WE have seen that certain parts of the body have been eaten in the belief that by this means such special virtues as the dead may possess would be transferred to those who thus participated; and we must bear this ceremonious cannibalism in mind in considering the funeral feast proper, for there was originally a connection. We must also remember the important fact that food has been offered from the earliest times at the grave, for the sustenance of the dead in their spiritual state. Superficially it would strike us as incomprehensible that even the most untutored mind could have supposed that the food so thoughtfully provided was actually consumed by the departed shade, in view of the fact that it still remained to moulder on the grave. This is a misconception of a point of view.
Wallis Budge mentions that in many places in the Sudan to-day, meat and drink are still brought to, and laid on the graves, that the dead may partake of them at their pleasure, but he reminds us that the ceremonies performed by their priests are believed to change the material substance of the offerings into a spiritual form, and of this the dead partake, leaving the material elements to be consumed by the priest and the relations, by which means they are brought into communication with their dead.
It is probable that the earlier funeral feasts were nothing more than a distribution of the food offered to the dead, after they had obtained--as it was supposed--supernatural nourishment from it.
Some echo of this may be traced in the Bulgarian custom of feasting in the cemeteries on Palm Sunday, when the remains of the good things provided are left on the graves for the dead.
The most ancient Egyptian ceremonies were connected with offerings to the dead; wine, sweet beer, cakes of various kinds, fruit, scented oils, the heads of bulls and a variety of ceremonial garments were used for the purpose: so too by the Romans, whilst to-day the Chinese and the older civilizations hold fast in one form or another to the belief that the spirit needs some form of nourishment.
Once again in this practice we shall find the old terror of being haunted by the ghost asserting itself. The Bodo of India carry the dead man's share of food and drink to the grave, saying, "Take and eat, heretofore you have eaten and drunk with us, you can do so no more; you were one of us, you can be so no longer; we come no more to you--come you not to us." After this recital, in order to make the changed position still more definite, each mourner throws on the grave a thread bracelet, which he breaks off his wrist, saying, "Take that, the tie between the dead and the living is snapped." A similar ceremony is performed at the funeral feast in the Solomon Islands, where a portion of food is thrown into the fire, and the dead are thus invoked, "This is for you," and even at the daily meal a certain portion is set apart for their use.
Pagan usage, sanctified by Christian interpretation, has frequently been carried forward to our times, and it is interesting to note that when the Trappist monk is taken by death from the Community, his meals are still served for him in the refectory for thirty days after his decease; being given afterwards to the poor.
To the superstitious mind, a food offering should properly be served at the burial-place, otherwise a danger would be incurred by inducing the soul to wander back to its former haunts--a thing above all which mankind has sought to avoid by many a childish subterfuge.
In countries where the sacrifice of animals formed part of the religious rites, it frequently took place where the dead were buried, in order that they might have their part in the consumption of the meat thus provided.
Where the belief exists, as in China, that the dead have a duality of souls, one of which remains in the grave in order to receive the offerings of the living, the importance of the food supply is seen, for it is imagined that the soul would starve if not regularly nourished, in which case, of course, it would not fail to make its appreciation of the fact unpleasantly patent to the careless relatives.
In ancient Egypt, a regular portion of each man's estate was set apart for the use of the dead.
For the purpose of feeding the dead, a tube or channel was sometimes used, connected with the mouth of the corpse, through which food was passed.
Such practices throw some light on ancestor worship, and the severe test of enduring affection it imposed on those who had not only to reverence their parents during their life but also after their decease, the latter being considered as a higher virtue, and the supreme test of filial affection, as being the more difficult of accomplishment.
In this country, at least as late as the days of the Stuarts, it was a common practice for the mourners to drink wine from a cup placed for the purpose on the coffin, and in so doing to enter into a kind of communion with the dead.
In the obsequies of all times, some form of feasting stands out prominently as an important and necessary part of the ceremonies. There are always so many excuses to be found for celebrating any special occasion by eating and drinking that we may easily overlook the fundamental idea in accepting the practice as an ordinary form of hospitality. At first sight it does not seem unreasonable to account for the provision of a repast for the mourners as being a natural courtesy shown to friends and relations gathered together in order to take a last farewell of the departed. Knowing as we do that in days gone by travelling was not only a very difficult, but often a costly and even dangerous undertaking, it would appear rational enough that a substantial meal should be provided for the necessities of the guests.
Before the introduction of such conveniences as post or telegraph, several days might well elapse before those relations living at a distance could be advised of the death, and several more days would be taken in travelling to the house of mourning, so that relations might have to be entertained for some considerable time before the family could be assembled, and the burial take place. Much as it may have been contributed to the continuation of the usage, hospitality was certainly not the origin of the funeral feast.
The special object of the gathering was largely for the purpose of offering prayers for the soul, in the actual presence of the body, till the burial.
Even if we credit the early Christians with enlightened motives in adopting Jewish and pagan customs such as shrouding the corpse with scented oils and spices, which much annoyed the pagan mind, it is significant to note that in the fourth century the charge was levelled at them that "ye appease the dead with wine and meals," which even now hardly ceases to be true.
Whilst the wake or watching was closely associated with special prayers for the dead, it had a further significance. We know in our own time how frequently the question of the manner in which the dead may have disposed of their possessions becomes a matter of excited interest, and we know also how old feuds which have smouldered for a generation or longer, may be fanned into flame by the unexpected turn of events, and especially so when by a sudden illness, or as the result of an accident, the natural order of the older generation dying off before the younger, is rudely broken. In such cases, priority of claim or complicated legal issues suddenly appear in a new light, strengthening hopes of inheritance, which had but a few hours previously seemed but very remote, or destroying anticipations, which, humanly speaking, had been held for long years to be certainties.
If such is the case in these more or less moral and law-abiding times, when the factor of foul play is practically eliminated, we must realize that in the past, when family quarrels were considered as honourably settled by deeds of violence, when the sacredness of human life was not allowed to stand too often in the way of illegitimate desires, in such circumstances the house of mourning might well become a pretty bear-garden, and the gathering of the clans the prelude to a furious faction fight. In those rough times, we should find death (especially if it came unexpectedly) looked upon by one side of the family, with ill-disguised suspicion.
Thus the ceremonious viewing of the body by friends and relations before the burial--a custom to which we still unthinkingly subscribe--was originally an obligation, in order that those who were present at the death might clear themselves of any suspicion of complicity in foul play. Those who attended the funeral came quite as much with a view to satisfying themselves that murder had not been committed, and that the estate should be faithfully divided, as from any pious interest in the spiritual welfare of the deceased.
There is yet another purpose for the funeral gathering which must not be overlooked.
The funeral repast was at one time known as the "averil" at which a special form of crisp bread or cake and ale was provided. This was of the nature of the simnel cake, or the "soul bread," still used in Belgium at the funerals. The word averil or arvel means "heir ale" or succession ale, from which we see that the feast was once considered not so much as a commemoration of the dead but as a banquet to welcome the new heir to the title or property--"The King is dead, long live the King"--or in lesser measure, the Squire is dead, let us welcome the young master who succeeds him.
As we have seen in other instances, the Christian mind in adopting the funeral repast puts its own interpretation on the custom, and distributes food and drink freely on such occasions in the larger spirit of hospitality, giving at the same time alms as well as provender to the poor, and to those who were in need of support.
Considerable sums of money were often left by will to be spent in this manner at death amongst relations and dependents, on the expressed or implied condition that the pious prayers of all who participated should be offered for the repose of the departed soul.
Whilst the rich might well purchase prayers in this manner in exchange for a liberal hospitality, the poor were not behind in such measure of display as they could afford, but they might well experience difficulties in provisioning their larders to meet so large a call upon their humble resources, so we find that in many countries it has been a usage for the mourners invited to bring with them an offering of food to augment the feast.
Now this gift of the guest to the house of mourning where it still exists, is generally in some form or symbol as is also the gift of the house of mourningto those attending the burial.
The averil as a rule was (to put it plainly) an unrestricted "gorge," wherein the honour of the bereaved family was thought to depend much upon the quality and above all upon the quantity of the good things provided, both liquid and solid, which is very much the view held at the present time in the lower orders of society. It was sometimes the custom for the women to eat separately from the men, who were inclined at the promptings of the liquor to forget their grief and become amorous over their cups.
Even the beast in the stable was not forgotten, which had contributed its labour in bringing the guests many weary miles to the feast, for it was against the canon of etiquette that the guest should carry with him the necessary fodder; the provision of which entailed another considerable expense on the host. In the days when travelling by road was inevitable, the stabling capacity in such an event would be taxed to the uttermost.
Some interesting details as to the consumption of food on such an occasion is quoted by Capes from a record of 1309, when the provisions were as follows:
"One and a half butts of cider--five pigs--one hare--five sheep--thirteen hens--nineteen geese--one and a half gallons of oysters--two hogs--nine capons--one and a half carcases of beef--four 'bacons' besides wine, ale, eggs, bread given to the poor and friends, and a fee of sixty-six shillings and eightpence to the Chaplain. Fifty pounds of wax was also used--presumably for candles."
At the funeral of one Oliver Heywood of Thoresby (seventeenth century), the averil consisted of cold posset, stewed prunes, cake and cheese. An averil in 1673, which was considered as "rather shabby" according to the notions of those times, provided "nothing but a bit of cheese, a draught of wine, a piece of rosemary and a pair of gloves."
Amongst the poor, the mourners only expected to be provided with a special roll of bread, baked for the occasion, whilst the cost of the liquors consumed--rum, ale, or a mixture of both, known as "dogs nose"--was defrayed by a fund collected on a plate placed for the purpose in the middle of the table, to which all present contributed.
At the averil of one Charnock, things were done fairly well; eighty people were bidden to the feast, which cost four shillings and sixpence per head. The bill, we are told, was "defrayed by a friend."
Fights were frequent in these rough days, and we read that "gourging," "pawsing" and biting were common methods of settling family disputes when the liquor had roused the mourners to a sense of injustice.
Mrs. Gaskell, in her "Life of Charlotte Bronte," in describing the Yorkshire villages at the period, tells us that "the custom of averils was as prevalent as ever, and that after the burial had taken place, the sexton standing at the foot of the open grave, announced that the averil would be held at the 'Black Bull' or some other local hostelry where the mourners and friends repaired."
Andrews, writing of Scotland in the last century, tells us that "there was a lamentable amount of ale and whisky drinking before and after the funeral. The company began to assemble two hours before the time appointed for the corpse to be carried from the house. If the deceased was a farmer, each of the guests was offered a glass of whisky at the gate of the farmyard and another on crossing the threshold. On entering the guestroom, a portion of shortbread and another glass of whisky were handed to him, a reverential silence being observed for a time, after which, conversation was carried on in whispers. When all the guests were assembled, the minister came, and a religious service was held, which lasted about three-quarters of an hour. This was followed by handing round cheese, oatcake and whisky, and afterwards shortbread and more whisky. Then the coffin was carried out, followed by all those who were sufficiently sober to walk straight."
Most of the accounts of state and official funerals met with in old records make much of the quality of the fare provided, in some such terms as "and this (the burial) done--to the place where there was a grete diner."
Prunes have been mentioned as an averil dish. They are accepted for the purpose on account of their black skins, which give a note of mourning appropriate to the occasion. In Belgium, where we still find many survivals of the funeral orgie, the cakes are coated with a dark coloured chocolate icing, and are served on black paper mats with fretted "cut out" edges, whilst custom dictates that only white wine shall be served in order to avoid the introduction of colour.
It has been stated that the Jewish religion discourages any form of funeral display, and in contrast to the lavish hospitality of the averil, the guest of the orthodox Jew is only offered such cold comfort as may be obtained from hard-boiled eggs and salt. Apart from its sustaining properties, the egg, like our "Easter egg," is used as a symbol of regeneration, whilst the salt as a very ancient token of incorruptibility, has been very frequently used at Christian burials.
An interesting survival is mentioned by Howlett, who states that, "in Cumberland, the mourners are each presented with a piece of rich cake, wrapped in white paper and sealed, a ceremony which takes place before the 'lifting of the corpse,' when each visitor selects his packet and carries it home with him unopened, and in some parts of Yorkshire, a paper bag of biscuits, together with a card bearing the name of the deceased, is sent to the friends." In this we clearly trace the custom alluded to, of obtaining prayers in exchange for a material consideration, whilst the more substantial gift of a flagon of ale and a cake given to the officiating minister in the church porch (the priests' lodging was frequently built over the porch in olden days) would be considered as partly in payment for services rendered and probably also for the merit of his special prayers.
In the Greek Church (Macedonia) the "Pappa" or priest, who conducts the funeral service, receives a present of a dish of corn, cooked in a particular manner with sugar. This delicacy of corn symbolizing resurrection, and sugar the symbol of heavenly bliss, is made and presented to the priest by the women of the house of mourning on the third, eighth and thirtieth days after the death, and again on the first and third anniversaries, in order that the departed soul should be remembered in his prayers.
In Norway the guests bring with them an iced cake on the sugary coating of which the initials of the deceased are inscribed. These cakes are carried in painted wooden baskets and presented to the widow or nearest relative, who sits in state at the entrance of the house to receive the offerings. In return the guests are regaled with wine and coffee in token of welcome--a huge feast follows.
The Chinese offer "helps" both of food and clothing, etc., of substantial value, and the same practice is common amongst African tribes.
We need go no farther than Ireland in order to see a wake, which still retains the character of what was at one time common in this country. It is particularly reminiscent inasmuch as it has for its purpose the calling together of friends and relations to pray for the soul of the departed. The wake is as of old, the meeting-place where half-forgotten family dissensions are apt to come to light. It is an opportunity for a lavish display of hospitality, often far above available means, in order that the honour of the family, however tarnished in other respects, may be publicly upheld. The wake appeals to the Irish peasant as an opportunity to indulge in a "good time," when whisky, snuff and tobacco will be pressed upon the guest, in return for a prayer for the departed; in fact, for the time being, the house of mourning has all the advantages, and none of the disadvantages, of an inn. That drunken riots may take place in such circumstances we may well believe, though as a popular gibe in fiction, perhaps something has been added to the Irish wake by way of picturesque embellishment. Excesses, it might be mentioned, are strongly discountenanced by the Church, whose priests are forbidden to attend a wake where drinking is likely to take place, and as a further measure to restrict abuses, the body is ordered to be buried much sooner than is the case in this country.
Whilst in England to-day the formal funeral feast is frequently to be met with in country districts, it has become, generally speaking, an uncertain event, but there yet exists even amongst more enlightened people, an uneasy "feeling" that something of the kind is expected of them, and that wine and some sort of light refreshment should be provided on the day of the burial. Let it be said for their assurance that beyond the reasonable necessities of some hungry relation, the funeral feast is one of a series of degraded superstitions which follow in natural sequence after death, and that where it is retained, it is in ignorant fear of committing some milder form of sacrilege.
Enough has perhaps been said for us to realize how our funeral repast, ranging from a matter of wine and biscuits to a good square meal, is only a survival of all kinds of pagan practices, which have no place whatever in modern life--another bogie which we carry along with us, fearing to let it drop lest it should rise up again and mow at us, or that our revengeful dead will rise to haunt us for showing a want of respect to their memory.
There are various customs connected with food and the dead, not necessarily in the sense of the feast.
In the seventeenth century in Scotland any milk, onions or butter which happened to be in the house at the time of death were thrown away, as it was thought that in some manner the spirit would enter and corrupt them.
In Brittany, butter was purposely placed on the table when a person had died from cancer, in the belief that the disease would enter the butter which was afterwards taken outside and buried. In Brittany, milk might remain in a room with the dead, but water standing in a jug must be removed, lest the wandering spirit should be drowned in it. The opposite view was taken in other places, when water was purposely left in the death chamber, in order that the spirit might wash and purify itself and thus leave the milk alone--a very important matter at the farm. Water also played a part in the obsequies of the Greeks, who placed a supply in a jug on the grave of an unmarried man, to show that he had not had the nuptial washing--marriage ceremony--as also to indicate that he left no heir. In the funeral procession the jug was carried by a youth.
On the Continent we may sometimes find a cup-like receptacle on the grave in which holy water is now placed. This is a direct survival of that used on early graves for the purpose of food offerings being made.
Let us conclude our consideration of the funeral feast with a story which comes to mind of a country funeral, where the undertaker's mutes were pressed into service to act as waiters during the inevitable repast. One of the guests, a local magistrate, whose sense of duty had led him to join a rather mixed company, was startled during a pause in the dull conversation--which had been carried on in hushed tones round the table--by the mournful voice of a mute, who whispered in his ear, "Excuse me, sir, the corpse's brother takes wine with you."
The procession conducting the body to the grave has always offered a welcomed opportunity for the display of pomp, circumstance and ostentatious grief, so prized by vulgar minds.
The average man or woman can claim public attention only at marriage and burial, and on each of these occasions a nonentity becomes the centre of attraction in a ceremonial procession to and from the church.
The Roman citizen dearly loved to garnish the funeral cortege with all kinds of theatrical embellishments, and once again we can trace in the custom the old dread of the return of the avengeful spirit, should anything be left undone which might give honour to the susceptibility of the dead.
That retribution would follow, as a natural consequence of neglect, was the one certainty recognized by a people whose gods were so numerous and religion so involved that only their priests knew anything about either.
Marshalled by the Dismal Trader of the period, who was appropriately dressed in black, the body was conducted from the house on the third day after death. The corpse had been washed, anointed and dressed in the ceremonial toga and placed without pall or shroud on a bier, around which incense was burning. In the case of a citizen of rank, the servants of the household acted as bearers.
Wailing women were in the procession, giving vent to professional emotion, as a foil to the studied calm of the mourners, whilst the mimes followed after, wearing the ancestral marks described elsewhere.
The relatives were placed in strict order of precedence, the heir walking immediately behind the bier, his hair dishevelled, the folds of the dark grey or black toga which he wore held before his face in the approved manner of the old tragedian (who learnt the trick from him)--for the rest, there were the musicians, torchbearers and lictors. At some public place the procession would halt for the funeral oration, which was considered as a most important part of the proceedings, and from thence it wended its way outside the city walls to the pyre.
The special prominence given to the servants of the household is a relic of the days when they were slaughtered at the graveside. In China they walk in front of the body, and are sacrificed in figure by the burning of paper effigies.
The wax masks used by the Romans remind us of the curious wax figures which are familiar to those who have visited Westminster Abbey, where the "ragged regiment"--as it is called--forms a feature of much interest to sightseers. These now dilapidated portrait models represented at their funerals--Queen Elizabeth, Charles II, William III and Mary, Queen Anne, John Sheffield, the Duke of Buckingham, the Duchess of Richmond, William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham and Lord Nelson.
They were either placed on the coffin or carried in the procession, a custom which was introduced towards the end of the fourteenth century in the case of royal or noble persons. The figures were left after the burial to mark the place of interment, till such time as a monument could be erected over the vault.
In the Chinese funeral procession a banner is borne before the body inscribed with the name and titles of the deceased, whilst the insignia and arms of those of position are carried on a cushion, a practice common in all countries.
In England, in the Middle Ages, the horse and armour of the knight preceded the corpse, the horse after-wards being claimed as a "mortuary" due to the church where the funeral mass was celebrated. The armour was either given to the next-of-kin or placed over the tomb, as in the case of Edward, the Black Prince, whose surcoat, shield and helmet, which were carried in the funeral procession, according to the instructions in his will, repose in his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral.
The sword, helmet and baton in the case of a Field-Marshal, are to-day placed on the coffin of the warrior, whilst his orders and medals are carried, as a rule, on a cushion in the procession.
Even in modern Italy we still find traces of mediaeval processions, such as Lady Dorothy Nevill describes as having seen in Verona, which recalls something of the old Roman pageantry.
Passing through the streets one day she met the coffin of a poor man's child being carried to the church; it was attended by a number of little boys bearing torches--a remnant of the days when burials took place at night, and retained, as we have seen, by reason of the flickering torch being an accepted symbol of the uncertainties of life. Following this humble procession was the funeral of a child of wealthy parents, the deep notes of the bassoon accompanying the singing of a hymn. The body was followed by a long train of white-robed priests and their assistants, and the usual complement of torchbearers and mourners; by the side of the bier "four little boys were walking, wearing helmets decked with gaudy plumes, and each had a pair of immense wings flapping at his back."
In this we see the old idea expressed of the angels taking charge of the little soul to conduct it into the spirit world, as the ancestors, represented by the masked mimes, were supposed to materialize for the same purpose. "The coffin was covered by a rich pall of green and gold, and upon it were wreaths of artificial flowers."
Originally the pall was the pallium or cloak with which the corpse was covered on its way to burial. When the use of coffins became general the pall ceased to be necessary for the original purpose, and it was then used for draping the coffin. This was probably an excuse to retain the services of the pall-bearer, for pall-bearing had come to be looked upon as a duty of honour and a mark of rank and esteem.
In earlier times the pall, and sometimes the bier, was carried by those of the same rank as the deceased; as at Wellington's funeral, when the pall was borne by officers who had shared the hardships of many campaigns by his side. In the case of a man who was of no particular estate, if married the bearers would be his married friends, or if single his bachelor friends performed the task; nor was the matter always left to any chance arrangement, for a dying person frequently decided who should officiate at his funeral--who should carry his bier, pall and torches.
In the case of Royalty the pall is generally supported by princes or the nobility.
In Scotland the pall was called a "mort-cloth," and in the year 1598 it was decreed at the Kirk Session of Glasgow, that a "black cloth was to be laid on the corpse of the poor," a custom continued for two hundred years after, the "mort-cloth" being taken to the house where the body awaited burial and laid over it. The general assembly of Scotland decreed in the year 1563 "that a bier should be made in every country parish to carry the dead corpse of the poor to the burial place, and that those of the villages or houses next adjacent to the house where the dead corpse lieth, or a certain number out of every house shall convey the dead corpse to the burial place and bury it six feet under the earth."
In country funerals, it is customary for the tenants or servants to undertake the office of bearers, as a mark of special esteem.
The bier or "bear" was originally a very simple affair, of the nature of a stretcher, on which the uncoffined body was carried to the grave; at a later period it bore the coffin also. To-day, the bier is seldom used, something much more ornate being considered necessary to the dignity of the proceedings.
The origin of a word is often helpful in tracing the origin of a custom, so we shall find that "herse" is a French word signifying a harrow. The form of the French harrow was triangular--an iron framework to which the spikes were attached. The hearse of the fifteenth century was a simple iron stand on the lines of the French harrow, with the spikes or prickets adapted as candle holders (the original candle-stick was a spiked stick, on which the candle was impaled). A contrivance of this sort was used, partly as a means of obtaining a considerable light, and partly for ceremonial purposes, particularly at funerals.
In course of time, the funeral hearse became a very magnificent affair, and a great deal of fine craftsmanship was expended on its construction. It was sometimes made of brass and a blaze of wax candles flickered on the prickets. From each extremity of the triangle, supports were raised, meeting at the top, thus forming a framework, over which black cloth was draped. Fringes and various ornaments were added, and often wax images and garlands served as further decoration, whilst verses and glowing epitaphs were pinned to the material by the mourners.
Starkie Gardner describes the hearse-light at Osnabruck as a structure seven feet high, its massive tripod foot and moulded stem supports two spandrel-shaped brackets, fitted with tracery. On two sides of the triangle is a step-like arrangement of scrolls and spikes for fifteen candles, and on the foot are rings by which it can be moved. The hearse-light was planned to carry very large quantities of tapers to enhance the grandeur of great religious ceremonials, when the number of lights were so vast as to be compared with the stars descended from the firmament.
Eventually the funeral hearse was made in such a form as to permit of the coffin being placed on the summit.
In the case of the burial of a person of quality, it also carried the arms or hatchment of the deceased; the whole structure was surrounded by a rail. After interment the hearse remained for a considerable time in the choir of the church, votive candles being burned in memory of the dead, and it became in this form a cenotaph or memorial to one buried elsewhere.
The modern catafalque on which the coffin reposes during the service in the church was originally a temporary erection over the tomb, and was not intended to take the place of the hearse proper, as it does now.
In Roman Catholic churches to-day a metal framework is commonly found, often of a triangular form, on which votive candles are lighted, and this is a remnant of the earlier structure described; it is still called a hearse.
As has been stated, the hearse was by no means a funeral property only. The term was originally used to describe any kind of barbed grille or protection, such, for instance, as the portcullis--a strong framing of timber, resembling a harrow, which was suspended above the gateway of the mediaeval castle, to bar the entrance in case of a surprise attack. In this sense the word here is still used in heraldry. As a screen of highly ornamental ironwork with a formidable row of spikes or prickets, it surmounted the tombs of the great in the Middle Ages, and on the anniversary of the death would be ablaze with candles. One of the finest examples is the Eleanor grille or hearse in Westminster Abbey, which was made in the year 1294. Cases are on record of these hearses being removed from the tomb over which they were originally erected, and resold at a considerable profit to furnish later requirements.
A pall or hanging of rich tapestry was used to deck the tomb on anniversary and feast days, of which the altar frontal, commonly used at festivals in Protestant and Catholic churches, is a survival, for it should be remembered that Mass was originally said at the tomb, which thus became the altar. Dr. Gasquet quotes the following from the will of Thomas Wood of Hull, draper, sheriff and mayor, who bequeathed to Trinity Church at his death, "one of my best beds of arrys work, upon condition that after my decease I will that the said bed shall yearly cover my grave at my 'dirge' and masse."
When the public health became a matter of serious inquiry and new burial grounds were laid out at some distance from the more thickly populated districts, the old method of carrying the body, "chested" or otherwise on a hand bier, became much more difficult, and some sort of horse-drawn vehicle was found to be necessary. In country places a farm wagon was used for the purpose, draped in some simple manner, in order to add dignity to the procession.
In the rural villages of Brittany, a pretty custom once prevailed. The body was carried to the grave on a wagon, used in the ordinary way to carry corn or farm produce. Tied to the uprights supporting the sides of the vehicle, branches cut from the willow tree (symbolizing resurrection) were bent into arches over the body, thus making a framework across which a white sheet was placed, forming a canopy. The wagon was drawn by a team of oxen and the priest followed the cortege on horseback.
In like manner the body of the poet-craftsman, William Morris, was carried from Kelmscott one autumn day in 1896 to burial. The farm wagon, which bore the unpolished coffin, resplendent with red wheels and yellow body, was drawn by a sleek roan mare, led by a Kelmscott carter. Wreathed by vines and strewn with the traditional willow boughs, this "hearse" must have been a shock to many narrow minds, and the despair of the local undertaker.
In the "good old days" when the roads (where roads existed) were so bad as to be almost impassable for the greater part of the year, four, or more generally six horses were found necessary to draw the wagon on which the body would be placed, in conveying it to more or less remote places for interment. As, for instance, when a country gentleman called on business, or for reasons of state, to the capital, may have died there, his relatives insisting--as was customary in such circumstances--that his body should be removed for burial to the ancestral vault in his own parish.
Collier, describing travelling in England in the time of the Stuarts, says, "the roads were so bad, that travelling was very difficult. In bad weather, there was generally only a slight ridge in the centre of the road between two channels of deep mud. Instead of sloping gradually, the roads went right up and down the hills--rich men travelled in their own coaches, but they were obliged to have six horses to pull them through the mud."
Conditions were so bad, that the experience described by the poet Gay was by no means uncommon.
"In the wide gulf the shattered coach o'erthrown,
Sinks with the snorting steeds; the reins are broke
And from the crackling axle flies the spoke."
In the seventeenth century when the King went to Parliament, faggots were thrown into the ruts in the streets, so that it was possible for the State coach to drive over the uneven surface.
Evelyn gives an account of such a journey. "I caused her corpse to be embalmed, wrapped in lead and a brass plate soldered on, with an inscription and other circumstances due to her worth." The body was thus taken to Cornwall." She was accordingly carried to Godolphin in Cornwall in a hearse with six horses, attended by two coaches of as many, with about thirty of her relations and servants. The corpse was ordered to be taken out of the hearse every night and decently placed in the house, with tapers about it, and her servants attending to Cornwall."
We are hardly surprised to learn that the funeral of this lady cost not much less than £1,000.
Evelyn also tells us that he "went to Mr. Cowley's funeral, where the corpse lay at Wallingford House, and was thence conveyed to Westminster Abbey, in a hearse with six horses, and all funeral decency, near a hundred coaches of noblemen and persons of quality following, etc."
The roads of Sussex were notoriously bad, and in winter often impassable. It was no uncommon thing for provision to be made in a will, by a clause, that the body was to be buried at a certain place "if the state of the roads permitted," otherwise at a more convenient place, the selection of which would be left to the discretion of the executors.
Costly as the conveyance of the dead by road must have been, in the old days the funeral procession was allowed certain privileges which the ordinary travellers could not claim. The "toll," for instance, frequently demanded on the road, was not allowed to be imposed on the mourners, and on a long journey, this was a concession of some importance. On the other hand, the clerk and sexton of a parish through which the cortege passed were wont to demand a fee, which they would otherwise have earned, had the corpse been buried there, instead of passing on to some more distant burial ground; this imposition, it may be added, was wholly illegal, though no doubt in an age when the majority of people were quite illiterate, they would easily be frightened into paying a demand, apparently backed by the authority of the Church, for the clerk was a comparatively important person. In Scotland he was even allowed to conduct the burial service. Yet another illegal practice was "arresting" the corpse of a debtor and withholding it from proper burial, till the debt was satisfied.
Some extraordinary notions exist to-day in parts of Yorkshire concerning the legal rights of mourners in carrying a body to burial, and it is still believed that no trespass is committed, in passing through a private estate, if in so doing they are taking the coffin by the most direct route to the burial place appointed. Very possibly such a practice existed long enough to constitute a "right" as a relic of the days when the roads were impassable. The practice must have presented serious difficulties to the landowner, for it was also the belief that if once a funeral procession was allowed to make use of a private road, it was for ever after open for the general use of the public. Howlett, writing on the matter, tells us that it was customary for the undertakers to stick pins in each gate as the corpse was carried through, as payment of a toll to the landowner, thus preserving his rights.
As it has already been stated, the ancient Roman law allowed no one who might purchase land to exclude from it access to such burial places as it might contain. In the Hebrides the peasants prevented by force any attempts to close the short cuts from the burial grounds to the sea, which the dead were supposed to use when they went to bathe. In Brittany in the old days, rough tracks were made from the outlying farms to the villages, so that the people might go on Sunday to the church or to visit their dead in the graveyard. In the course of time, proper roads were constructed, and the old tracks were only used for funeral processions. It was indeed considered sacrilege to conduct the dead by any other way than that by which their ancestors had gone before them. Unhappy the landlord who attempted to prevent a funeral passing by the sacred route.
Many other curious beliefs have existed at one time or another affecting the conveyance of the body to the grave. It was considered a very dangerous thing to take the corpse twice across a bridge from the house where the death had taken place--to the church and back again to the burial place, for instance. If this rule should be transgressed, it was thought that the bridge would break, so in order to avoid such a catastrophe, chapels were frequently built on the bridge itself. The origin of this superstition is not very clear, though the crossing of water has been held as a prevention against the return of the wandering spirit.
One is also reminded of the fact that when troops are crossing a bridge the order is given to "break step" to obviate a supposed danger to the structure, caused by the rhythm of their tread; the band ceases to play to discourage a unison of movement. So also in the case of the funeral procession (often followed by a multitude of people) custom forbade singing or the playing of musical instruments whilst on the bridge.
"Bumping" the coffin is another remarkable practice, considered to be necessary at the pedestal of every wayside cross passed on the journey, and also on the walls of the church, when the corpse was removed after the funeral service. This ceremony was performed by the bearers, anticipating the desire of the departed to bid a farewell in this inarticulate manner, and also to serve as a reminder to Saint Peter to open the gates of Heaven in order to receive the soul of the deceased.
In Ireland, should the cortege pass a church on its way to the cemetery, it was thought necessary for the "socraid" to proceed three times round the building with their burden before continuing its way to the grave.
Traditional usages are worth conserving only in so far as they are beautiful from an artistic standpoint, or of value as symbols of some greater truth to which we subscribe. Consideration of these old customs will enable us to see in our modern funeral procession only a number of dilapidated survivals--and much that is reminiscent of the travelling circus.
The modern hearse retains in a meaningless and degraded form certain features of the earlier shrine for burning "votive candles"--for it was little else in its original purpose. The roof still exhibits something of the canopy form--fringes and trimmings are much in evidence, whilst a cresting of cast iron spikes or prickets on the roof and a rail running on either side of the coffin are quite unmistakable in their origin.
The elaborate funeral car which bore the body of the Duke of Wellington to Saint Paul's is a good example of the transitional stage between the hearse erected in the church and the sort of travelling shop window to display the handiwork of the undertaker, which we meet in the streets to-day. The addition of glass sides, often embossed with crude floral patterns (the passion flower predominating) in the manner of the public house door, is a further modern vulgarity.
According to what you are prepared, or can be induced, to spend, so you will get more or less of the "Dismal Trader's" sable horrors, plumes, palls, pinkings and furnishings, with anything from two to six of his flat flanked Belgian apologies for horse flesh, whose crimpy manes and swaying tails are so dear to his ghoul-like heart. The origin of the over-horsed vehicle we have traced to a necessity when travelling was difficult, having become an excuse for mere stupid display.
With many painful memories of traffic held up for a funeral procession crawling along a crowded street at ceremonial pace, we are reminded that the traditional rate of progress is dictated by the one-time invariable practice of heading the procession by a cross-bearer; the pace was thus restricted by his stride, and that of the bearers who carried the bier. On the other hand, it is rather a vigorous swing of the pendulum to hear of a (motor) hearse travelling at the rate of thirty-three miles an hour--for which offence a Glasgow undertaker was fined the sum Of £3. For the defence it was urged that being delayed in Glasgow he feared that the cemetery would not be reached before the gates were closed.
Of course the motor hearse was bound to come; it is now more frequently to be seen, but is mostly used for long distance journeys.
Too deep-rooted is the love of the old "Charon-of-the-road" for his nightmare paraphernalia to readily adjust his mind to anything so obvious and decent.
The first motor hearse the writer met with, some twenty years ago, was (symbolically enough) standing outside a public-house in a northern country town. There, sure enough, as might be expected, was modern mechanism tricked up with the traditional emblems dragged forward in a debased form, into yet another century.
Let it be said here and now, that justice may be done, that conveyances, some more or less, and others entirely freed from the shackles of convention, are occasionally to be met with in the streets to-day.
Well designed on a consideration of first principles of fitness and utility, there is an increasing demand for the motor carriage as a conveyance for the dead--that it is profitable to the "live" undertaker goes without saying.
The stuffy funeral "coach," in whose grief-laden atmosphere we are still invited to ride, dates back with little alteration in design to the days when the family coach was requisitioned for the purpose. In the days of the Stuarts black coaches were used, not only on the occasion of the funeral but for a year or more after death. It was considered impossible to travel in any other vehicle.
Many of our customs of "Court mourning" dated from this period, when even riding saddles were covered with black cloth. The conservative mind still continues the practice of clothing liveried servants in mourning and placing black rosettes on the horses' bridles.
To send a coach for the funeral procession was a recognized mark of respect in the days when there was nothing between the stage coach and the private conveyance. Thus it became a test as to the number and quality of your friends if the cortege contained few or many such vehicles. The hired mourners' coach, so prominent a feature in the undertaker's outfit, is still considered in some orders of society as indicative, of the social position of the bereaved family, whilst in country places the doctor's carriage (with or without the doctor) is lent by custom in order to swell the procession.
Describing the burial of his daughter, Evelyn, that sturdy old champion of the funeral "decencies," writes: "She was interred in the vault, east end of the church at Deptford." "Divers noble persons honoured her funeral in person, others sending their coaches, of which there were six or seven with six horses."
The velvet trappings of the funeral horse are similar to, and doubtless derived from the equipment of the pageant horse in the days of chivalry. The saddle cloth bears the crest or monogram of a personage of importance, as that of the officer's charger is embroidered with the regimental crest. Even horse cloths and carriage rugs are decorated in this manner.
The subject of the hearse must not be left without some mention of the funeral plumes. In those districts where this "luxury" can least be afforded, and where its appearance is, if only for this reason, the more incongruous, the sable plumes of death are sometimes seen.
The roof of the hearse is covered with a forest of these forbidding ornaments and a sort of sweep's brush nods from the horses' heads--white in the case of the burial of a child. Thus do the uninformed love to do honour to their dead.
As a symbol of estate the use of plumes is a very old one, whether carried in the helm of the knight, or on the dainty head of the debutante. Its use at obsequies is intended to denote the rank and social position of the deceased.
On the plea that the use of plumes on horses' heads caused "unnecessary suffering" to the animals, the British Undertakers' Association urged "the trade" to discontinue the practice as from January 1st, 1914. This decision was arrived at after protracted inquiries, "surely a hopeful sign of salvation coming from within." We earnestly recommend that further "protracted inquiries" into other funeral customs should be made by the same august body assembled.
Yet another matter we may note before leaving the funeral procession is the ceremonial staff or "baton" used by the Roman Master of Ceremonies, and still carried by the undertaker. It is in the nature of the Field-Marshal's baton, which was originally a box, in which his authority was sealed.
Wands are sometimes carried, as borne in royal processions by the dignitary known as "White Wand" who still breaks his symbol of office over the grave of the departed sovereign, to signify that his duty of attendance on his royal master is ended by death.