Death and Burial
Aphra Behn died on 16th April 1689 – only a few days after the coronation of William and Mary in Westminster Abbey. We do not know exactly where she died or what caused her death. At the time at least one of her friends blamed the medical treatment she had been having – and it is quite possible that any doctors she consulted had indeed made her worse rather than better. It is also true, though, that at this time there was little that could be done to treat heart failure.
There does not appear to have been a will, which suggests that Aphra did not have property such as a house to leave. It is likely that in the last years of her life she was making enough money to get by. But at this time most Londoners rented their homes. And in theatre circles being sociable was expected – so any money she did have is likely to have been spent on socialising and on the clothes that were so necessary to keep up a good appearance in London.
Aphra Behn’s grave is in the East Cloister of Westminster Abbey. Some people have suggested that some of her friends tried to get permission for a grave in Poets’ Corner, and that this is the compromise. However, it was after this that it became usual for the great and good of the literary world to be buried there. Burial in the cloister was a lesser favour, and was in the gift of the Dean. And the Dean of the day, Thomas Sprat, was a play goer with scientific and literary interests. And this is likely to be the explanation. The funeral was a modest one, in keeping with most of those held for the dead being buried in that area of the Abbey. There were no extra payments for candles or for members of the clergy to be present.
It is tempting to imagine Aphra Behn’s funeral as having been full of her theatre friends. They would probably have travelled up river by boat. Many funerals at the time took place in the evening, and that would have made it easier for them to attend, after a performance. For a grand funeral it was usual to serve wine and wafers after the service: for Aphra Behn it is easier to imagine the mourners going to the pub to drink to her memory. The grave is covered by a simple black marble slab, inscribed with her name and the words:
Here lies a proof that Wit can never be
Defence enough against Mortality
There is nothing there of religious hope, and nothing, either, about Aphra Behn’s parentage, antecedents or status.
Clio’s Company (registered charity no. 1101853) is grateful for generous financial support for this project from The Portal Trust