WE have already seen that the pagan burial-places were considered as something sacred and set apart, and how the early Christians inherited the guardianship of the dead, and erected their first places of worship on the actual site of the pagan temple. In course of time the substantial buildings we know as parish churches took the place of the poor edifices of wattle and mud.
Cemeteries and churchyards were under the immediate control of the Church, and the clergy were largely dependent upon the fees charged for interment, in return for which they exercised a general control, and took the responsibility of seeing that burials were conducted with reverence and decency, and that the bodies left in their charge remained inviolate. More than this, it was their duty to satisfy themselves that the body brought for burial was not the victim of foul play, no light responsibility in days when the guilt of blood was deemed of small consequence.
Even to-day, when civil law assumes all responsibilities, the Church has at least a nominal authority over our dead, for she it is who receives the body at the entrance to the burial-place, demanding an assurance that the cause of death has been investigated before conducting the remains to the grave prepared for its reception and safekeeping till the day of Resurrection.
If we consider the vicissitudes through which the ages have passed, the fierce contentions for every yard of land, waves of unbelief, rebellion, wars and factions, we must admit that on the whole she has remained faithful to her charge,
In this she has undoubtedly been aided by the superstitious fear of disturbing the dead, which, in lawless times has made even the most callous hesitate to take liberties with the burial-places for fear of incurring the wrath of supernatural powers, not the least terrible because they were undefined.
In reopened pagan barrows the early Christians buried their dead, and we shall understand this practice better if we realize that the Christian was not necessarily an importation, but for the most part a pagan, converted to a new teaching, largely because it amplified his spiritual aspirations--such as they were--and in no instance more so than in the special reverence for the dead. It would be very natural then, that the pagan should wish to be buried with his forefathers, and especially so, since he had accepted the primary Christian doctrine of a general Resurrection. It was not till the ninth century that the consecration of cemeteries became customary.
In ancient times, burial always took place in the fields outside the walls of the cities and towns, for before the advent of Christianity, it was not lawful to bury the dead within the city. In the year 752, Saint Cuthbert obtained leave of the Pope to have churchyards added to the church, as places suitable for the burial of the dead.
Consecration necessitated a definite boundary being fixed for the enclosure of the graves, and we find many instances where it was insisted that consecrated ground should be isolated by walls or other means, and that special care should be taken that the ground so enclosed should not become neglected.
At the consecration of a burial ground, the bishop walks in solemn procession round its boundaries, expelling by special prayers, all evil influences which might disturb the dead. Even in times of national crisis, such as the plague, this was carried out in the case where new ground was required for the burial of the dead. It is interesting to note what the modern "psychic" has to say on this ancient practice.
"To the bishop also is restricted the power of consecrating a church or a churchyard, and the occult side of this is a really pretty sight. It is very interesting to watch the growth of the sort of fortification which the officiant builds up as he marches round, uttering the prescribed prayers and verses to note the expulsion of any ordinary thought forms which may happen to have been there, and the substitution for them, of the ordinary and devotional forms."
In the year 1267, Bishop Quevil ordered that all cemeteries in his diocese should be securely enclosed, and that no animal should be allowed to graze on the grass which grew there. Even the clergy were warned of the impropriety of allowing their cattle to graze "in the holy places, which both civil and canon law ordered to be respected," for this reason the Bishop continues, "All churches and cemeteries must be guarded from all defilement, both because they are holy (in themselves), and because they are made holy by the relics of the Saints."
In 1348, Bishop Edyndon wrote "that the Catholic Church believes in the resurrection of the body of the dead. Sanctified by the reception of the Sacraments, it is consequently not buried in pagan places, but in specially consecrated cemeteries, or in churches, where with due reverence they are kept like the relics of the Saints, till the day of resurrection."
The custom of churchyard burial seems to have been suggested by the practice of the monastic orders, who desired to have the bodies of those of their community as near to them as possible, for they were considered in an exceptional sense, as very closely united to the living of their order. Once started, it very quickly spread. The most honoured of the flock received the special privilege of sepulture in the immediate proximity of the church, but this, like most concessions, presently became a general rule. It was a nice question as to where to draw the line between those who were worthy, and the lesser kind.
This wider tolerance had its sequel, for the saints were in course of time so elbowed by the sinners, that they sought seclusion in the sacred edifice itself. The pressure must have been great, for it was entirely against the spirit of the Early Church to enshrine a body under its roof unless that of a saint or martyr, for the corpse was considered as an unclean thing. Even as late as 1682, the practice gave offence to the orthodox mind. Evelyn writing in that year of the death of his father-in-law says, "By a special clause in his will, he ordered that his body should be buried in the churchyard under the south-east window of the chancel adjoining to the burying places of his ancestors, since they came out of Essex into Sayes Court, he being much offended by the novel custom of burying everyone within the body of the church and chancel, that being a favour heretofore granted to the martyrs and great persons, this excess of making churches charnel-houses being of ill and irreverent example and prejudicial to the health of the living, besides the continual disturbance of the pavement and seats, and several other indecencies. Dr. Hall, the pious Bishop of Norwich, would also be so interred, as may be read in his testament. Dr. Compton, Bishop of London, had also said, 'The churchyard for the dead--the church for the living.'"
In 1566, the "Assembly of Scotland" had prohibited burials within the church, and those who contravened the ordinance, were suspended from the privileges of the church. Such burials continued, however, despite the edict, with families of rank, who demanded to be buried apart from the common herd.
Even to her own children, the Church has in special circumstances refused burial in the churchyard, not only to unbaptized children, suicides and lunatics (the latter being possibly possessed by a devil), but in particular to those, who, for one reason or another had been excommunicated; a whole parish was liable to excommunication for various periods for disregarding ecclesiastical law, during which time burials in consecrated ground were forbidden. In such circumstances it often happened that the body would be secretly buried in the night within the coveted spot, which if discovered, brought further penalties on the offender.
So great a horror have the Jews for the burial of the dead anywhere except in the earth, that the Chief Rabbi of England absented himself from the occasion of a State National Thanksgiving, at which his official position entitled him to be present, not because it was held in St. Paul's Cathedral, but because the Cathedral was a place of sepulture for the dead.
At the entrance to most churchyards will be found a roofed timber erection known as a lichgate. The term is derived from the German "leiche," a corpse, for here it was that the corpse rested whilst the first part of the burial service was read in the days when it was not thought to be a fitting thing for the church to be used for the purpose. A lichgate is often added without reason to the modern burying ground, probably for its decorative qualities, and it may be met with even in domestic architecture. On an exaggerated scale this now meaningless structure often forms the entrance to the "Limited Liability Cemetery" with its mock Gothic cast-iron palisade and other atrocities.
In the days when the parish church was the centre of village life, to which all would repair as a matter of course on festivals and holidays, the churchyard was looked upon as the meeting place or playground of the village. Here, after the miracle plays were elected from the church itself, they were performed till such time as the extra licence which their new surroundings afforded them caused them to be moved off again, this time into the market-place, where they still further degenerated, and finally ceased to be.
We can readily understand how the graveyard was liable to desecration by the boisterous churls, who played their rough games, dancing, fighting and drinking on the hallowed spot. How rough their games could be we are reminded by the frequent entries in the parish registers of deaths resulting from the participation in such rude pastimes. That the services in the church were often disturbed, and serious damage done to the graves by the erection of booths and the like, we can well believe, but before we condemn this coarse conduct as necessarily irreverent, we must remember that the bond between the living and the dead was in those days something quite different to what we conceive it to be in our country at the present time.
The untutored mind very often exhibits a depth of faith which is disconcerting in its simplicity and refreshingly contrasts with the pious veneer with which modern Christianity overlays its doubts. The following true story illustrates the point. An English priest travelling in Italy was invited to say Mass in a country church. Being very much disturbed by the noisy behaviour of some members of the congregation who were apparently discussing their private affairs very audibly, he spoke to the offenders, who were much astonished that he should be annoyed, "For are we not," they said simply, "in our Father's house."
We may suppose that it was in some such spirit as that the people of the Middle Ages thought of their dead as very near to them, and probably glad to hear the noise of their merry makings. Very different indeed was familiarity with the departed of these honest boors, to the disgraceful neglect of the burial grounds, which was such a scandal in the eighteenth century. Several instances could be quoted to show that the belief still exists that the corpse is interested to know what is going on in the world.
In Norway a space is sometimes enclosed over the grave, about three yards square, surrounded by a low iron railing, in the centre of which a seat is placed to hold two or three people. Here, at Christmas and on other special occasions, the relatives meet and discuss family affairs and matters of local interest for some hours, in order that the dead may be kept posted with what is going on in the world in which they once played their part.
In other countries this principle has the widest recognition. At the time of the war between Russia and Japan, the Mikado sent a special functionary with a retinue to the tomb of his illustrious ancestors to inform them of his victories.
At the Reformation, when certain doctrines were abandoned which had served in a special way to link the living with the dead, some changes are readily marked which had far reaching effects. The Post-Reformation inscription on the headstone ceased to supplicate your prayers, and the old-time "Pray for the soul of John Bull," or the even simpler "Jesu Mercy," became a panegyric, setting forth the titles and virtues of the deceased as a trusty friend, loving husband and devoted father and the like, till it is little wonder that the infant, taken for the first time to the cemetery, wanted to know "where the bad people were buried."
In the reign of the Stuarts, the social status of the clergy in this country had sunk to a very low ebb, and both church and churchyard suffered in consequence. Collier says that "even if they got a parish, they lived and worked like peasants, their sons were ploughmen, and their daughters in service." Of the churchyard, Evelyn writes, "I observed that most of the churchyards (though some were large enough) were filled up with earth, or rather the congestion of dead bodies one above the other, to the very top of the walls, and some above the walls, so that the churches seemed to be built in pits. The fabric of the churches was allowed to go to ruin, and they were commonly used as barns or for other irregular purposes. If this was true of the church, the state of the churchyard may be imagined. But it was in Georgian days that things ecclesiastical touched bottom--the days of the hunting parson. Epitaphs of this period are often extremely coarse and profane. Ditchfield says, in showing the general state of neglect into which things had gradually sunk, "Services in county churches were not very frequent, and in London during the early part of the eighteenth century, when people did attend, they behaved badly. The poor Vicar of Codrington, in 1862, found people playing cards on the communion table, and when they chose the churchwardens, they used to sit in the sanctuary smoking and drinking, the clerk gravely saying--with a pipe in his mouth--that such had been the custom for the last sixty years. He calls attention to the fact that the churchyard in Gray's Elegy is described as "This neglected spot," and also quotes from Webb's Collection of Epitaphs, published in 1775.
"Here nauseous weeds each pile surround,
And things obscene bestrew the ground;
Sculls, bones, in moulding fragments lie,
All dreadful emblems of mortality."
This was the period when in order to protect the grave from the ravages of man and beast, those who could afford it erected heavy iron palisades round their tombs, which were sealed with huge slabs of stone often devoid of any Christian symbol. What would our forefathers--so jealous of the guardianship of the dead--think of such neglect where "bodies are buried within a few inches of the surface, and the dogs eat human remains, and bones are everywhere?"
Lovers of that critic of social abuses--Charles Dickens--will remember that haunting pen-picture of a neglected graveyard such as he had no doubt himself witnessed, which may serve to sum up anything further which need be said on the subject of neglected burial grounds. "By many devious ways, reeking with offence of many kinds, they came to the tunnel of a court and to the gas-lamp (now lighted) and to the iron gate. 'He was put there,' says Joe, holding to the bars and looking in. 'Where?' Oh, what a scene of horror! 'There!' says Joe, panting, 'over yonder, among them piles of bones, and close to the kitchen winder, they put them werry nigh the top. They were obliged to stamp upon it to get it in. I could unkiver it for you with my broom if the gate was open; that's why they locks it, I s'pose,' giving it a shake. 'It's always locked. Look at the rat,' he cries, excited. 'Hi, look! There he goes. Ho! into the ground.'"
The observant will have noticed two peculiar things in connection with the dispositions of graves in the churchyards. The first of which is that they are arranged in such a manner that the bodies may lie with their heads to the West and their feet to the East, or "oriented" as we should say.
Occasionally, limitations of space may override this general principle, but only as an exception to a very old custom.
Johnson mentions a cemetery at Charvaise belonging to the earliest iron age, and containing more than seventy graves. "All but two or three were so oriented that the head lay at the west end."
It would seem that orientation is not primely of Christian origin, but a relic of the rites of the early sun-worshippers. We shall see the same practice in the orientation of Christian churches that governed the erection also of their pagan temples, the altar in each case arranged in relation to the rising sun. We may connect the matter even more closely than this, for many of our churches are built, not only in the eastward direction, but towards that point in the east from which the sun would rise on the feast day of the Saint to which the particutar church is dedicated. In the sense that "Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfil the law of the Prophets" we shall find this and many other pagan beliefs carried forward as a Christian practice which probably contained the germ of some far-reaching truth. "Infinitely older than the Church everywhere," as St. Thomas a Kempis says of the Cross.
To the Christian the burial of bodies with their faces to the East is the outcome of the belief not only of the resurrection of the body, but also that from the East shall come the final summons to Judgment. Hence in Wales the east wind is known as the "wind of the dead man's feet."
We shall find other funerary customs dictated by this doctrine, such as the burial in an upright or in a kneeling position, even upside down in view of the supposed upheaval at the last day.
The second interesting point to note in the churchyard is, that whilst south, east and west of the church the gravestones are packed as closely as space will allow, on the north very often no headstones are to be seen. In some cases we may find that additions to the structure of the church have been made on this side only, for the simple reason that there were no graves to disturb, thus leaving the ground free for building operations. Why is this? If you look carefully on the north side, you may solve the problem, for one or two stone labels overgrown with rank grass and moss may have escaped your notice, and the village gossip will gladly tell you who lies buried there, isolated from the rest of the little community, a half-forgotten tale of blood and crime or maybe of suicide. Here, then, they bury their outcasts, the murderer on the north, his victim in a place of honour, east, west or south.
In order to understand the matter we must know that the north or left-hand side of the altar which is, of course, in the chancel at the east end of the church, is known as the Gospel side, whilst the right or south side of the altar is called the Epistle side. In the Roman Catholic church the Epistle is read on the south or Epistle side of the altar, and the Gospel at the north or Gospel side.
Before the Reformation, this country necessarily conformed to this Catholic practice. The underlying idea of this is that the Gospel was preached to "call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Hence the side from which the Gospel is read was delegated to those who, having committed crimes, were in greater need of salvation, and those so buried were said to be "out of sanctuary."
If it is thought that this treatment of the social outcast was too severe, what will be said of the earlier custom which denied him even so favoured a position? The body of the suicide has in all times been subject to some sort of penal measures.
The Romans, who held cremation as the honourable means of the disposal of the body, buried the suicide and murderer, whilst the parricide, held in especial horror by a nation of ancestor worshippers, had the further indignity of having a cock--the emblem of impiety--sewn up in the sack in which the body was interred. Apart from the orientation of the body, there have been other superstitions in relation to the position in which the body is buried.
To place the corpse face downwards has a special significance. An old superstition has it that an infant buried in this manner--if a first-born child--will prevent any further additions to the family.
This mode of burial was also held to be a means of preventing trouble from a witch after death.
On the occasion of a serious epidemic of cholera which raged in a village in Hungary, it was supposed that the visitation was due to the maledictions of a certain witch. Her body was therefore exhumed in haste and buried again face downwards, in order that the plague might be stayed.
Astonished that this time-honoured remedy was of no avail, the villagers dug the body up again and after having turned the grave clothes inside-out, buried it once more. Even this did not have the desired effect, so once again the offending corpse was dragged to the surface, this time for the removal of the heart, which after being cut into four pieces, the quarters were burnt at each corner of of the village.
The separate burial of the heart from the body was once a common practice, particularly in relation to the funeral of kings and warriors.
In this country it was the custom for many generations to bury the blood-guilty at the crossroads, a practice which was not abolished till the year 1823, when an act was passed insisting that such should be buried in unconsecrated ground which was provided by law in all burial-places, the hours for such burial being specified as between nine and twelve at night.
So great was the horror of the suicide that even the passing of the body on its way to burial was a matter for special legislation.
In 1582 the Kirk Sessions of Perth refused to allow the corpse of a man who had committed suicide by drowning to be "brought through the town in daylight, neither yet to be buried among the Faithful"--"but in the little inch (island) within the water." To trace the matter still further, we find it laid down by the canons under Egbert, Of A.D. 740, that Christian burial was to be denied to those who laid violent hands upon themselves, and who thus act by any fault, so excluding those who may commit the deed in a state of frenzy. Not unfrequently the suicide was buried in the spirit of charity, without ceremony in the unconsecrated ground in the churchyard as we have seen, but the earlier practice was to take the body away from human habitation and bury it where four roads met.
Various reasons for this strange custom have been given; knowing as we do, that one of the prominent features of the treatment of the dead is the terror which all ages and all peoples have shown at the possibility of the return of a revengeful spirit, we are justified in thinking that the real object was to confuse the mind of the departed as to the direction of his former home, and the fact that it was a common practice to anchor the body down by driving a wooden stake through the heart tends to support this theory. We see the same attempt to "maze" the dead in a sense of direction in another custom, for it was once considered necessary for the funeral procession to return from the graveside a different way to that by which the corpse had been carried, in order to render it more difficult for the departed shade to return if it had any intention of haunting the relatives.
Some have supposed that the fact that a preaching cross was often erected at the meeting of ways, and used by itinerant clergy when the churches were few and far between, hallowed the ground to some extent, and in the shadow of the cross kindly hands might lay the poor outcast when the Church herself had refused him sanctuary.
Wagner denies this in saying that "the true reason is that Teutonic nations always set up their altars at such places, and as criminals were sacrificed to their gods, the place of execution was there also, and it was for this reason that in Christian times the felon was buried at the crossroads at night, a Roman custom intended to give the impression of a heathen burial."
Many of these unhallowed places once removed from populated districts, spots avoided by the traveller--especially after dark--have now been embraced by the ever-widening boundaries of the towns. Who, for instance, gives a passing thought as he rattles through prosaic St. John's Wood on a bus, by the little triangle of green opposite St. John's Chapel and Lord's Cricket Ground, where lies buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through his heart, John Mortland, who in 1823 murdered Sir Warwick Bampfylde in Montague Square, and afterwards died by his own hand. This was probably the last case of crossroad burial, as the Act prohibiting the practice was passed the same year. Not only were murderers and suicides buried "out of sanctuary," but others, who for one reason or another were not considered fit to lie with the elect, were buried apart.
To-day if an actor achieves a place of honour in his art, he stands a reasonable chance of sepulture in Westminster Abbey, though his fame may scarce survive the generation which so honours him; yet in France it was not till the Revolution that stage players were even allowed the common right of burial in consecrated ground. The graveyards were divided into various parts; suicides, strangers, the unbaptized, and women who died in childbirth all had their separate allotments.
In Tyrone there is a male burial ground which women are not even allowed to enter, for it is supposed that the dead are very jealous about the company they keep, and would rise from their graves, if necessary, to eject a stranger.
In Brittany in the Cemetery of Lanrevoare, 7,727 "Saints" are said to be buried; into this holy place you may not enter without first removing your boots, or it is feared that you may share the horrible fate of the stranger, who disregarding the injunction, "fell backwards so that his entrails came out and spread around him."
We have been inclined to suppose that whatever disadvantage death may bring, it would have certain advantages, not the least of these being a final freedom from all kinds of social obligations and class distinctions, and we may be surprised to find that this commonplace thought has by no means been generally accepted.
The following advertisement appeared in The Times (1914). "A family vault for sale (under cost) in the best part of Highgate Cemetery." And we have seen with what indecent haste privileged places of burial have been sought by those who insisted even in the face of the law, to separate their dust from that of the common herd. Closed in their walled domain, subdivided into distinctions of consecrated and unconsecrated ground, these communities of the dead have to the superstitious mind been associated with the functions of the living, and all sorts of queer beliefs have at various times been accepted.
It was, for instance, a tradition in many countries that the last person buried had to act as a watchman over the graveyard till relieved of his office by a newcomer, and in certain parts of Ireland, the gravedigger would leave a pipe and tobacco for the solace of the ghost during his hours of vigil, a special box being kept on the grave for the purpose.
In Brittany also, the latest arrival is commanded by the old guard to get up and take over his duties.
Naturally the post was unpopular and one to be avoided if possible, thus when two bodies arrived for interment at the same time, a rush was made by the friends of the deceased in order to avoid the corpse they carried being "last man in." This led to words, and words to blows, the corpse being left while the mourners fought the matter to a finish.
That those who are newly dead suffer from thirst has been very generally accepted, as shown by the old custom of placing a basin of water after the funeral in the room where the body had lain. The duty of quenching the thirst of the dead was added in Ireland to the functions of the watchman.
At Kilmurry the last person to be buried has to moisten the lips of the souls in purgatory, and in the cemetery at Kilranelach a well is provided to supply the water, with wooden bowls for the purpose, which for some reason not very clear, are presented to the cemetery by those who bury children under five years of age; here the soul of the last person buried must offer a bowl of water to each of his predecessors till he is relleved of his office by a newcomer.
We meet with a variation of this belief in Brittany, where the last man to die in the year in each parish becomes the "Ankow" of that parish for the year that follows. The "Ankow" is Death personified, who summons in various ways the souls of those who are about to die.
Various means have been adopted to dispose of the dead other than those of burial or incineration in the generally accepted form; of such, perhaps, the best known is practised by the Parsees, who place the corpse on a tower or on the tree-tops, there to be devoured by the vultures. At first sight this might seem a callous and inhuman practice, but the motive underlying it is not without beauty. It arises from the belief that the elements are sacred, therefore to bury the body is to defile the earth; to burn it would defile the fire, and to cast it adrift on the river, as some people have done in order that it might float out to sea, is held as defiling the water.
This, then, is the reason why the bodies are exposed on the walls of the tower, where the vultures having removed the flesh, the sun-bleached bones are swept into the depths of the structure by an attendant, in order to make room for others to be treated in a like manner.
Holding such religious views, we may surely admit that the process--however little it may commend itself to us--is at least a reasonably sanitary manner of overcoming a difficult problem, and we may well acquit the Parsees of any wilful irreverence towards their dead. There is even a side to the matter which should appeal to a liberal Christian view, and that is in the thought that whatever the social position of the deceased, no difference is made in the final disposal of the body. Whatever barriers of wealth or birth may have separated individuals during life, naked and side by side they face the last ordeal in the spirit of common brotherhood.
The celebrated Towers of Silence on the Hill of Malabar are objects of great curiosity to visitors, as from the beautiful gardens which surround the buildings, they view with morbid interest the great birds of prey which hover over the spot.
The Parsees are not alone in leaving the dead to be devoured by birds or beasts.
Certain of the Kaffir tribes purposely abandon the body to the tender consideration of the jackals, so do the nomads of the plains of Central Asia, who first cut the body into small pieces, and leave it in the open for the wild beasts to devour. Packs of dogs were once kept for the purpose in the villages, the rich having the privilege of owning their own "undertakers." In Asiatic Siberia, the flesh was given to the dogs, the bones being preserved and religiously treasured.
The Persians have a great horror of all burial grounds, the poetical trend of their minds leading them to look upon the light of the sun and the purity of the air as a birthright from which, even in death, they refuse to be separated. The thought of walling up the body, or placing it in the dark depths of the earth, holds a special terror to their minds. They believe that the sun demands from each individual when death takes place, a return of those life-giving elements with which it has endowed the body during its physical existence. What is decomposition, the Persian argues, but the natural process by which the material elements are given back to the sun, the author of all forms of life? For this reason, the corpse with its feet to the East, is placed on a slab of jasper, which is then deposited on the top of a high column, in order that it may be secure from the attention of unclean beasts. For several days the remains are thus left undisturbed, during which time the heat of the sun, attracted by the polished surface of the marble slab, dries up the fluids. When this state has been reached, the birds of prey--which have been wheeling round the body--now settle to consume the dried flesh, a sign to the mourners who are watching, that the debt due to the sun has been satisfied, and that the birds have come to bear away the soul to the place of spiritual bliss which awaits it on the summit of the sacred mountains.
It is from the pages of the ancient Sagas that we learn how the dead Norseman was sent out to sea in his Viking ship, wrapped in a pall of flames, as befits a chief--with all his personal belongings about him. This practice of sending the body to sea (a symbol of the source of life) is to be met with in many parts of the world. The natives of Borneo have a similar custom, whilst the placing of the dead in the sacred river Ganges has been held to account in a large measure for the spread of cholera in India. Drying and preserving the corpse, and keeping it uncoffined, is another method of which we have many examples. Sometimes the remains are smoke-cured or partially burnt. In the Hayti Islands, the body so treated is dressed in its best apparel, when it is either suspended from or lodged against the walls of the house of its relatives.
At the Monastery of Krewzberg at Bonn, and also in that of the Capucine at Palermo, the mummified bodies of the defunct brethren, dressed in habit of their order, are arranged in rows, in various life-like attitudes in the vaults; forming a horribly fascinating exhibition which never falls to interest the privileged tourist.
Burials other than in the churchyard or cemetery have been common in all ages, when excommunication or other causes rendered it necessary.
The body of the victim of an accident is often buried by the roadside where the death took place, the spot being marked by a cross. Reference has already been made to burial at cross-roads, when for one reason or another, the Church has refused burial in consecrated ground--or in those cases where churchyard burial was not desired, bodies were frequently laid to rest in gardens or orchards. This method of disposal was at one time quite common; Wagner, it will be remembered, prepared a grave during his lifetime in his own garden, and loved to introduce the subject of death to his guests at the dinner-table, taking them into the garden to see his last resting-place, and back again to finish their meal with what appetite they might have left.
Sometimes consecrated ground is not available, as in the scattered hamlets in the mountainous regions of Norway, where the body has to be removed to the valley for burial, it is impossible, owing to the narrow and slippery mountain tracks, to carry it in a coffin. In these circumstances the corpse is strapped on a pack saddle as the body of the Corsican chief is tied to his horse, and the procession with its strange load winds its way down the zigzag paths to the plains below. It may happen that the body has the further advantage of crossing the fiords in a canoe to where the church is situated.
There are occasions, however, where burial in consecrated ground is out of the question owing to the widely scattered habitations, and in such cases the body is reverently laid to rest without any ceremony--except, maybe, the singing of a hymn--at some spot selected in the fields. A piece of wood is placed over the grave, to mark the place of interment. Sooner or later, perhaps after the lapse of several weeks, the Pastor will find this simple monument; he knows quite well what it means, and dismounting from his sturdy pony, he reads the liturgical prayers which circumstances denied to the dead when the grave was opened.
Like all people who live very near to nature in its wilder moods, the Scandinavians have very little fear of death. Many centuries ago, they had a horrible custom, which was probably the outcome of their frank acceptance of death as a physical fact of no great importance. In those days, when it so happened that a serf or dependent had a greater number of children than his labours enabled him to support, his feudal lord had them all placed in an open grave, where they were heartlessly left to perish.
Naturally the stronger and more vigorous of the unhappy children would survive the ordeal longer than those who were weaker, and therefore of less value to their master. By this crude test, the strongest child was selected, being dragged from the grave in which brother and sister had succumbed from want and exposure.
Perpendicular burial, common in the East, is not unknown in this country. Ben Johnson was buried in this manner in Westminster Abbey. The reason in this instance would seem to have been an economy of space. It was at one time supposed that the small stone covering his remains had led to this tradition. In order to settle the matter, a faculty was granted for the opening of the tomb, when it was found that the body was upstanding, as it had been supposed.
An eccentric person named Richard Hull is buried beneath the curious stone tower which stands as a landmark on Leith Hill. Hull was buried on horseback upside down, in order that he might have the advantage of position on the Day of judgment, when according to a once popular notion, the world would be reversed.
Thomas Cooke, who died in 1752, "stands " in Morden College, Blackheath, and one Clement Spelman of Nottingham is immured in a pillar of Nasburgh Church.
Burial at sea, for such reasons of sentiment as Kipling relates in "The Voyage of the Mary Gloucester," or the scattering of the ashes at sea, are methods of disposal which have always appealed to certain types of mind.
Such practices--except in the case of necessity--are strongly discouraged by law, for apart from the possibility of the body being eventually washed up on the shore it might very well aid criminal purposes.
The Jews have their own ideas on the subject of the burial-places which they call by the beautiful name of "House of Life." To them the family vault is forbidden, for it is against their doctrines to rest a body on a shelf; nor do they permit that one coffin should be placed above another in the earth.
Sanctuary was extended from the church to the churchyard, a privilege which one of the Articles of the Constitution of Claredon sought to repeal as far as goods were concerned. The actual soil of the burial-place has always been held to be sacred in a special sense, as consisting of, or containing the remains of the dead. It was used for various purposes of magic and sorcery, and many curious beliefs were connected with it.
In Brittany it was believed that the dead were obliged to eat as much of it as they had wasted bread during their lifetime, whilst in Ireland a handful of earth taken from under your right foot and thrown on the funeral procession was accounted as a certain cure for warts.
An old Irish custom also directed that the priest should bless and sprinkle a handful of earth on the corpse before burial, as it was believed that should this ceremony be omitted, in the case of a suicide, trouble might be expected from the other occupants of the churchyard.
The otherwise non-Catholic usage of sprinkling earth on the coffin, as observed by Protestants generally, is reminiscent of the Roman custom of thus covering a body found unburied with "at least three handfuls of earth" whilst saying the prescribed ceremonious farewell. It was instituted in this country by a rubric in the year 1542 as part of the duty of the officiating clergy, and later it was allowed to be done by "one standing by." The Jews placed a bag of earth in the coffin, each mourner present at the interment helping to fill in the grave.