is now a school but is open for booked tours most weekends April-October
www.pbs.org.uk for text of the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer (The BCP)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library
Image © 2023 Dean and Chapter of Westminster