IT is perhaps natural that around the three great mysteries--birth, love and death--a crowd of superstitions cling, the children of those unnamed fears which accompany so many of us from the cradle to the grave, and which certainly dominated the lives of less enlightened generations.
That death, the greatest of all mysteries, should be singled out to be embroidered with many fantasies does not surprise us.
Many of the superstitions which we shall note are obviously nothing more than a chain of associated ideas; such as, for instance, the very general belief that it is unlucky to sit down thirteen to a meal, it being held that the first to rise from the table will go to his death.
The origin of this superstition is, of course, the Last Supper, from whence Judas, one of the twelve, left the table and went out into the night to betray his Lord.
"Death warnings" as they are called, have nearly all an obvious origin. A raven or other black feathered bird is seen to alight on the thatch of a cottage where a man is dying. Simply by force of associated ideas the gossiping neighbours agree at once that the bird is an omen of speedy dissolution, which event taking place shortly after, a new warning is added to the ever growing list. There are, however, certain superstitions which cannot be readily accounted for, unless we are prepared to admit the existence of supernatural intervention.
There is, in fact, a considerable amount of testimony in favour of certain hard-dying beliefs, the origin of which it is outside our purpose to consider, such, for instance, as the well-authenticated cases of dreams, in which a warning has been given of the approaching death of friends and relatives, or in some cases of the dreamer himself.
We are familiar with stories of persons so condemned who have thought by special precautions to avert the fate of which they have been warned. It has been said that once the mind of the person has been infected by a belief that death is inevitable on a certain day, the action of the mind upon a frail body may well be responsible for the physical result. This is an explanation which many will prefer to hold.
Amongst such beliefs, perhaps the most familiar is the frequently repeated assertion that a clock has stopped at the very moment that a death took place, with which may be classed our old friend, the falling picture, and the supernatural summons to the bedside of a dying person.
It would be quite impossible to attempt to chronicle anything like a complete list of death warnings, but the following are worth noting:
It is generally believed by sailors and fisherfolk that death is delayed till the ebb of the tide (it will be remembered that Dickens used this superstition in "David Copperfield"). "It being low water, he (Barkis) went out with the tide."
In Scotland a white rose blooming in autumn is accounted as an omen of an early death.
In Devon, if a sick person begs for a draught of cider, it is also a sign of death. This superstition rather suggests that the desire being gratified, the patient might well succumb from the effects of that ungenerous beverage.
The ebbing tide and the unusual appearance of the white rose in autumn may be safely catalogued as associated ideas, and also the very general belief that the fire burning black on one side is a token of a death in the family, or the peculiar formation of wax round a burning candle which suggests a white shroud.
Similar explanations might be reasonably given for the following:
When a dying person "sees something white" or if he "sees something black" a less enviable fate awaits him.
When fruit and flowers appear on the same tree; if you should be so imprudent as to wash clothes on a Good Friday, you are said to "wash someone out of the family."
If you chance to drop a mirror in which you have seen your own reflection, you have killed the reflection, hence you are doomed.
If you shiver it is said by the gossips that someone is walking over your grave."
If you dream of nursing a baby and the baby cries, you will either die yourself or lose a near relative.
All these superstitions are foolish and harmless enough, but one might be mentioned which has lead to much trouble and has a wide influence even over the minds of people who ought to be better informed--the belief that if a person makes a will it is a sign that they will die shortly after.
The following has a less obvious origin and may well be a survival of the belief in nature spirits.
It is said to be unlucky to save a drowning man, for on being brought back to life it is thought that he will wreak vengeance on his rescuer at the dictation of the water spirits who have thus been baulked of their lawful prey.
We see the nature spirit again in the legend of the "Pool of Brereton" (Cheshire), in which the trunks of trees are said to swim on certain days before the death of the heir of the estate, as also in the legend of Credenhill Court (Herefordshire), where an ancient elm, known as "Prophet Elm," is supposed to shed its branches as a token of the death of the head of the house. The connection between certain trees and funerary customs should be noted, for here we shall find later many traces of the most ancient of all religions--the worship of trees.
"It is certain," says Carew ("Survey of Cornwall"), "that divers ancient families in England are forewarned of their death in the mansion by oaks bearing strange leaves." An example of this is an oak in Lanhadron Park (Cornwall), which bears speckled leaves before a death in the family.
In some country estates the rooks are said to abandon their nests at the approach of death, and do not return until after the funeral, as in humble homes the crickets and the mice retire in like manner from the domestic hearth.
It is perhaps in the nature of things that royal and illustrious families receive special warnings not vouchsafed to meaner men, otherwise it would be difficult to account for a number of instances where a special forerunner of disaster appears to be provided for their exclusive information, one of the best known examples being "The White Lady" of the Hohenzollern. This spook is said to have appeared to Napoleon, and has been frequently seen in Karlsruche and other royal palaces since the middle of the seventeenth century, as the invariable herald of disaster to members of the family.
The royal houses of Bavaria and Romanoff are also credited with ghostly visitants; it is, however, worth noting that their generous services are of little value, as we have no instance where the illustrious persons have been able to avoid their fate by virtue of these dramatic "warnings."
At the marriage ceremony of the Crown Princess Louisa of Saxony, "three archdukes who were standing close to me became so impatient that in order to find another way out of the chapel they jumped over my train. My brother-in-law, the Archduke Otto, noticed this, and said in rather perturbed tones, 'Do you know the Hapsburg superstition, that anyone who jumps over a bride's train dies in the same year? Well, it's November now, so they will have to be quick about it,' I said, trying to pass it off lightly, for I saw that Otto was really upset at the occurrence, for many uncanny things happened to us Hapsburgs."
If it was a coincidence it was truly a remarkable one, that in a fortnight's time the Archdukes Sigismund and Ernest died, only to be followed at the end of December by the third archduke, Karl Ludwig.
The same Princess relates having seen in November, 1902, the phantom black cat which is said to appear on the altar of the royal chapel in the Zinzendorf Strasse, Dresden, to presage disaster.
The Banshee or "woman of the fairies" of Irish legend has always a very select clientele, and can only be induced to wail or "keen" as it is called, for the very best families.
In Wales this spook is known as the witch of Rhibyn, whose lamentations are not to be confused with the Cyhyraeth or "groaning spirit."
Before we examine the rites and customs of burial, in their natural sequence, there is one aspect of the subject which deserves some special consideration, and that is the very debatable point as to exactly when death may be said to have taken place.
The thought of the possibility of being buried alive is a very real and haunting terror to a large number of sensitive people, as we may be assured if we study the curious clauses in wills which frequently appear in the Press.
Two recent examples of this may be quoted.
A lady dying at Hever, in Kent, left substantial sums of money for charitable purposes, and directed "that my body shall be stabbed to the heart to make sure that life is extinct." And the following from the will of a wealthy man who recently died at Herne Bay: "At my death a medical man shall make such experiments as may be necessary to make sure that life is extinct, and until the burial my remains are to be watched over by two nuns." Such requests have always been quite common, and show how deep is the fear of being buried alive.
In the year 1896 the Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was founded to safeguard its members against premature burial by arrangement with medical experts in various localities, who would scientifically certify death in accordance with certain tests laid down by the Association. A further object of the society was the scientific investigation of trance.
Writing in support of this movement, the matter was well summed up by Sir W. J. Collins, M.D., F.R.C.S. (ex-Chairman L.C.C.) who said: "It is morbid sentiment that precludes the adequate consideration of the subject in this country, while it is only too easy to dismiss it with ill-directed jest."
Suppose that a person has "passed away," he no longer breathes, the action of the heart has ceased and the doctor has pronounced life to be extinct. Perhaps some test has been applied, such as breathing on glass--a very popular expedient--and there appears to be nothing left to be done but to make arrangements for the burial. It would be somewhat startling to the average person to learn on the authority of Dr. Brouardel, the eminent French specialist (Director of the Morgue, Paris) who made a life study of the subject, that this is "a grave popular error," "for many persons who no longer breathe have been recalled to life by means of care and skill." He says further, "the moment of death cannot therefore be assumed to be identical with cessation of respiration."
As regards the beating of the heart, he recalls a case where a man was executed at Troyes, whose heart beat for an hour after decapitation, the body being accompanied from the scaffold by two doctors who verified this fact.
Dr. Brouardel gives several instances of apparent death, and quotes the following case, in which he himself was present, from verbatim copy of notes taken the same evening.
October 1st, 1867. Midnight.
"I exhumed at eight p.m. Philomele Jonetre, aged twenty-four, buried at five p.m. in a grave six feet deep. Several persons heard her tap distinctly against the lid of the coffin. These blows appeared to me to have left visible marks, but I did not hear them myself."
He then goes on to describe the absence of all the ordinary signs of death, "rigor mortis" and the like. "Ammonia and other restoratives were applied." He then continues: "She was not dead, but like a candle, the flames of which had been extinguished, though the wick continues to glow. No definite sounds of the heart, but the eyelids moved in my presence. The body was kept unburied till the following day. This," he adds, "is an authentic case of burial during life." '
From many sources, more or less reliable, similar instances of premature burial might be quoted.
In the churchyard of Rye, Sussex, there was a tombstone, now defaced by age, depicting the figure of a woman sitting upright in her coffin, of whom the following curious story is related. She was subject to attacks of syncope, and was supposed on one occasion to be dead. Wrapped in a shroud, her body was placed in a coffin in the old Flushing Inn which is still standing. Thus she lay till the morning of the day appointed for her burial. The oven was being heated for the baking of the funeral repast when she awoke, climbed out of her coffin and walked downstairs, where she was found by the horrified cook, standing before the kitchen fire, complaining that she "felt the cold." She lived for some years after this extraordinary experience. It would seem that there is a period of suspended animation which may occur from various causes, and which is very likely to be mistaken for death.
Evelyn the diarist gives the following quaint account of a resurrection.
"Supped at Sir William Petty's, famous for having brought back to life a poor wench who had been hanged for felony, her body having been begged as the custom is, for the anatomy lectures; he had her 'put to lie with a warm woman' (surely some credit is due to the warm woman), and with spirits and other means restored her to life."
A full account of this exploit was published at the time in a pamphlet entitled, "News from the Dead, or a true and exact relation of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Greene, who having been executed December 14th, 1650, afterwards revived and by the care of a certain physician, is now perfectly recovered."
It is well known that the Indian fakir and his kind, under the influence of control, allow themselves to be buried for three weeks or longer; at the end of which period the flickering flame of life returns.
When does death take place? Anyone who has assisted at the restoration to life of a body recovered from the water, who has seen the miracle of returning animation to an apparently lifeless body, as a result of scientific treatment, lasting perhaps an hour or even longer, will hesitate for ever after to judge the matter on a basis of appearances, for it is between the time when the ordinary symptoms of death are apparent, and the actual setting in of putrefaction, that science may find a means to revive life.
It is rather by a combination of recognized signs than by dependence upon any particular "test" that life may safely be pronounced to be extinct, and it is only a qualified person, after careful examination, who has any right to give such a verdict.
In both the animal and vegetable kingdom examples are not wanting to show the wonderful provision of nature to protect the life of her children in extraordinary circumstances. The common pond trout frozen in snow will remain apparently lifeless for days, but will revive at once if placed in water again.
Despite the far-fetched stories of toads who are often said to remain embedded in trees, or built up in walls for years, and to come to life again on their release, there can be no doubt that such creatures are able to suspend animation for lengthy periods, in unfavourable conditions.
Before leaving this subject, there is another side of the question of which even less is known, and that is--granted that man has a soul--when does the soul leave his body? It has been the general practice in all ages to reserve the corpse for a certain period before burial. The actual time has depended somewhat on local conditions, climate and the like, and the custom is further influenced by the natural desire of affection which dictates that the body should be kept from dissolution as long as it is possible, but woven into these practices is the dim consciousness that the soul may not have finally severed the link which has bound it for so long to the body. Various customs, which we shall presently consider, show how deeply this thought has a hold on our minds. At the present time, when men of science are no longer ashamed to be associated with a belief in a spiritual existence after death, it is interesting to follow the results of their investigations, to confirm by demonstration what we have hitherto accepted, perhaps with a flickering faith.
We gather that the modern spiritualist holds that the soul dominates the physical life, and only when it leaves the body can death take place and decomposition set in. So far he would seem to agree with the general practice of all ages, that the body should not be buried till these signs are unmistakably present, but he takes us a step farther, for he professes to have proof that the soul is attached to the body by an elastic cord of unlimited tension to the various vital parts of the body, and we are told that for a period lasting for days, or weeks, in the case of an active man meeting with a sudden death, the soul is not severed from the body, even if burial has taken place in the meantime.
How far we are prepared to credit such evidence must be a matter of personal consideration--to scoff is wholly irrational, for we shall find that many of the observances we cherish to-day have their origin in the grossest superstition of which any intelligent person might well be ashamed.
Various experiments have been tried with a view to overcoming the possibility of premature burial. What we know as mortuary chambers were established in Germany. They were built for the purpose of providing a resting place to which bodies could be removed immediately after death had presumably taken place, in order that they might be systematically under observation till putrefaction had definitely set in. Every possible precaution was taken to this end. A bell-rope was placed in the hand of the corpse, so that, should any return of consciousness take place, it would be immediately notified. As an additional precaution an official was in constant attendance, whose duty it was to inspect the bodies in his charge from time to time.
It will be some consolation to those who suffer from a horror of being buried alive to learn that no instance has been recorded of bodies placed in these mortuary chambers having "come to life."
These institutions are not to be confused with the Mortuary or Morgue.
Amongst the very many evils existing in connection with our methods of disposing of the dead may be cited not only a general lack of proper mortuary accommodation throughout the country, but particularly the attitude both of the officials and the public towards this most necessary institution. The thought that the bodies of friends and relations should be taken to a mortuary suggests to the average mind an indignity, a social degradation. The mortuary is regarded as especially provided by the State for the bodies of unfortunate outcasts picked up from the gutter, or dragged from the river, or at the best, as a place where the suicide or a person meeting with some dreadful accident is impounded till a jury can be called together for an inquest. We associate it mentally with the prison and the workhouse. Yet, when we are called upon as citizens to sit on coroners' juries, we see nothing incongruous in the fact that a public-house is considered a fitting place to take the corpse for the purpose of an inquest. This attitude is entirely wrong and a relic of Bumbledom. When we consider the vast floating population of London alone, housed for the most part in hotels, flats, boarding-houses or in lodgings, it must be seen that from a moral, hygienic or economic standpoint, proper and decent accommodation should be provided by the State in every district, to which bodies should be compulsorily removed immediately after death has been certified. It should, moreover, be a punishable offence to keep a body in any house, unless a special permit be obtained from the medical officer of the district, showing that he was personally satisfied that suitable accommodation had been provided for the purpose. The following story is not beautiful, but it not only has the advantage of being true, it is also typical of what goes on around us in our overcrowded cities.
Dr. Brouardel quotes an instance from his own experience, where a man, living with his family in one room, died of smallpox. Here, on reaching the house, he found the family entertaining their friends who had come to "watch the body." He says: "There were bottles everywhere, even on the abdomen of the deceased. This," he adds, "is by no means an isolated case."
One can picture the insanitary conditions of such a "chamber of horrors," crowded with persons whose ideas of personal cleanliness at any time were not very urgent. The blinds would probably be drawn, the window shut, and the family with the usual complement of small children and babies, would eat and sleep in the poisoned atmosphere. So overlaid are all our primary customs by empty sentiment and clown-patches of tradition, that this crying abuse, which is relatively as bad for the vast population of small villa residences as for those who inhabit the "slums," can only be effectively attacked by the example of those whose doings are aped by lesser minds.
Do we not find an opportunity here for the undertaker to justify himself? Could he not provide suitable mortuary accommodation to meet the needs of those who still have a "feeling" about public mortuaries. Certainly in some cases he has risen to the occasion and has provided (for a substantial consideration) a temporary resting-place for his clients." The writer had a recent opportunity of inspecting the premises of one of these super-undertakers. He was shown with pride a "chapel" where the rich might "lie in state." Needless to it was resplendent with every conceivable vulgarity dear to the Dismal Trader's heart, where imitation stained glass and bastard Gothic decoration gave an air of theatrical sanctity; in place of what was required, a simple well-ventilated chamber, furnished only with the necessary provision for bearing the coffin, it was tricked out to resemble a place of worship, plus all his beastly trappings of death. When will it occur to the Trader that his province is to supply a box and a decent vehicle, and only that, and leave the question of ceremonies to the clergy, if we need them.
Let us rather entrust our bodies to the Inspector of Nuisances till some proper provision can be made by the State. With regard to the time allowed to elapse between death and burial in this country, we are generally in agreement with the customs of Greece and Rome, to await the period of physical decay. In Germany forty-eight hours only is allowed, Spain and Portugal five or six hours, France twenty-four hours. In other countries the time is largely dictated by the climate.