David skips over most of the next half-year, saying only that he became increasingly infatuated with Steerforth, who was leaving at the end of the term. The most notable event that term, however, occurred on David's birthday, which is why David can still remember all the sights and sounds of that day.
As time goes on, David only falls deeper and deeper under Steerforth's spell. In some ways, his removal from Salem House (and thus from Steerforth) probably contributes to his growth over the next several years; if he and Steerforth had maintained their relationship, David would likely have grown into a more passive and deferential person.
That morning, Mr. Sharp tells David in a "feeling tone" to go to the parlor. David does so unsuspectingly only to find Mr. Creakle and his wife waiting for him. Mrs. Creakle attempts to break the news gently to David, saying first that Clara is "very ill," then that she is "dangerously ill," and finally that she has died. Mrs. Creakle then stays with David while he cries and imagines how difficult it will be to return home for the funeral.
Clara's death in many ways marks the end of David's childhood. Despite the Murdstones' abuse, David has until this point largely been able to count on being provided for in some way. Now that he is an orphan, however, he quickly begins having to learn to fend for himself. In this sense, Clara's death is "necessary" in order for David to fully come of age, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful.
David leaves the following day, and when he arrives in Yarmouth, he is greeted by a "merry-looking, little old man in black." This man takes him to a shop entitled "Omer, Draper, Tailor, Haberdasher, Funeral Furnisher, &c." Inside, three women are stitching black fabric and the man—whom David now realizes must be Mr. Omer—begins to chat and joke with one of the women, who is his daughter Minnie. Mr. Omer then takes David's measurements and talks about how fashions come in and go out "like human beings." Afterwards, Mr. Omer and David sit down to tea, and Mr. Omer remarks that he knew David's father—by which he means that he helped bury David's father—and confirms that David's younger brother has also died.
Dickens draws several parallels between David and his half-brother—including Clara's remark that they look similar and the moment when David first sees his brother and imagines himself in his mother's arms. Given this, it's possible to read the death of David's brother as the "death" of David's own childhood self. The scene with Mr. Omer further underscores just how alone David is by alluding to his father's death.
Upset, David retreats to a corner and begins to cry. As he watches, a young man named Joram comes in and announces that he has finished making something, which David realizes must be his mother's coffin. Minnie says that her father has ordered a chaise, and flirts with Joram as she packs up the fabrics she has been working on into baskets. These baskets, along with David himself, are then put in the chaise. Mr. Omer, Joram, and Minnie come along as well, and David is struck by how strange their cheerfulness is under the circumstances. When they arrive at David's house, he gets out of the chaise quickly and runs to Peggotty.
For Mr. Omer and his family, death is not just a familiar part of life but a familiar part of their work. David, however, is still a young child and doesn't realize that what is a life-altering occurrence for him is everyday for the Omers.
When David enters the house, Miss Murdstone simply asks whether he has been measured for his mourning clothes. David suspects that she took "a choice pleasure in exhibiting what she called her self-command." Meanwhile, Mr. Murdstone ignores David entirely, instead pacing and trying to read.
As horrible as Mr. Murdstone is, he does seem to have loved Clara in his own twisted way; in the wake of her death, he appears distracted and agitated for the first time in the novel. By contrast, Miss Murdstone simply doubles down on her doctrine of firmness. Despite the novel's overall approval of self-control and discipline, Miss Murdstone's "self-command" in the face of death seems inhuman.
David's memories of the days leading up to the funeral are confused, though he remembers being upset when Peggotty took him into the room where his mother's body lay, covered by a sheet. He remembers the funeral perfectly, however, and describes how Miss Murdstone discouraged Mr. Chillip—the doctor who attended his birth—from speaking kindly to David. He then recalls how the funeral procession passed into the cemetery, and how, when the burial was over, Chillip escorted David back to the house, where he waited for Peggotty to come see him.
Because Mr. Chillip helped bring David into the world, his presence at this moment in the story underscores the fact that David, now parentless, is entering a new phase of his life. The difficulty David has in recalling the details of the events surrounding his mother's funeral is also significant. Although the story as a whole hinges on David's ability to recall events accurately and integrate them into a coherent narrative, there are moments when this ability threatens to disappear. Like Mr. Dick's "Memorial," these moments undercut the idea that it's possible to present a tidy account of how a person's past has shaped his or her character.
Peggotty comes to David's room, and explains that Clara had been sick and unhappy for a long time, and only grew weaker after the birth of the baby. Although Clara was always the same "sweet girl" in her interactions with Peggotty herself, Peggotty says that the last time Clara truly seemed like herself was the afternoon David came home for the holidays. When David left, Peggotty explains, Clara had a premonition that she would die soon, and did in fact decline soon afterwards. Peggotty was with her in her final illness and death, and explains that Clara asked that the baby be buried with her if he also passed away as well. She also spoke of how "kind and considerate" her first husband (the late David Copperfield) had been to her, and then died "like a child that had gone to sleep."
It's not clear what the literal cause of Clara's death is, but the fact that it's tied to childbirth is symbolically significant. Although Clara obviously was a mother, she in some ways failed to mature beyond childhood herself. The fact that, to Peggotty, Clara never stopped being a "sweet girl" and a "child" underscores this, and helps explain why Clara dies, narratively speaking; setting to one side the role the Murdstones' abuse played in Clara's illness, Clara dies because she can't adapt to adult life as a wife and mother.
David explains that after Clara's death, he forgot what she had looked like most recently and only ever remembered her "as the young mother of [his] earliest impressions." He also imagines himself as the baby buried with Clara, "as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom."
David's closing words in this chapter make it clear that Clara's baby does in fact represent David (or, at least, some aspects of him). Interestingly, however, David himself doesn't seem bothered by the comparison; on the contrary, he almost sounds as though he wishes he actually were the dead child buried with Clara. This again reflects his idealization of the past, and his ambivalence about growing older. In some sense, David wants to remain a child forever, even if that means dying as a child.