IN order to follow the various burial customs as clearly as possible, we will consider them in their natural sequence.
Death has taken place, with or without such a supernatural warning as we have noted in a previous chapter, and precautions have been taken (we will hope) to ascertain that what was once a human being is now a "lifeless corpse"--an expression that we may use without tautology. Whilst the word "corpse" is now accepted as denoting a dead body, it was at one time as often used in describing the living; of which Trench gives the following examples:
"A valiant corpse where force and beauty met."
"Women and maids shall particularly examine themselves about the variety of their apparel, their too much care of their corpse."
When the soul or personality goes away, leaving the body behind, it severs all association with the remains, which become a public charge, with an implied obligation on the relatives. Should they, however, for one reason or another refuse it burial, any stranger may undertake that duty, and recover the cost from the estate of the deceased by law.
The only way that a person in this country can assure his wishes being carried out in respect of a particular form of burial is by leaving his property to friends or relatives conditionally upon his expressed desire being respected. Although it is of course still open to such a person to refuse the legacy and act in the matter according to his lights. This is not infrequently done in cases of a difference of religious opinions. An amusing case of avarice versus religious convictions will be found in a chapter on cremation.
It cannot too strongly be insisted upon when we compare the practices of the past with the present, that the very customs to which we cling so unreasonably, are for the most part unworthy remnants of superstitious rites, and not anything dictated by any form of Christian religion to which we may subscribe. This is important, because we can readily trace the continuity of such usages in the absence of any sort of authority for what we do--to the accepted and erroneous belief that they are associated in some way with articles of a faith, which it would be impious to rough-handle, thus they have been handed down from generation to generation, impervious even to ridicule and carefully fostered by the Dismal Trader.
Let us look, for instance, at the demands of the Roman Catholic Church, as representing a body of Christians who, employing an elaborate ritual, might impose such customs upon their followers.
(1) That the body be decently laid out.
(2) That lights be placed beside the body.
(3) That a cross be laid upon the breast, or failing that, the hands laid on the breast in the form of a cross.
(4) That the body be sprinkled with holy water and incensed at stated times.
(5) That it be buried in consecrated ground.
Here we have certain observances, decreed, which have no relation to mourning weeds, floral offerings, funeral repasts, plumed hearses or tombstones, whilst as far as ceremony is concerned they merely apply to the dead those rites which are (rightly or wrongly) enjoined for the living. The wearing of the cross--for example, the recognized symbol of the Christian faith, the use of lights, incense and holy water are but the common practice of Catholicism. There is one thing which the Catholic Church does not allow, as being historically against the Christian practice--and this is cremation.
If we go back to the earliest Christian times we find certain decrees issued in relation to the burial of the dead, but still no mention of the "trappings of the trade."
In the days of Constantine, companies of functionaries were established, with definite duties of charity to the dead. They worked in groups under the general supervision of the Decani or overseers. Some were charged to "prepare for the religious procession," others to "carry the bier," whilst it was the duty of yet another group to "lift the body and dig the grave." Laws were also made at the same period to secure all expenses against overcharge. Every person who needed it was to have a coffin without payment, whilst even the poorest were to be followed to the grave by a cross-bearer, light monks and three acolytes. The funeral banquet, an abuse which on various pretexts was creeping in, was also banned by the Church.
The Council of Auxerre forbade the ceremonial kiss given to the dead by the priest, and the practice of dressing the body in rich garments.
Certain Jewish customs were adopted by the Church as "pious practices" (as distinguished from articles of faith) because of their association with the burial of their Divine Founder. An instance of this is the ceremonious cleansing of the body after death. St. Chrysostom writes of this as being "hallowed in the person of our Lord" (whose body was washed as soon as it was taken from the Cross). To the Christians this Jewish custom (the special obligation of a son to his father's body) signified that the dead, freed from the stain of sin by the Sacraments, might be received into Heaven "where no unclean thing may enter."
The charitable St. Martin took particular care to search out the dead bodies of the poor and destitute, and we are told, "Never failed of washing them with fair water."
Jewish funeral customs are sufficiently interesting to call for special consideration, and it would not perhaps be generally supposed that simplicity was the keynote enjoined for a people who notoriously love display, nor can we fasten on them our stupid pagan survivals.
It is strictly ordained that there must be no adornment of the plain wooden coffin used by the Jew, nor may flowers be placed inside or outside. Plumes, velvet palls and the like, are strictly prohibited, and all show and display of wealth discouraged; moreover, the synagogue holds itself responsible for the arrangements for burial, dispensing with the services of the "Dismal Trade." Fixed and reasonable charges are made for services rendered. For anything like this admirable commercial "undertaking" we must look in our own country to the olden days of the trade guilds. The guild supplied a hearse, such as will be presently described, also a pall, bier, candles, etc. These articles were collectively owned, and held always at the disposal of those of the fraternity who might have need of them; they might, moreover, be borrowed by the members for the use of friends, in which case a toll was taken of a certain quantity of wax, which would be made up into candles as required. In some parishes in England to-day a bier and a pall are still kept for the use of parishioners, to which was added at one time a coffin in which the shrouded body was carried to the grave, and from whence it would be removed at the grave side, the coffin being returned for a further occasion.
No doubt the origin of the custom of washing, anointing and clothing the corpse in garments suitable to its rank was instituted in the dim ages, when it was believed that the departed required such attentions to enable them to appear at their best in a future material state. Handed down to later times the Christian put his own interpretation to the practice which he had adopted.
The primary doctrine of the Resurrection of the body somewhat crudely interpreted presupposed the resurrection of the clothes by the old force of associated ideas. This led to a continuance of a tradition which we have by no means forsaken to-day. Thus we still array in their robes of office, kings, monks, nuns and priests, as well as soldiers, statesmen, and others who wear a distinctive dress, whilst on the Continent great satisfaction has been derived from the thought of appearing before the Creator in the inevitable evening dress, apparently with a view to impressing Him with a sense of the social standing of his creatures so arrayed. As a somewhat happy contrast to this, one is inclined to admire the humility of the Greek church, whose "religious" are buried naked, with the exception of a hair cloth, as a sign of a life of penance.
In the matter of dressing the dead, the same customs do not apply everywhere--some only cover the body with a winding sheet, with the exception of the priests, who are robed in their "ecclesiastical ornaments," as the bodies of the martyrs were ordered to be arrayed in a "fair surplice." Pope Gregory even finds fault with some of his predecessors for having such honours done to their bodies, which were the special privilege of the martyrs. In Italy the dead were wrapped in the cloaks they wore in life, "which was considered honourable and done in the first century."
Muret further reminds us that it was "an ancient Christian custom to perfume the body in commemoration of the spices in which the body of the Saviour was wrapped, and that the pagans, who much prized perfume and used it in their religious rites and copiously on their bodies, much chided the Christians for wasting precious ointments on their dead at the expense of the living."
In China, where rank is so deeply respected, the clothing of the dead is a very costly and elaborate proceeding. According to social standing the corpse must be provided with anything up to the fifty suits due to a ruler, for whom upper and lower garments are used. The student comes in for a rich assortment of black silk robes in recognition of his learning, which is held very honourably by the Chinese.
It is hardly necessary to add that despite the liberal contributions of friends, known as "helps," a family is frequently ruined, as is sometimes the case in our own country, in paying what are supposed to be "proper marks of respect" to their deceased relatives. Whilst the most expensive thing about a man in China is his funeral, the least expensive is that of a child. During the old regime, parents frequently wrapped the dead infants in lengths of matting and laid them at certain street corners, where a man passed with a black cart drawn by a black cow every morning, and collected them for burial.
In early days in England the bodies of the poor were committed to the grave practically naked, or at best wrapped in a shroud of linen, and only the prosperous were allowed to be "chested," as it was called. Cox mentions a curious instance of this as late as 1608, when one John Skerry, "a poore man that died in The Place Stable (Poyning, Surrey), and being brought half naked with his face bare, the parson would not burye him soe, but first he gave a sheete and caused him to be sacked therein, and they buried him more Christian-like, being much grieved to see him brought soe unto the grave, and at this time did one Thatcher dwell at The Place" (or manor house).'
In the year 1666 an Act came into force insisting that all persons should be buried in a shroud composed of woollen material in place of linen previously used.
It would seem that this new law was easily and frequently evaded, for in the year 1678 and again in 1680 it was found necessary to amend it; a provision was added that a certificate must be given by the relative of the deceased person, in the form of an affidavit, declaring that a woollen shroud had been used at the burial.
If we compare the population of England at that period with the population to-day, the impetus which this law gave to the paper trade, which it was designed to assist, is very remarkable. It will also give some idea of the value of the costly hard woods and metal which we consign to the earth every year. We are told that as a result of this law, it was computed that no less than 200,000 lbs. of rag were saved from corruption in the grave. In order to enforce the regulations, a heavy fine was imposed for non-compliance, but the gay decking of the corpse is a custom which dies hard, and persons of means were often found to pay the penalty rather than submit to what they considered an indignity. The parish churches were obliged to keep a special register of burials for the purpose, and an affidavit had to be made before a justice of the Peace or a clergyman that the new law had been duly complied with. The certificate was signed by two witnesses. A bait was offered, consisting of a part of the fine, to any informer who could produce evidence that the Act in any particular case had been evaded.
These laws were not repealed till the reign of George III, 1814.
In the year 1700 there appears an entry in the parish register of Eye, that the executors of one Thomas Deye were fined five pounds for burying a body wrapped in linen. Cox gives the following extracts from one of the special registers :
"Well wrapped in a shirt of woollen and was let down into his dormitory with that vestment about his corpse, to the great satisfaction of the law enjoining that habiliment as convenient for the dead."
"Francis Pickerings was shrouded only in a winding sheet made of the fleece of good fat mutton."
For the same reason that it was once the custom in Ireland to remove the nails from the coffin immediately before lowering it into the grave (in order that the dead might have no difficulty in freeing themselves on the day of Resurrection), so we find that the shroud or winding sheet was often loosened from the feet and hands, lest its tight folds should prevent a speedy egress at the all important moment. A special costume for burial was provided, and in some cases prepared during life, by the women, so that there might be no doubt about its being ready when required at death.
The Norwegian peasant makes her burial garment from a special material, and reverently hoards it up for use at her death, whilst not infrequently in this country poor women who are forced by circumstances to spend their last days in the workhouse take with them a nightdress and a pair of white stockings in order that they may appear "respectable" at their death.
The following is a description of a curious ancient Jewish dress for a corpse in the seventeenth century: A special pair of drawers was made by women who did this work as a charity. After this had been put on the body a skirt was added, a frill of fine linen, a taled or cloak, square in form with ribbons suspended, and on the head a white cap.
That white stockings are still considered in certain spheres of life as fitting for the special use of the dead the following incident will show, which recently came to the writer's notice. A little girl, whose mother kept a small linen draper's shop in London, was invited to a children's party. Her scanty wardrobe contained a muslin frock suitable to the occasion, but her heart was set on a pair of white stockings to complete the effect. Having seen the necessity stocked for sale in the shop, she ventured to ask for the loan of a pair, a request that was angrily refused by her mother, who explained that they were sold only for the use of the dead.
In England, till the middle of the sixteenth century, it was ordained by the Church that if a child should die within a month of its baptism it must be buried in its chrisom. The chrisom was the prototype of the baptismal robe. It was originally made in such a way that the priest might readily anoint the infant with the chrism or holy oil used at baptism, with the sign of the cross between the shoulders and on the breast. This garment was worn till the seventh day to protect the places so anointed, or till such time as the mother was churched." For the same purpose a band of linen was at one time bound round the head of children and kept there for eight days after confirmation, of which the white band often worn by boys round the arm when they are confirmed is a probable survival. In the event of the child dying before the stated time, it was known as a "chrisom" child, and it was decreed that it should be buried in its chrisom, bound round the body by swaddling bands, in place of the shroud. It might be mentioned here, that whilst we generally associate swaddling clothes with children, it was once a term used to describe the strips of material bound round the shroud of children or adults. There are a few memorial brasses to be found in our churches, depicting "chrisom children" shrouded in this curious manner.
The burial of children has always differed in some ways from that of adults. The Romans, for instance, buried them in the ground under the eaves of their houses, because it was thought that the infant spirit, being near its parents, would not "walk" as it otherwise might do if interred far from its home.
For the same reason, even to-day, we generally bury the body of a very young or unchristened child in the coffin of a woman adult, in order that the little ghost may not torment its parents with reproachful "lamentings"; for the origin of the practice has nothing to do with the mere economy of burial charges.
We saw that the Chinese wrapped their dead babes in old matting, but something very similar has been done much nearer home.
In France, some years before the revolution, De Braz tells us that the parents of a dead child used to make a little receptacle for its body by stripping the bark from a chestnut tree, which they bound round the infant with broom. So common was the habit that it became necessary to pass a law making the priest the responsible person to see that a practice which ruined so many trees was discontinued. The priest of each parish was instructed to announce the new regulations from the pulpit in the various provinces. The penalty for non-compliance was a very heavy fine.
This bark shroud or coffin was an instance of the use of something which answered both purposes. Binding the body with reeds or sewing it up in the hide of an animal are other instances. The body of Henry I was salted to preserve it and sewn into an ox hide and brought to England for burial.
Cox reminds us that the book of Common Prayer certainly anticipates uncoffined burial, as the word coffin is not even mentioned, reference being made only to the "corpse" or the "body"--thus, "the earth shall be cast upon the body."
In Wheatley's book on the Common Prayer (1710) occurs the comment, "When the body is stripped of all but its grave-clothes, and is going to be put into the grave," etc. A trace of interment without a coffin at the present day may be found in the traditional rites of the orthodox gipsy, who prefers to be shrouded in his best suit of clothes--turned inside out--and buried at the cross-road, or under a hedge with no other covering.
That "chested burial" was at one time considered as an attribute of wealth or social standing may be gathered from the following ancient regulation taken from the records of the historic town of Rye (Sussex):
In the year 1580 the City Fathers decreed that "no person who shall die within the Port of Rye under the degree of Mayor Jurat or common councilman, or of their wives, except such person as the Mayor shall give licence for and being paid to the Mayor for the use of the poor, shall be chested or coffined to their burial, and if any carpenter or joiner make any chest or coffin for any person to be buried (other than for the persons aforesaid excepted) he shall be fined ten shillings for every coffin so made by him."
When a coffin was used for the poor it was only for the purposes of conveying the corpse from the house where the death took place to the graveside. There the body would be removed and placed in the grave, covered only by the shroud or winding sheet.
In Scotland, about the sixteenth century, a kind of combined coffin and bier was in use. It consisted of a wooden receptacle, one side of which was hinged as a lid, from which the corpse was removed and lowered into the grave by means of ropes.
Andrews also describes the "death hamper," as it was called, where it was in use in some parts of the Highlands. Three pairs of loop handles were provided, through which iron bars were passed to enable it to be conveniently carried. After it had been lowered into the grave, it was turned over to relieve it of its load, and brought to the surface again for use on a future occasion.
Simpler still was a contrivance once used in Brittany. It consisted of a top and bottom plank, one over and one supporting the body. Blocks of wood held them together, two being nailed close to the neck of the corpse, two under the arms, and two near the ankles, thus forming a rough crate without sides rather than a chest.
"To chest" or place the body in a coffin is an expression frequently to be met with in early English records. Thus we read in the Bible, "He (Joseph) dieth and is chested."
In countries where earth-burial could be avoided, a coffin would be of little importance in preserving the body from decay, a natural or artificial cave being used in which the body would rest on a ledge or shelf, without any covering except the grave clothes.
We find the cave habit perpetuated in the use of stone coffins, many examples of which have been unearthed in this country. When suitable materials were not available from which to construct such a coffin, small slabs of stone were built round about the body as a protection such as we find in early Christian cemeteries.
The stone coffin was indeed more nearly related to the tomb, for owing to its weight it was not possible to conveniently carry it any distance, so that the body could be brought to the coffin and deposited therein.
Let us look for a moment at the origin of thus boxing the body instead of the simple practice of placing it, shrouded only, in direct contact with the earth. Undoubtedly it originated in the attempt to preserve the corpse as long as possible from decay, and the reason for so doing was in Christian countries anyway, the belief in a final material resurrection of the body.
We have seen that the poor looked upon the coffin as a luxury, which had, in some instances, even been denied to them by law. It is still regarded by meaner minds as a symbol of social status and respectability, and the undertaker finds in the poorer districts a ready demand for the polished oak and gaudy "furniture" which is the pride of his profession. In support of this the following true story was told by the late Canon Barnet.
Some slum children were taken for a day's outing to the country, and later, their experiences formed the subject of an essay at school. One little girl appeared to have been much impressed by the trees, and thus described the oak: "From the oak tree is made coffins and other expensive articles."
We can hardly believe that even the most bigoted could suppose that burial without a coffin rendered the poor at a disadvantage in answering the Roll Call on the Day of Judgment, for we have an example from the most orthodox source to disprove this. The Trappist Monk wrapped only in his habit for a shroud, with his head and face protected by his cowl, is reverently committed by his brothers to the earth in the little cemetery belonging to their Order, without any coffin or other protection whatever, and this could hardly be the case if there was the slightest reason to suppose that its welfare in the future state should be imperiled. Undoubtedly the custom of preserving the body as long as possible from decay is one of those unauthoritative conventions which we follow without attempting to define our reasons or real feelings in the matter.
Needless to say the "Trade" is all in favour of a substantial and "beautiful" (?) casket, to cast into the grave, with such expensive furniture fittings and linings as can be thrust upon the relatives at a time when they are not in the spirit to bargain.
If we estimated the value of the oak, elm and other valuable hard woods which we commit to the earth every year, to rot and decay, to say nothing of the value of brass and other metal which goes with them, we must see how truly appalling is this waste. Our folly in this respect forms one of the soundest claims which the advocates of cremation put before us, from the purely utilitarian standpoint. Taking the annual number of deaths in England and Wales as something like 260,000--translate that into pounds sterling and you will have very largely tinder-estimated the value of the wood alone, which is used for coffins during that period. Prodigal as we are in our use of timber for various commercial necessary purposes, which we ruthlessly destroy and never systematically replant, we at least manufacture articles which may perhaps last for generations, whilst wood used for coffins, from a utilitarian standpoint, may just as well have been burnt.
Even in a damp soil a coffin made of oak or elm, with or without a leaden shell, will preserve the human remains for a very considerable period. Elm is largely used, both for economy and its secular properties of resisting the action of rot when in the ground.
In light sandy soils decomposition is a very much slower process. Some earth has the peculiar property of mummifying the body. The placing of antiseptic carbolic sawdust, etc., in the coffin greatly tends to preservation, whilst the use of india-rubber and other such expedients is the outcome of foolish sentiment which seeks to delay the reasonable and inevitable courses of Nature in reclaiming what she has lent to us. Not only are such practices illogical, but opposed to the laws of sanitation; nor are they warranted by any precept, civil or ecclesiastical.
Whilst preservation, including the ancient science of embalming, is (except in certain rare cases) unnecessary and objectional, we must not go to the opposite extreme and bury our dead with quicklime or corrosives, which might tend to render more difficult the detection of crime. Very large sums of money have been paid for costly coffins elaborately carved and silver mounted, whilst the use of velvet, swansdowns, paddings and pinking, show us a remnant of the hard dying belief that the dead are merely sleeping in their graves, and require such material comforts.
The orthodox Jew believed this very really, and also that the actual process of decay was in the nature of a punishment, the pains of which the dead were called upon to endure in satisfaction of sins committed during their lifetime. We are not therefore surprised to find secret efforts often made with a view to shortening this unhappy period. Earth was placed in the coffin, and holes bored in the wood to accelerate decomposition. Perhaps as a claim to special consideration the Jews sometimes made their coffins from the boards of a table at which the poor had been fed.'
It has been said that the very customs to which we cling, that are objectionable, have no relation to any doctrine imposed upon us by our religious beliefs. The special preservation of the bodies of the dead, when carried beyond an occasional necessity (where certain diseases have produced an extremely rapid mortification) is all part of an ignorant literal conception of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. That such a materialistic conception was once very general is easy to determine; for instance, teeth were often carefully preserved, as they were shed in the natural course of events, during lifetime, in order that they might eventually be buried with the body and, as dismembered parts, be readily available at the "Last Day." If such precautions were necessary the matter presents many problems, such as must have troubled the mind of the Sunday School scholar, who inquired in his perplexity where missionaries went to when they died, and being assured that they undoubtedly gained admission to the celestial state, the child asked "if cannibals went to Heaven also." The horrified teacher denied so liberal a doctrine. "Well, then, what happens to the missionary who gets eaten by the cannibals?" was the logical response.
Many cases are on record where a coffin has been purchased during the lifetime of a person of eccentric habits, and often served as a bed, in order that the owner might become accustomed to the use of the receptacle in which the body would repose during the long sleep. It is well known that Madame Sarah Bernhardt kept a coffin, and was photographed in it in her boudoir. Whatever may have been the motive of the celebrated actress, others have done the same thing, in the sense of self -repression, as the monks of some Orders daily dig a spadeful of the earth which is eventually to cover their remains, as an act of humility.
Evelyn mentions attending the funeral of a master shipwright, and he tells us "it was the custom of this good man to rise in the night and to pray, kneeling in his own coffin, which he had by him for many years."
In China, when a son wishes to make a handsome and welcome gift to his parents, he presents them with a coffin, which is often to be found in the houses of the middle classes. It may be made of fine wood or cypress, and it is often very costly. The Chinese coffin is of tremendous weight, and according to a rule prescribed for persons of different degrees of dignity, the outer shell may be as much as eight inches in thickness, the inner shell six inches, and the innermost four inches.
The correct measurement of a student's coffin is six inches in thickness, and even the poor are buried in wood five inches for the outer and four inches for the inner shell. As a rule, plain white unvarnished wood is used for the purpose.
In Mrs. Hugh Fraser's charming account of her travels in Japan, she gives the following description of the funeral procession of a Prince which she witnessed, and thus describes the conveyance of the body to burial:
"The bier was a lovely shape, like a small temple, all carved out of spotless white wood. It did not look like a coffin but like a closed litter, with beautiful chased golden mountings and fresh green bamboo blinds closing the litter windows. The roof rose at its corners in delicate ornament, and tassels of pure white silk hung against the blinds.
"The bier was carried by fifty men by means of poles crossed and recrossed. This covered a double coffin made of white wood."
The universal custom of burying articles of various kinds with the body has been responsible for our gradual enlightenment as to the habits and surroundings of those who inhabited the world before us, from the most remote periods.
It is from the tombs that we have discovered many historical facts which tradition had either misused or entirely forgotten. We are indeed richer to-day in our knowledge of the past than those who lived many centuries nearer to events. Not only articles buried with the body, but the bones and impressions left by the body in the soil long after the tissues had crumbled into dust, continue to reward the patient investigator with such information as enables him to piece together, not only the mode of life, but the actual appearance of the dead, whose burrows he uncovers.
In many cases traditions have been verified in a startling manner. Some parts of a suit of gilded armour were recovered in recent years from a place where tradition only had handed down a story through the centuries of a knight of great valour so equipped.
The origin of the practice of burying weapons and utensils with the dead is obviously the outcome of the belief that the departed spirit would require such material necessities in the "after life." Weapons of battle and the chase, domestic pottery and the like are most frequently recovered, owing to the time-resisting properties of the flint, bronze or glass from which they were generally constructed. Food, if buried, would quickly decay, but the earthenware pots or glass vessels in which it was stored, remain in evidence of the practice.
The discovery of a number of tusks at Llanbede (Vale of Conway) shows us that the wild boar once roamed through our forests, whilst such treasures as drinking horns, metal shield bosses and remnants of military equipment not uncommonly reward the labours of the excavator.
Apart from private collections, there is hardly a museum, however modest may be its alms, that does not contain numerous examples of such objects dug from the earth, and nearly always from the site of the graves of our long forgotten ancestors.
To catalogue these treasures would be altogether outside the scope of our subject, for we are rather committed to learn the reason of their presence with the dead than to study them as a matter of archaeological interest. The axe for slaughter, the dagger or meat-knife, and the hammer for breaking bones, tell their own story. Such simple necessities as these we shall expect to find in plenty. That they should accompany the dead in their travels to the spirit-world is consistent with the belief which we know to have been held by all primitive peoples.
We find other objects in the graves which are yet more worthy of our notice, for they speak to us of superstitions which we may scorn in the light of our superior knowledge, but which we are not ashamed to perpetuate, largely because we have so dim a conception of the beliefs which we profess.
Ever since the exchange of goods by barter gave place to the more convenient practice of trading by tokens, money has been buried with the corpse. This habit has been common to all nations. If the hunter required his arrows and a spear with which to support himself in the future state, the trader would feel very helpless were he not buried with money with which to meet expenses and purchase his necessities.
Accustomed to be taxed on every possible occasion by grasping officials, even the cultured Greek took with him on his last journey coins with which to reward Charon for the safe conduct of his soul, over the dark waters of the Styx.
The Chinaman has much the same belief, and for safe keeping a coin is placed in the mouth of the corpse in order that it may be readily produced when the inevitable demand for a fee is made by some ghostly janitor.
Whilst Christian precept has found a spiritual meaning for many traditional practices, which, thus sanctified, have been carried forward from pagan times--as in the matter of the orientation of the body--it is to be feared that even these have become as foreign and meaningless to the modern mind as the pagan custom so continued. The matter of burying money with the dead is no exception.
The mediaeval Christian writer finds in the universal custom of closing the eyes and mouth of the corpse directly death has taken place the poetical thought that "the dead may look no more upon this imperfect life, now that they have seen the glory of the world to come"--and in closing the mouth "that they may taste no more of anything of this world, but rather use their mouths for praising God in Heaven."
It is very doubtful if even the modern Christian sees anything of the sort in this traditional practice, but it is remarkable to note that the custom of placing coins on the eyes of the dead, which was very generally done a generation ago, is still to be met with. This is indeed a relic of the primitive superstition that money, so urgent a necessity in this life, cannot readily be dispensed with in the future state. Quantities of silver and copper coins have been unearthed at various times in English churchyards, and it need hardly be said how valuable a record these have been as a guide to the period at which interment took place. In China, at one time, money, clothes and other things of value were burnt as a means of passing them on for the use of the departed spirit; but so great was the expense that, in more recent years, imitations made of paper were substituted.
As the funeral procession of a Chinese dignitary passes along the streets, round pieces of paper with a square hole in the centre in imitation of the copper cash used in the country, are scattered broadcast. It is intended for the future use of the departed official, at whose shrine offerings of gold and silver paper ingots will later be made. With the same intention, coins, jewels and precious ointments were lavishly placed to be burnt on the funeral pyre of the Roman of position.
The hammer has thus been mentioned as one of the objects commonly buried with primitive man, and we find this custom continued under another guise, namely, that the dead may use it to announce their arrival by "knocking with it on the gates of Purgatory."' This quaint belief is still to be met with in Ireland.
At the funeral of Zachariah Smith, a gipsy who was buried in Yorkshire a few years ago, in the traditional manner of his tribe, the following articles accompanied him for his convenience in the future state: An extra suit of clothes, his watch and chain, four pocket-handkerchiefs, a hammer and a candle.
Possibly with the same idea, that of announcing his arrival, it was a practice in Scotland to put a bell under the head of the corpse, and on the breast a vessel containing salt typifying immortality, and bread, the corruptible body.
Like the pages of history the graves of the dead sometimes give us touching evidence of frailties common to all mankind. What matter the achievements of King Alfred, as warrior, lawgiver or scribe! Enough that it is recorded of him that he burnt the scolding widow's cakes, and in so doing endeared himself for ever to the youthful mind. So in delving amongst dry and forgotten bones we shall sometimes find trinkets and treasured personal possessions--vanities which bridge the centuries and strike a deeply sympathetic chord of kinship in our hearts.
The skeleton of a mother of our race folding fleshless arms round the little bones of the child she bore, or a skull remarkable amongst a thousand others, the arrow-head still resting where it found its mark. What could be more human than the Swedish custom of burying a looking-glass with unmarried women, in order that they might arrange their loosely coiled tresses to appear to advantage the day of Resurrection. The fact that married women braid their hair rendered unnecessary any such precaution in their case.
In the Egyptian tomb, happiness in the after life of the children was assured by burying with them the toys with which they had played during their earthly sojourn.
In examining the spoils of the graveyard, we must distinguish between such things as were intended for the use of the dead and articles committed to the earth as symbols only, such, for instance, as wheat--a very ancient token of resurrection--or the scarab beetle so frequently found in Egypt, and still more frequently manufactured for the tourist trade. The connection between the scarab and resurrection is not at first apparent, for it is based on a misconception. This insect was popularly supposed to create its kind from the earth. It may still be seen working in the sand as the early Egyptian saw it, rolling up little balls of dung, which, presently bursting, releases its progeny created from the earth, as the poetic Eastern mind supposed, having overlooked the simple fact that the beetle had laid a tiny egg, round which the dung was moulded, thus providing a hot-bed for the purposes of fertilization.
Wheat, frequently buried by the Egyptian, is plentifully found engraven on the early Christian monuments, for to the Christian mind it holds a double meaning. Whilst the germ of life it contains is significant of resurrection, as the basis of bread, it was ever associated with the Sacraments. In quite recent years in England, it was the custom to distribute a sheaf of corn amongst the mourners at a funeral.
It was once a common practice to place an hourglass in the coffin to represent the "running out of the sands of time." Howlett thinks it probable that little hour-glasses were distributed amongst the mourners, to be thrown into the open grave.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable instances of the hard-dying belief that the soul requires material assistance in the after life is a Russian custom of giving a parchment certificate of good conduct, which is placed in the hands of the corpse, to be presented as a credential to assure ready admittance into the realms of bliss.
Eventually the Christian Church forbade the interment of what were known as "grave goods" with the body, but an exception was made in favour of kings and priests, who were allowed to retain their robes and symbols of office.
Amongst the many rich finds which have been made in the tombs of Royalty, was the treasure discovered accidentally by a poor labourer in the resting-place of Childerie I at Tournay. Here was unearthed a cornelian Etruscan scarab, probably a valued amulet, a divining ball and a signet-ring. There were also recovered three hundred golden bees, with wings inlaid with a red stone, which it is supposed formed ornaments on the harness of his horse, the skeleton of which, together with that of his page, were lying near their royal master.
The practice of giving the material necessities of life to the dead, in the belief that their requirements in the spirit world were the same as in the sphere from which they had departed, leads very naturally to the belief that the wife and slaves of the rich man should accompany him also. Hence we find that in the case of a person of rank or position it has been the custom in the past to slaughter not only the man's wife, but his page, slaves and personal attendants.
So deep was the belief of a material hereafter that we find no horror expressed, as a rule, on the part of the victims, who would consider it an honour to be selected to accompany their lord on his spiritual travels.
In the Congo, on the death of a native king or chief, it is the custom for twelve young girls to throw themselves into the grave that they may be buried with their master. So great is the competition for the favour that a fierce fight often ensues amongst the claimants, in which some are killed, the number of applicants being thus reduced.
In Mexico, at one time, they buried with the king his jester and dwarf for his amusement, a number of women for his material consolation, and a priest to act as guide in the spiritual realm. Sir H. Johnston tells us that when an important Lubu dies a young slave is obtained, and his neck having been broken by a blow, he is laid by the corpse, which it is his duty to attend. Such customs are still continued amongst uncivilized peoples, and were practised in China under the old regime.
The horrible rite of self-immolation was common in India as late as the year 1829, when "suttee" was abolished. Till that time the Hindu widow voluntarily perished in the flames of the funeral pyre at the death of her husband. That it was considered an honourable act may be gathered from the fact that the word is derived from "sate," which means "a virtuous life." Credit has been given to the British Government for suppressing this ancient sacrifice, but although it is true that the weight of the English law made it possible to stamp out the evil, It is claimed that enlightened native opinion first urged the Government to abolish "suttee."
The noble Hindu Rajah Ram Mohan Roy is said to have been the prime mover in this matter. Swami Abhedanana tells us that "self-burning of widows was not sanctioned by the Vedic religion, but was due to other causes." Some say that when the Mohammedans conquered India they treated the widows of the soldiers so brutally that the women preferred death, and voluntarily sought it. In order to have Scriptural authority for the rite of suttee, the Brahmin priests perverted the meaning of the Vedic text which thus describes the funeral ceremony of the ancient Hindus: "Rise up, woman, thou art lying by one whose life is gone. Come, come to the world of the living, away from thy husband, and become the wife of him who grasps thy hand and is willing to marry thee." (Rig. Veda Bk. 10, Hymn 18, Verse 8.)
The Brahmin practice might indeed seem nearer to the original intention of the Veda, anyway, it enables them to keep up the tradition, but with humanitarian methods. When the body of their dead is lifted on to the unlighted pyre, the widow places herself by the side of the corpse in order to demonstrate her willingness to offer herself as a victim; one of the near relations then approaches, with a bow and arrow, as if to shoot her, but another interposes, saying: "Rise up, woman, thou art lying by one whose life is gone, come down to the world of the living, you who have shared his couch and have borne him children."
The widow then descends from the pyre, to which a torch is afterwards applied. If any further assurance is required that the widow has given satisfaction and done honour to her husband, the funeral oration should bring her comfort, for herein she is reminded that "she is not in reality a widow, who has gone unweeping to the pyre and who has been the wife of so virtuous a man." By this simple expedient everyone is satisfied.
In the year 1822 an English officer in India was present at the funeral of a person of rank whose wife was to be sacrificed in accordance with the custom of suttee. Seeing the preparations being made, he was much disturbed by the thought of the tragedy that he was about to witness. Approaching the widow, he asked her if she wished to be burnt to death, and she assured him that she did. Having partly disrobed and taken off her jewellery, at a signal given by the priest, she took an affectionate farewell of her relatives, and was led to where her husband's body was already being consumed. Scorched by the fierce heat of the flames, her courage forsook her, and the poor creature ran back and threw herself into a pool of water, from which she was dragged again to meet her fate. Three times she tore herself away and fled; on the third occasion the Englishman could stand it no longer, and with great difficulty he stopped the proceedings. Needless to say, the natives were much incensed by his interference, more especially as they believed that a scourge of plague would certainly follow so impious an action. Perhaps it was well that the poor woman died next day from the effects of her burns.
Where the actual practice of the sacrifice at the funeral has ceased to exist, we shall find it carried out in symbol. The Egyptians contented themselves by making clay images as a substitute for human lives, whilst the Chinese burn figures of paper.
Before we congratulate ourselves that such outrageous superstitions as these can find no echo in our customs--absurd as they may be--we might look with some suspicion at one or two of our observances. Such, for instance, as the fact that the widow follows immediately behind the coffin in the funeral procession, and is led to take a "last look" after the body has been lowered into the grave. It may be said that it is natural enough that the widow, as chief mourner, shall have a certain prominence on this occasion. That there is more in this than a mere matter of etiquette is demonstrated by the fact that a particular meaning has always been connected with her first place in the procession. An old Jewish tradition tells us that the widow followed next to the body of her husband "because woman brought death into the world."
It is, however, unnecessary to labour the point in order to connect our modern funeral practices with the idea of sacrifice at the grave, for there is no doubt whatever as to the origin of a popular military custom--still observed--of leading the charger of a dead soldier to the grave.
Soldiers, leader, chief or king, the titles are inseparable, and from the earliest times such have been buried with special marks of honour, amongst which we find the sacrifice of the war horse at the graveside, and the interment of its body with its master, in order that it might carry him to victory in the spirit world.
Sometimes a sportsman is followed by his favourite hunter, which is in some instances buried with him.
Herodotus mentions the slaughter of slaves and horses, even the cruel practice of maiming or breaking the foreleg has been resorted to--in order that the painful limp thus produced might give to the unfortunate animal an appropriate appearance of grief. The Turks put mustard seed in the nostrils of the poor beast, in order that its tears may be taken by the stupid sight-seers as a token of grief at the separation.
Egotistical and selfish people are to be met with who leave special instructions that at their death their favourite animals are to be shot or poisoned; "as soon as possible after my death, my dogs shall be painlessly destroyed," is a recent example. It will be said in favour of the owner that the decree may arise from a natural and affectionate desire that the animal in question should be saved by this means from possible ill-treatment or neglect, but it will be found that such wills are nearly always made by those who have ample means with which to make a provision for the short lives of their pets.
Even if it be taken for granted that friends and relations are not to be trusted with the task, are there not institutions enough which cater for the well-being of animals left in their charge?
For such illogical reasons poor distraught mothers frequently murder their children. Is it not rather that consciously or unconsciously the old tradition creeps in that the spirit of the favourite must follow its master to the shades?