For many years, people have tried to create immortality by having paintings or statues of themselves erected or placed in or near their tombs. Memorial pictures, like the one of the nine-month-old son of Philip Lord Wharton, Iaying in his tomb holding a rose, which was a symbol of purity. The child died in 1642.
Death and Burial
Signs and portents
Helping the Departed Spirit
Departure of the Soul
The News of Death
The Long Farewell
Touching the Dead
Funeral Customs an Superstitions
Death's approach is still believed to be foreshadowed by small pattern of everyday life. The cries and movements of certain birds, flowers blooming out of season, clocks striking thirteen rimes, pictures falling from the wall, the persistent appearance in ironed linen of the diamond-shaped crease known as a 'coffin', have all been cited as death omens.
So has the sudden appearance of mice in a house or an owl screeching nearby, are also ominous. A dog howling continually outside a house where someone lays ill means that the sick person will certainly die, do to many people believing that dogs have the power to see death as it approaches.
Corpse Lights (or Copse Candles) were formerly held to be infallible warnings. These were small lambent flames, possibly the result of ignited marsh gas. It was said that they floated over the ground between the churchyard and the home of the doomed person, and indicated the route that the funeral procession would take. If a child's death was foretold, the flame was blue; in the case of an adult, yellow.
If rigor mortis was unusually slow in setting in, or the eyes of a corpse remained open, another death could be expected in the same household before long. Keeping a corpse in the house over Sunday, or leaving the grave open on that day, was a sure sign of another death in the parish.
In the days when horses drew the hearse, it was a fatal sign if they refused to start with the coffin; they would soon be needed again by the same family. It was also said that if, during the journey, one of the horses turned its head and neighed outside a dwelling, someone in that house would also soon die.
Death was believed to be a hard and difficult process which ought not to be prolonged by attempts to delay the end, once that end was certain.
An excessive display of sorrow at such sad times was known as 'crying back the dying'- a selfish and unkind act. Also tears in the death chamber had to be restrained, for they hindered the soul's departure by strengthening its ties to earth, making them earthbound longer. If a sick man's bed lay across the lines of the floorboards, it had to be turned so as to line up with them, for death would not come while the bed stood 'athwart the plan shuns'.
Pigeon, dove or game-bird feathers accidentally included in the pillow or mattress stuffing would also keep death away; so has a precaution pillows and mattresses were often removed. However, if some relative or friend was known to be coming and might be too late, a small bunch of feathers was placed between the sheets to preserve life for a few hours longer. This belief was current in rural areas until the beginning of the 20th century.
On occasions a dying man is lifted out of his bed and laid on the cold floor to accelerate the end. This practice was effective, though not for the reasons supposed by his kindly relatives; many people believed that it was easier to die in contact with the earth.
There was also a widespread custom known as drawing the Pillow, where a pillow would be placed behind the dying man's head and then drawn away, suddenly and sharply, so that he fell backwards. This was intended to ease his soul's departure.
In coastal areas, it was thought that no one could die unless the tide was running out; if the sick man lived through one ebb ride, he would linger on until the next.
As soon as death occurs, certain things have to be done to allow the departing soul a free passage. Many of these were even common practice even in the last century and some still go on now. Sometimes if there was an open fire in the room, it would be put out, because it represented the life of the house; also clocks were stopped because the dead have nothing to do with time. If there was any perishable food in the room, it was immediately thrown away.
Doors and windows are opened and knots loosened, along with animals being put out doors until after the funeral to prevent the passing spirit entering them. Mirrors were veiled, or turned to the wall; for fear that the soul might become entangled in the reflection. Candles were sometimes kept burning beside the corpse, as they still are in many households. Fire, salt and earth have always been regarded as antidotes to evil, and consequently they protect the soul from any demons which might try to capture it prior it to it moving over to the next life.
Rooks were always told of a landowner's death. The new owner would stand under the trees and give the news, usually with an added promise that only he and his friends would be allowed to shoot the birds in future.
If he neglected this ceremony, the birds would desert the rookery, which was an evil omen in itself. If the rooks flew away, it was believed to forecast the loss of the land and the downfall of the family through poverty. This traditional sympathy between men and other living creatures that were part of their lives also extended to cage-birds and favourite plants. They too had to be made aware of their owner's death, and put into mourning with black bows tied about the cages, or flower-pots draped with crepe. Occasionally, little black flags were thrust into the earth beside a particular plant.
Where bees were kept, it was customary to inform them of any death in the family. If this was not done, the bees would die or flyaway. The owner's heir, or sometimes his widow, went to the hives, knocked three times upon each one with an iron door-key, and told the bees within that their master had gone. If any other member of the household had died, the news was conveyed by the head of the family. Black crepe was tied on the hives to show that their inmates were in mourning. Even today, bees are still notified of deaths in some widely spread country districts, and for the same reason as of old that they will be lost to their owners if the rite is not observed.
A deeply rooted notion, which still survives, is that a corps should never be left alone between the death and the funeral. Nor should the corpse be locked in any room. Even now, to leave a corpse in an empty house, especially at night, is commonly regarded as neglect of an essential duty.
If it happens that only one mourner is at home and is compelled to go out, then the absence must be as brief as possible, and the house door, as well as the door of the death-chamber, must be left unlocked.
Any visitor who would be calling to pay his last respects in the 17th century might have been asked to take part in 'sin eating'. The food was usually bread, and a glass of wine or beer which was handed to the visitor over the dead person's body, together with a small coin. By accepting food and drink together with a gift of money, the sin-eater took responsibility of the sins of the dead person.
Friends and neighbours joined in formal and unbroken vigil used to be kept beside the coffin, partly to allow the family members some rest, and also to show their regard for the dead person. This traditional Wake survived in Scotland, Wales and tile northern and western English counties until the end of the 19th century.
The Wake became a sober ritual in its later years, with prayers, readings from the Scriptures, and conversation in hushed voices. But in earlier times, as in modern Irish Wakes, it was often a cheerful and merry occasion. A large gathering of friends and family would stand around the corpse and would eat and drink, followed by song and dance and the telling of stories. Although this may appear irreverent by some standards, a farewell party was considered an essential gesture of affection and respect for the dead. There was also the feeling that a revel would, in some way, help to protect the departing soul from the dangers of its long journey, as well as providing some comfort to the bereaved.
The custom of Touching the Dead is still practiced in some rural areas today. A chance visitor who calls at a house in which a dead body lies may be asked to enter and view the corpse, and usually asked to touch it. For those strangers who do not know the dead person, maybe embarrassing. However, the act must not be refused, since this may give lasting offence.
One explanation given for this practice is that to touch the brow or the hand of the dead, gently and respectfully, in a final act of courteousness which no one ought to deny. Another is that touching protects the person involved from being haunted by the dead person's ghost. Sometimes it is done to show that goodwill exists between the person touching and the dead person. It was once believed that a murdered man's body would bleed at the touch of his murderer. Long after this crude form of ordeal had been abandoned in the courts; it was sometimes resorted to in secret. Refusal to face the test, though it could prove nothing, often left a man under a permanent cloud of suspicion of the murder.
|Burial clothes were often prepared long before they were likely to be needed. In north-east England, girls included them in their bottom drawer as a matter of custom. The usual burial garment was the blanket, normally made of linen, except between 1666 and 1814, when the use of anything other than wool was forbidden by law, this was granted by parliament in order to benefit the wool trade. However, often the dead person was dressed in his their own everyday clothes. |
Gypsies are dressed in their best clothes as a rule, and sometimes a bride who has died soon after her wedding is buried in her bridal dress. Monks and nuns are still buried in their habits, and members of the armed forces in uniform.
Until about 100 years ago, a small coin was placed in the mouth or in his hand of the dead, so that they may pay their way on the journey to the next world.
Other things were sometimes placed in the coffins, for example a candle to give them light, or food to sustain them, occasionally a hammer with which they could knock when he reached his destination. A Christian alternative of these pagan customs was the inclusion of a Bible, to show that the dead person had been devout during their lifetime. A tuft of wool was put into shepherds' hands .so that at the last Judgement they could prove that their irregular churchgoing was due to the demands of their work.
It was not unusual for toys to be buried with children, or some cherished possession with adults, a custom now dictated by affection or sentiment, but pagan belief was that the dead needed the same things beyond the grave as they did in this world.
On the day of the funeral, the corpse would be carried from the house feet first, and always through the front door. Another custom was that the door should be left open while the funeral party was absent, either because another death might follow if this was not done, or because the soul might be imprisoned and therefore haunt the house.
Before the procession set out, sprigs of evergreen or rosemary were given to the mourners; these were thrown into the grave as a promise to the dead person that they would never be forgotten.
On the way to the churchyard, the coffin was always carried in front of the mourners until the lynch-gate was reached, where the clergyman came to receive it. Anyone attempting to precede the coffin was likely to die suddenly himself, or to suffer serious misfortune. The same was true of any person who entered the house before the next-of-kin when the mourners returned home. If rain fell during the procession or the service, it was a good portent for the happiness of the departed soul.
There was formerly a belief, inherited from pagan practices, that the dead must travel the way of the sun for part of the journey to the grave, or the soul's welfare would be imperilled. Bearers sometimes halted by some traditional mark-a wayside stone or the church cross - and carried the coffin round it clockwise, the direction of the sun, once or three times.
In most parishes, there was a traditional route for funerals - the Church Road or the Corpse Way, sometimes there would be buildings on the hillside where the mourners would rest with the dead body before proceeding onwards to the church. Usually, this was an ordinary road, but in some remote areas, it, was a narrow path along which the dead from outlying farms and hamlets were brought to the local church. To use any other route was unlucky, and was never done unless bad weather made the Corpse Way impassable.
If private land was involved, then a permanent right of way was supposed to be created, though there was no basis for this in law. In 1948, permission was refused to the police to carry a drowned man over the toll-bridge at Iffley Lock near Oxford.
The owners claimed that the passage of the corpse would automatically destroy the toll rights. It was sometimes said that the undertaker could overcome the difficulty by sticking pins into every gate or stile on the way, or by persuading the landowner to accept a small fee. Nevertheless, fights sometimes broke out between funeral parties and landowners' servants, the former struggling to reach the church by the shortest route and the latter striving to protect their masters' property.