INSEPARABLE from the picture which the mind presents at the thought of an old grave, is the yew tree. Often of great size and antiquity, it stands as a land-mark, overhanging with extended arms the tombstone it shelters. Here we shall probably find the weeping willow dear to the heart of the sentimental poet, perhaps also box and cypress trees.
The question arises, are they planted in these places for any particular reason? which seems to be answered by the fact that even in the newest cemeteries the custom is continued.
To seek the origin, we must go back to very early times, and consider ancient rites, which have, like so many of our modern funerary practices, long ceased to hold any special significance.
Abraham, it will be remembered, bought a field on the death of Sarah for a burial ground, but he was not satisfied till "the cave that was therein and all the bees that were in the fields and in all the borders round about were made sure."
Trees, we know, were at one time objects of extreme veneration and worship.
To the primitive mind, movement was inseparable from the idea of life, thus the ripple of the stream or the whisper of the wind, or the creaking of the branches lashed by the storm, left the impression of some subtle animation dwelling in natural objects, very powerful for good or evil: and as such necessary to be propitiated, thus, from the earliest times, we find trees worshipped in one form or another.
The early Christian missionaries had struggle enough to shake this deep-rooted notion out of the minds of our tree-worshipping forefathers, and in the end, it would seem that they were not altogether successful, and that their contentions ended up by something of a compromise, for we find holly still taking the honoured place at Christmas-tide that it held in the days when the Druids distributed it amongst the people at the great December festival, and if box and evergreen, banned by the Church, have crept into the sacred edifice, mistletoe is still out of sanctuary.
Even the Greek philosophers gave souls to the trees, and the gods of the ancients had special trees allotted to them; Phyllis weeping for Demophon, is turned by the gods into an almond tree. To the oak supreme honours were paid, and the ash was but little less esteemed.
"Pat as a sum in division goes,
Every planet had a star bespoke.
Who but Venus should govern the rose,
Who but Jupiter owned the oak?"
The oak and the ash are trees particularly English, about which a number of superstitions and customs cling.
The rowan tree or mountain ash was believed to possess special powers against evil spirits, and bundles of its twigs were hung over the farmhouse and cottage doors to avert the dreaded powers of witchcraft.
Canon Mahe of Morbihan, writing of the year 1825, mentions "Our Lady of the Oak" in Anjon and "Our Lady of the Oak" near Orthe in Maine, as the seats of famous pilgrimages.
The "clipping" festival at which the yew in the churchyard was trimmed, is still observed at Painswick, Cradly and other places.
The subject of tree worship is a large one, and we must not be tempted to consider it farther than is necessary, in order to trace its connection with the almost universal custom of planting certain trees in the churchyard and cemetery.
Various other theories have been put forward by those who do not like to admit pagan practices in Christian ages--but surely evidence is against them.
Some believe, for instance, that the presence of the yew tree on hallowed ground served the purpose of providing the wood for the bows of the archers, and that by making the churchyard an arsenal as it were, this valuable and slow growing wood might the better be preserved from destructive or indiscriminate "clipping" that the " clipping" festival, indeed, might have been a day set apart for the public distribution of branches suitable for the purpose.
It is of course possible that the tree was so used, but it does not necessarily prove that it was planted for that purpose.
In the days when the bow was the general weapon of protection and the chase, the local yew would have been hard put to it to provide anything like enough wood of a suitable growth for the archers.
Others held that the great size of the tree protected the fabric of the church from the force of the tempest, and provided shelter for the worshippers.
Dr. Gasquet, writing on the subject, tells us that in the thirteenth century the guardianship of the churchyard was in the hands of the clergy, and that the trees growing there might be used for the repairs of the church, other-wise "as they had been planted to protect the church from gales, they were to be left for this purpose."
The duty of keeping the churchyard in order was the parishioners', but that which grew on holy ground was holy, and the clergy had the right to the trees, grass or anything which grew there; further, the clergy were reminded that the trees served to ornament and Protect God's house, and must not be cut without due reason.
Anyway, there were times when the matter seems to have been a fruitful source of dispute between the priest and his flock.
Sometimes an old custom when examined in the light of modern experience will be found to contain the germ of a scientific fact, and one is left wondering if the truth thus disclosed, was happened on by chance, or born of a knowledge with which we should hesitate to credit our forefathers.
The architect who plans our modern garden cities knows well enough the value of trees as purifiers of air contaminated by the decay of organic matter, for the mission of the leaves is to turn harmful gasses into pure, life-giving oxygen.
"Then from their breathing souls the sweets repair,
To scent the skies and purge the unwholesome air."
Was this common scientific fact known and made use of in the ancient days? Was this at least one of the reasons why these trees were planted in the crowded burial grounds, to cleanse the air from the poison arising from the ground?
Whatever the origin, no doubt the continuance of the custom of planting certain kinds of trees in graveyards has been due to their appearance, suggesting by the force of associated ideas their use as symbols of grief immutable, and the like.
By some it was believed that the roots of the yew tree found their way to the mouths of the dead.
The weeping willow, by reason of its form trailing and bowed in grief, as its name suggests, caused it to be frequently planted in such a position where it might overhang a favoured tomb, like some perpetual mourner.
"All round my hat I wear a weeping willow,
All round my hat for a fortnight and a day.
If any of you ask me the reason why I do it,
Tell them that my true love is far, far away."
But the willow has yet another claim to a place in the burial ground, for it properly derives its source of life from the stream, and is generally to be found on the banks of the river, or in damp and marshy places. For this reason it is the accepted symbol of resurrection, and its branches are borne by mourners at a masonic funeral.
The value of a thirsty tree, in places where the gravedigger is troubled by water, as is frequently the case, will be obvious.
Myrtle, besides its sombre appearance, is a symbol of resurrection by the fact that it is evergreen.
"The myrtle, laurel and bay stand for Victory.
The maple for Authority."
Various kinds of fir trees are also planted as recognized symbols of death; for unlike other trees, the life goes out of them directly they are cut.
The cypress has held the place of honour throughout the ages, in connection with death. The Romans placed its branches in the vestibule as long as the body was there, to signify that it was a house of mourning, and it was also carried in the funeral procession.
"Rosemary," says Ophelia, "that's for remembrance," and in comparatively recent times, the mourners held sprigs of box and rosemary at the burial, and deposited them on the coffin before leaving. Medicinally, rosemary was held to be good for improving the sight and the memory.
The sprigs were arranged in a bowl on a table in the entrance hall of the house where the friends and relatives were assembled, to whom they were distributed.
In Japan, branches of sakaki are carried and used in part of the final ceremony--flowers also in abundance.
We must not forget the palm, the symbol of victory over death, which the Christian festival of Palm Sunday reminds us was used at the "entry into Jerusalem," and which is associated by the Church with her martyrs. It is often to be found engraved on the Roman tombs.
A very curious superstition is worth noting in connection with the mandrake, a plant similar to belladonna, and credited with having a personality, or if growing in a graveyard, attached to the spirit of the dead. There seems to be no better foundation for this belief than that it roughly resembled the human form, having two taproots of equal length which suggested the lower limbs. When pulled from the ground, the small fibres breaking, a sound is produced which was readily translated by the imaginative into a "shriek."
The Germans made the mandrake into dolls, dressing them with care and respect, and keeping them in caskets.
Midnight was the correct time to dig them up, when all kinds of absurd rites were practised, a "black dog" being employed to drag them from the earth.
Amongst other magical properties, they were supposed to be efficacious in the case of a barren woman, and are mentioned in the Bible in this connection.
If trees have a close association with death, so too have flowers, and never more so than at the present time.
The writer recently attended a funeral at which the value of the floral "offerings" could not have been less than seventy or eighty pounds, and this is not anything very exceptional.
The fact that white flowers are almost exclusively used for the purpose reminds us that they are a special token of purity.
It was the practice of the Primitive Church to crown the heads of virgins with flowers.
In Corsica, when a young girl dies, the body is dressed in her best clothes, the feet tied with a white silk ribbon (to prevent the spirit from wandering on earth) and her head crowned with a chaplet of flowers by her friends, who thus address her, "We your companions, in bringing you lilies and roses, bring you your wedding garland."
Besant mentions as a recent custom in Yorkshire, the hanging of a garland of flowers in the chancel of the church when a girl dies unmarried. The fact that the wreath was placed in the chancel, and that it was considered unlucky to carry away a piece of the ribbon with which the blossoms were tied, and the still more significant fact, that as the wreath decayed, the pieces were reverently buried in the churchyard, indicates that it was looked upon as an offering to the dead, rather than a sign of condolence with the living.
Sometimes a white glove was attached to the wreath on which the name and age of the maiden would be inscribed. The white glove, like the white veil with which the Greek Church bury their dead women, has generally been used as a token of innocence. The white glove signifies a "clean hand," and it is still the custom to present a pair to the judge when there are no criminal charges to come before him, or, as at an earlier period, it was hoisted in the market-place on high days and holidays, a truce to those who were "wanted" for various crimes, who might venture forth from their hiding places to join in the festivities only as long as they were so protected.
From what we have seen of the matter, it would seem that the funeral wreath of white flowers signifies virginal purity, and if this is so, we must admit that it is singularly out of place for general distribution.
Were we to ask the "mourner" why he purchased those wire-tortured exotics almost identical with a dozen others, which would arrive at the house of mourning at the same time, his first surprise overcome that anyone should question so universal a custom, he would probably say that he did it as a "mark of respect." Pressed a little further if his patience stood the strain (for people who are asked why they do things which they have never thought about, often seek refuge in righteous anger), he might admit that he was not sure if he had intended to please the living or honour the dead; on the whole--since you question it--he would be inclined to think that his intention had been to show sympathy with the relatives, since the black-bordered card supplied by the florist contained an expression of his "deep sympathy and condolences." If quite candid, he would be forced to admit that it was nothing more to him than the fulfilment of a social obligation, and that the half sovereign he paid for it saved him from the mental exercise of composing a suitable letter of condolence, which would have presented many problems, ranging from a struggle with the unaccustomed use of the third person singular, to the scratching up of suitable scriptural quotations from a rusted mind.
The fact is that the funeral wreath is a survival of the belief that it is necessary to provide comforts for the use or delectation of the departed spirit; more than this, we may see it in at least an implied sense of sacrifice, for flowers were strewn to be crushed by the feet of the victor, as they are to-day thrown by children before sacramental processions, or used to line the grave. In the Highlands the grave is lined with heather.
A story is told of a soldier visiting the spot where a fallen comrade was buried in a foreign country for the purpose of placing flowers on his grave. On his way he met a native carrying a food offering to the ancestral tomb. Amused by this superstitious absurdity, he asked him when his ancestor would come up from the tomb, as he would like to see him enjoy his meal. "About the same time as your friend comes up to smell your flowers," was the unexpected rejoinder.
To-day, if we are spared the task of admiring the tranquillity of the corpse (a treat which no one in the lower orders of society would miss) we are, at least, called upon to express a rapturous surprise at the beauty of the floral offerings sent by friends. "Aren't they lovely," you say, in hushed whispers (for even to-day you are afraid of waking the sleeping corpse).
Had we the courage of our opinions, or if we gauged the matter by the same standard of taste we use in testing any other beautiful things, we should find the funeral wreath neither necessary nor beautiful, but a foolish custom kept alive, and sedulously fostered for profit.
White flowers, which as individual blossoms are charming enough, if one can disassociate their waxy perfection and sickly odour from morbid thought, gain nothing but monotony in quantity.
Strung into the forms of harps, anchors, broken columns, etc., they are frankly vulgarized; and if this much may be said of natural flowers, how can we describe the "immortelle" in its glass case, with the added horrors of sugary doves and clasped hands--the despair of those whose duties it is to regulate the decencies of the churchyard. And how we long for the day when it will no longer be necessary to advertise "No flowers by request."
"May the grave of your ancestors be defiled!" Of the endless variety of Oriental curses this is the most dreaded. Life, which the Eastern mind values cheaply, and looks upon philosophically as a fleeting and uncertain thing, holds no terrors half as fearsome as the thought of the spirit wandering as an outcast from the rifled tomb.
To laugh at the childish precautions taken by people of all times and countries to prevent the dead from wandering from the place of sepulture, is to underestimate the terror which haunted them of being disturbed after death; and the certainty of retaliation, swift and terrible, which would assuredly overtake those who were rash enough to dishonour their remains.
Nor was it necessary to remove the bones to incur the full force of supernatural wrath--a ceremony forgotten, an honour due, unpaid, neglect of any kind was certain to bring disaster upon a careless relative.
Fear of the dead is the origin of almost every funeral custom which has come down to us to-day; from the pomp of the procession to the laudatory epitaph on the tombstone, to propitiate the acute sensibility of the departed.
So sacred was the grave to the Roman mind that even when it was necessary by force of some extraordinary circumstances to sell the land on which a tomb was placed, the law forbade that the sacred spot should even be considered as part of the contract, nor might anything be done which had the effect of excluding the relatives in perpetuity from the right of access to their dead.
It would indeed be an endless task to chronicle the special precautions taken by all nations and peoples to preserve the dead from any form of disrespect; that the tomb itself should be rifled and the bones scattered was an unpardonable crime.
The well-known injunction sheltering the remains of the immortal Shakespeare is a type of many to be found in this country.
"Good friend, for Jesu's sake forbear,
To dig the dust inclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones."
Whether the gravedigger bears a charmed life, or the maledictions of the departed shade are really less potent than was supposed, it would be difficult to determine, but the fact remains that this humble and necessary official has constantly been called upon to disturb the resting-place of the dead, and to remove the bones in order to accommodate the bodies of a later generation.
As hamlets became villages, and villages grew into towns, many old burial-places had to be rearranged and provision made against overcrowding. In order to meet this necessity it became a common practice to provide a charnel house or "ossuary " in connection with the cemetery to which the bones of the dead might be removed after a reasonable number of years had elapsed to allow for complete decomposition. This was done for the most part reverently enough, and was often accompanied by some form of religious ceremony.
In some cases this custom, dictated by necessity, has even come to be looked upon as a virtue.
In the Breton churchyards the "ossuary" is considered of great importance, frequently with sculptured figures, and surmounted by a "Calvary."
Murray says in his handbook, "To allow the rude forefathers of the village to repose in the grave is opposed to the ideas of purity and affection in these rude people; after a certain number of years the survivors are required to show their remembrance and respect for their parents and relatives by removing the skull and bones from the coffin and placing them in the "ossuary," where the former are arranged on shelves open to the view of all, each with the name or initial in black painted across the fleshless brow."
The removal of the bones is done by the priest, and a municipal official has also to be present in order to certify that the matter has been carried out in due order; as in our country, an official sanction has to be obtained before exhumation can take place.
The wealthy Bretons enclose the skull in a small box made in the form of a miniature church, the roof of which is surmounted by a cross. Through the open door the skull may be seen. The door or peephole is made, as a rule, in the shape of a heart, over which is an inscription asking for prayers for the departed soul. These curious skull boxes which are carried in procession on the feasts of the dead, at other times repose in niches, or are in some cases nailed to the walls of the church.
With the exception of those rare occasions when it is necessary in the interests of justice to exhume a body in a case where foul play is suspected, we have considered all the circumstances in which we are justified in disturbing a body after burial; unfortunately there are many records of wilful pillage from motives of plunder, ransom or revenge.
The foolish custom of burying jewellery or money with the body has undoubtedly been the cause of desecration in the majority of such cases, and the practice is by no means uncommon to-day.
Apart from motives of personal vanity which induces the courtesan or the professional beauty to be sumptuously arrayed and decked with the costly toys from which, even in death, she would not be parted, it is the custom even now for the symbol of office to be buried with those who have held positions of state, signet rings and official badges of all sorts, which offer a tempting bait to the rifler of tombs.
Sometimes a sentimental attachment is held as sufficient reason for the interment of valuables with the body.
The following is an extract from a will which was proved in 1916: "I wish to be buried in my wedding ring, and two medals taken from those I always wear put on a piece of white or blue ribbon and tied round my neck."
Evelyn, writing in 1685, says: "The King showed me a golden cross and chain taken out of the coffin of St. Edward the Confessor at Westminster by one of the singing-men, who as the scaffolds were taken down after his Majesty's Coronation, espying a hole in the tomb and something glisten, put his hand in and brought it to the Dean, and he to the King." "It was of gold, about three inches long, having on one side a crucifix enamelled and embossed, the rest was graven and garnished with goldsmith's work, and two pretty broad table amethysts (as I perceived), and at the bottom a pendant pearl; within was enclosed a little fragment, as it was thought, of the true cross, and a Latin inscription in gold and Roman letters."
Even richer spoil than this was discovered in the time of Pope Paul III, when the marble tomb of the Empress Mary, wife of Honosius, was opened, where over and above the gold, forty pounds in weight, were curious vessels of crystal and agate, and many jewels.
How far it is justifiable to rifle the tomb for purposes of archaeological interest may be an open question, but even the most hardened delver must have had some doubts on the subject, as he gazed on the newly opened grave where the peaceful form of some long forgotten mortal lay, surrounded by toys or tools which, centuries ago, ministered to his needs.
That the fastnesses of the Pyramids should be broken after thousands of years' security, and the bodies of kings, to whom countless peoples had bowed the knee, removed from the place they had prepared with so much thought for security seems sacrilege enough, but that these royal bodies should be exhibited and ticketed for the idle curiosity of the British Cockney, opens up a question which happily it is not within our province to decide. If the opening of tombs for purposes of scientific research is questionable, what shall be said when it is done to satisfy the lowest motives of greed or revenge?
There have been times of social upheaval when the public conscience was so blunted that the value of the lead from the coffins was thought sufficient excuse to justify the crime. At the time of the French Revolution the republicans ordered that lead coffins should be despoiled and melted down for bullets.
In one of these orgies a workman tried to save the body of Marguerite of Lorraine, whose holy life and work amongst the poor had caused her to be venerated. He offered to make a new coffin of wood by his own labour, but was not allowed to do so, and with the rest, the remains held in such esteem were shot out of the broken end into the city ditch. Unfortunately the history of our own country will furnish instances of this kind where even the value set on the lead coffins could not be put forward as a cloak to malice.
The body of Oliver Cromwell, with those of Bradshaw and Ireton, were torn from their resting-place in Westminster Abbey to be hung on the gibbet at Tyburn; a fate shared by the Puritan, Steven Marshall.
In 1642 the soldiers under Sir William Waller pillaged the tombs of the Saxon kings at Winchester. Breaking open the coffins, they threw the bones at the painted windows which were mostly destroyed. The tomb of William of Wykeham was saved, it is said, by one Cuff, a rebel officer, who having been educated at the college, risked his life in order to protect the remains of the munificent founder from the plunderers.
If we may well turn our thoughts with disgust from such scenes as these, the acts of a frenzied mob, how shall we excuse the cold and calculating brutality of Leopold of Vienna, who in 1670 extorted from the Jews a sum of four thousand florins under threat of a vindictive desecration of their burial-places.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, when religious life in this country was at its lowest ebb, and scientific research in the ascendant, a great scandal presented itself.
The body-snatchers, or resurrection men as they were called, finding that good prices were paid by the anatomists for the bodies of those recently dead, opened up a nefarious traffic with the schools, which assumed the most disgraceful proportions before any severe measures were adopted to stamp out the evil. At this time the demand for bodies far exceeded the supply.
The grant of four felons each year to the Barber Surgeon's Company had been supplemented by the bodies of all criminals whose offences brought them to the gallows; good prices were paid for additional "subjects," and no awkward questions asked, a fact which so encouraged despoilers of the dead, that it became necessary to set a guard to protect the newly interred whose remains were much coveted for the purpose mentioned. Foiled by these means of doing business in the churchyards, it became a common practice for these ruffians to waylay and murder in the dimly lighted streets, any poor wanderer they encountered, with the sole object of making profit not by his purse, but by his person. After allowing this sort of thing to go on for a long time, at last the law rose to a sense of its responsibilities, and a system of licence was devised which did much to check the abuse; but the problem of supplying the schools remained unsolved, and remains so to the present day.
There is no doubt about it that the pauper was exploited when his need brought him to accept the charity of the nation, and even to-day, we find amongst the poor a horror of institutions generally, born of such malpractices which were regulated by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1844.
Perhaps even more profitable than the sale of a corpse to the anatomical schools, if not so common, was the practice of stealing and holding the body of a wealthy person as hostage for the payment of ransom.
A celebrated case of this kind was that of Charles Souter, sentenced in 1882 to five years penal servitude, whose romantic career was recently recalled by his death. He was found guilty of complicity in the theft of the body of the twenty-fifth Earl of Crawford from the family vault at Dunecht (near Aberdeen). The mystery was never completely solved. The family tomb of the Balcarres' family was of massive granite, built under the private chapel adjoining Dunecht House. The last Earl died in Florence in 1881; his body was embalmed and taken to Scotland, where it was interred: three coffins were used--a leaden shell, an inner case of wood, and the outer coffin of carved wood, richly mounted in silver. Some time after the funeral, a visitor to the chapel noticed that the slab sealing the entrance to the vault had been tampered with, but no importance was attached to this at the time. Later, an anonymous letter was received, stating that the vault had been entered and the body removed. This letter was also treated as a hoax. Some months later, part of the railing surrounding the tomb was found removed, and the entrance slab now lifted away and placed against the wall. The police were then summoned and the vault entered.
They found that the coffin had been removed from the shelf on which it had rested, the outer case unscrewed, the inner coffin forced open and the lead shell had the end cut away, from which the body had been pulled out by the feet. The fact that the valuable silver fittings remained intact showed that this was not the work of a common thief, and it was decided that the object of the outrage was to obtain a sum of money as ransom. Any hopes of this sort that the despoilers may have cherished were dispelled by a public announcement made by the family, that in no circumstances would they offer a reward for the recovery of the body.
Meanwhile, many clues were followed by the police without success; even "psychic" means were tried. Some spiritualists from London visited the place and declared that they had "seen" the body carried from the vault to a house on the estate, from whence it was afterwards removed to a "field that slopes towards a wood." Less vague was the light thrown upon the matter four months later by the man Souter, who in a drunken confidence offered to show his companions where the body of the Earl was concealed; when sober, he appeared to be frightened bv his indiscretion, and on his arrest he made a statement to which he stoutly adhered. He swore that whilst poaching on the estate at night, he was detected by a gang of men engaged in burying some object, and that he only escaped with his life on swearing that he would keep their secret.
He was presently taken to the spot he indicated, where the body was found wrapped in a blanket, five hundred yards from the mansion, and covered with a few inches of soil. If he had accomplices, he never divulged their names and he died protesting his innocence.