DURING the period between death and burial (which varies according to custom and climatic conditions) it seems natural enough that the body of a deceased person should be kept under close observation, for one reason or another, not the least of which is a scarcely abandoned hope of a return to consciousness. The separation and sudden change of conditions which death has brought with it, will be but gradually realized. The friends and relations who have so recently been accustomed to tend the sick person, now that their ministrations are no longer required, will hesitate to leave their charge till the moment when the body must inevitably be taken from them for the burial.
Thus, "watching" the dead became a recognized institution. It was an old Jewish custom to place the dead in the sepulchre, which would remain unsealed for the space of three days, during which period the body was frequently visited by the relations in the hope that signs of a return to life would be found.
In Christian practice the offering of special prayers for the deceased at a time when the soul might be considered as in need of consolation in passing into another state, suggested the gathering together of friends and relations, who in the actual presence of the body, would pray for the soul of the departed and console those who were afflicted by the loss. This was the origin of the "wake" or "watching."
Now there is no human necessity which has not nurtured a profession, and we find ample evidence of professional watching, not only in the past, but even existing to-day, as a recognized means of livelihood. So completely did the paid watcher take charge of the situation that in Scotland the thrifty poor were obliged to shorten the period between the death and burial of their dead, in order to reduce his charges. The social status of the bereaved family was largely estimated by the length of time they were able to hold out against the exactions of the watcher, but it was considered a point of honour to employ the services of this functionary.
"Lykwake" or corpse watching for payment is still practised by the Jews.
A case for damages recently came before the King's Bench (1916). A Jewish watcher claiming compensation for personal injuries sustained by the breaking of a rope in a lift in which he accompanied the "client" in his charge, from the ward where he died in an infirmary. It transpired in hearing the evidence, that two pounds or more could easily be earned per week in the profession, without taking into account gratuities contributed by grateful relatives.
Many extraordinary customs have resulted from the vigil in the chamber of death. Jusserand tells us that in the fourteenth century the watchers sought to enliven the tedious hours of duty by what was known as "rousing the ghost." This performance seems to have consisted of playing practical jokes to frighten the superstitious relatives, and in taking various liberties with the corpse. It may have originated in attempts to "raise" the dead, as it is suggestively called; in other words to call back the spirit of the departed by certain forms of witchcraft or "black magic", such as were frequently attempted in the Middle Ages. This abuse must have been very common, and the occasion of great scandal, for at the Council of York (held in the year 1367), "Those guilty games and follies, and all those perverse customs which transformed a house of tears and prayers into a house of laughing and excess," were expressly forbidden.
The Guild of Palmers of Ludlow permitted its members to perform the duties of the night-watching of the dead only on the understanding that they should "abstain from raising apparitions, and from indecent games."
In the South of Ireland this folly, in course of time, developed into a recognized form of play or pantomime, acted at night by the watchers in the chamber of death. Here a sham battle took place between two of the younger men, one of whom was supposed to be eventually killed by the other, and then restored to life by a person taking the character of a "Sorcerer."
In addition to the play, the more nervous of the relatives were scared by the actor, who would mimic the voice and gestures of the dead.
Much the same sort of thing was at one time common in Scotland, where the duel was no small matter of pretence, for the fighting frequently became very violent, and blood flowed copiously. It need hardly be said that such boisterous horseplay was sustained, if not instigated, by the liberal libations of various intoxicants and good cheer, which the house of mourning was expected to provide. Pancakes were considered as especially suitable to the occasion, and when, as was often the case in village communities, fifty or more persons undertook the vigil, it must have been no light matter to provide each with his accustomed share. The wake began to be looked upon rather in the light of an entertainment, and often one member from every house in the village would take his turn as a matter of right.
In Ireland bread, cheese and whisky were distributed at midnight, after which the fun began. At no time are the laws of hospitality more rigorously maintained than at the funeral, as we shall presently find, when we consider the funeral feast. It was quite as unpardonable a breach of etiquette to refuse any of the good things provided as it was to limit the supply to less than was dictated by custom. In Ireland even non-smokers were expected to take at least a ceremonial puff or two from the pipe of tobacco offered by the host.
Amongst other interesting observances, it may be noted that the watchers were expected to carry salt in their pockets, from which they ate from time to time. What they were forbidden to do was to "light one candle from another," or to "remove any of the ashes from the fire." The use of salt may be thought in the circumstances to have been merely an encouragement to drink the liquors generously provided, but we find it constantly used for strictly ceremonial purposes in funeral rites.
In Brittany, where honey formed an important part of the midnight repast in the death chamber, a curious superstition existed. A little fly (quite distinct in appearance from an ordinary insect) was thought to appear on the lips of the corpse, from whence it would presently go to the jar of honey, from which it would take its fill. The fly was none other than the soul of the departed, fortifying itself before taking its long journey into the distant spirit-world.
From the moment that the undertaker "undertakes" the funeral arrangements, he assumes an implied professional responsibility for the safe keeping of the body. This is the origin of the now obsolete practice of posting one or more of his miserable minions on the front doorstep of the house of mourning. Assuming that expression of deep melancholy which, together with a seedy frockcoat and a time-worn "topper," formed a part of his stock-in-trade, he mounted guard; supporting a dignified attitude by means of a crape-covered wand, which he held in his hand. Such a ludicrous sight was within living memory quite common in this country.
As we pass the dreary rows of suburban villas, now let out in unsavoury tenements--once the pride of an earlier generation--we may imagine the forlorn entrances, their knockers swathed in crape, and the now neglected doorsteps supporting the lugubrious mute. He was in fact the man in charge, representing his master. His presence produced a thrill of awesome excitement in the neighbourhood that gradually gave place to a wholesome ridicule, which finally chased the old carrion crow from the house of mourning.
Laugh as we will at the mute, he had a history and a pedigree which for longevity would put to shame the pretensions of many a noble "house." He was a direct descendant of the Roman mime, who likewise dressed in black, but wearing a portrait mask of wax-aped the mannerisms, not only of the deceased, in whose funeral procession he walked, but of the defunct members of the family. He was selected for the particular occasion in as far as he resembled in general appearance the person he was called upon to represent. When portraying the ancestors, it was intended to convey the idea that they had materialized in order to escort their newly deceased relative to the underworld. The masks used for the purpose were carefully preserved as family heirlooms, and only publicly exhibited at funerals.
Professor Ridgeway traces the origin of the tragedy actor to such religious ceremonial rites. He was originally a medium of the spirit of the dead, and, as such, associated with the practice of the worship of the dead.
To-day this historical figure has merged into the more useful, if less picturesque, bearer. Kattafin or "Shoulderer" as the Jews call him.
An amusing dispute arose in Paris (1913), where the coque-morts is still of some importance in municipal service. As an insight into the manners and customs of his kind, it may be worth quoting. It appeared that the City Fathers had received many complaints as to the unshaven and unkempt appearance of these officials supplied by the Department; the matter was solemny debated, when it was realized that on their slender stipend such relatively expensive matters as hair-cutting and shaving could hardly be insisted on with any show of justice. On the other hand, it was decided that there was reason for the complaints of the citizens, whose petition was suitably acknowledged; forthwith it was decreed that these functionaries should be trimmed into respectability at the City's expense. That their dishevelled locks, a recognized sign of grief, should be thus trimmed off them, showed a want of knowledge of the history of funeral practices, for the Romans much prized such tokens of the abandonment of despair, and even Biblical injunctions are not wanting.
Certain barber establishments in the city were commissioned to tend the coque-morts free of charge--then the storm broke! That one citizen should be thus favoured with municipal patronage whilst others were neglected cut at the most cherished traditions on which the Republic is based. The neglected barbers rose to a man and demanded a fair share of the trade. "Give tickets to the coque-morts," they demanded, "that they may extend their patronage to whom they will, rather than encourage a pampered minority." And so the matter was settled.
Even this equitable arrangement was found to have its drawbacks in practice, owing to a regrettable tendency on the part of the coque-morts to sell their tickets and go unshaven as before.
Women are more given to the display of emotional grief than is common amongst men, and they have for this reason been much in demand as "wailers"; in this capacity their professional shrieks have echoed down the ages. A generation ago they were frequently to be heard on the Continent, in Wales and Ireland. They too had followed the Greek and Roman to his tomb, crying and beating their breasts (for suitable remuneration), lest the attitude of studied self -repression, considered a correct deportment for mourners of rank, might be misinterpreted by the dead, who were believed to be ever ready to avenge the slightest sign of indifference on the part of those they left behind them. No doubt the harsh and discordant lamentations of these wailing women were much appreciated, their wild gestures seen by the flickering torchlight giving a certain dramatic atmosphere to the occasion, which would be dear to the Roman heart.
Not less effective the thrice repeated ceremonial farewell with which the wailers signalled the close of the ceremony. Even now, in Corsica, where emotions are quickly stirred, the wailing woman carries on her traditional duties with a fierceness which is only equalled by the efforts of her sisters amongst primitive people. Tearing their hair, rending their garments, and beating their breasts till the blood flows in their frenzy, they exhort the mourners to avenge such smouldering feuds and insults as death may have been the occasion of reviving. Like the Romans of old, three times they call the dead by name; their hair dishevelled and uttering unearthly shrieks, they circle round the body of the dead in measured caracole. In the East the custom is still in evidence, where at Jewish funerals the frantic remorse which is assumed, is heightened, should it show any signs of flagging, by the banging of drums. This further custom is perhaps added as the fruit of a commendable desire to give full value for their fee, and in lieu of the common practice of self-inflicted physical violence--for this is forbidden in the forty-fifth "prohibitive commandment" which restricts the Jews from "lacerating themselves for the dead."
A less known but even more remarkable functionary, whose professional services were once considered necessary to the dead, is the sin-eater. Savage tribes have been known to slaughter an animal on the grave, in the belief that it would take upon itself the sins of the dead. In the same manner, it was the province of the human scapegoat to take upon himself the moral trespasses of his client--and whatever the consequences might be in the after life--in return for a miserable fee and a scanty meal. That such a creature should be unearthed from a remote period of pagan history would be surprising enough, but to find reliable evidence of his existence in the British Isles a hundred years ago is surely very much more remarkable.
Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.
Howlett mentions sin-eating as an old custom in Hereford, and thus describes the practice: "The corpse being taken out of the house, and laid on a bier, a loaf of bread was given to the sin-eater over the corpse, also a maga-bowl of maple, full of beer. These consumed, a fee of sixpence was given him for the consideration of his taking upon himself the sins of the deceased, who, thus freed, would not walk after death." He suggests the connection between the sin-eater and the Jewish scapegoat of the old Testament.
We shall consider in its proper order the relations between death and the funeral feast, but there is an aspect of the matter which is closely allied to the idea of the transfer of a personality for good or for evil, by means of the consumption of certain food, as in the case of sin-eaters, or by actually partaking of such parts of the human body as are associated with vitality. Traces of this revolting cult are still to be found, but its roots are deeply buried in antiquity. It is not exactly what we mean by cannibalism, in the sense in which we commonly use the word, to imply the eating of the human flesh as food. We shall remember having read in accounts of travel that these savage orgies were accompanied by demoniacal dances, which were supposed to be manifestations of joy or "war dances" in token of victory over a fallen enemy.
These dances are probably a survival of religious rites, performed the world over, in honour of a human sacrifice off ered to the great god Bel. "Cannibalism," says Garnier, "appears to have been initiated by Cronus (i.e., Saturn or Cush), Cronus being the originator of human sacrifices"; he quotes R. G. Hislop, who states that the word cannibal--our term for the eater of human flesh--is probably derived from Cahna Bal, i.e., the Priest of Bel. The eating of human flesh is stillpart of the religious rites of many of the Hamitic races of Africa.
Totemism, animism and such cults are too large a subject to be dealt with in a few words. Briefly, they were related to early mysticism, and surrounded by all sorts of magical rites, which seem to have been recognized, and their practice strictly forbidden by Biblical injunction. Anyway, underlying all these practices, was the idea that by eating--let us say, the heart of a lion--the fierce courage of that beast would be absorbed into the nature of the participant. From this resulted the many tribal signs, each as are commonly known to us, as borne by the North American Indians, "Eagle Heart," "Running Bull" and the like. Irish and Welsh legends show that men were prohibited from eating the animal from which their tribe took its name, it was "taboo" and as such, was originally partaken of only ceremoniously, even the name of the animal being uttered, if at all, with special veneration. Further, it explains the worship of the golden calf--the swarming of mice, etc., mentioned in the Scriptures.
The image of the tribal beast would be the mark of the tribe, and we shall find it painted on their tents, and borne into battle as an emblem.
It found expression eventually in heraldry; it represented personal qualities or attributes, "The Lion of St. Mark," or "The Eagle of St. Luke." It was related to tattooing.
It was the "taboo" of the Israelites which accounted the flesh of certain animals as unclean. We find traces of the cult in the funeral rites of the ancients, and for that matter even in our own.
Mr. William Beaver, the resident Magistrate of the Western Division of New Guinea, recently reported a case of this form of sorcery which came within his jurisdiction. A number of sorcerers surrounded the hut of a native at night, whom they proceeded to bind by placing a spell on him. This was achieved by pointing a human bone towards him. The native by this means was rendered helpless, when he was murdered and his body buried. Later, it was removed from the grave and certain portions of the body were distributed and eaten ceremoniously.
To cast a spell on an enemy by pointing a human bone at him is a well-known form of magic; it is practised by all tribes of the Itchumundi nation. For this purpose the fibula of a dead man's leg is used. After being scraped and polished, it is painted with red ochre and attached to a cord made of human hair. A sorcerer so provided is greatly to be feared, and it is believed that anyone toward whom the bone is pointed will surely die.
The following is another instance of the survival of the notion that the power of an individual may be transferred by the consumption of certain portions of his body. Sir H. Johnston thus described the death of a Subu chief: "The wailing women dance in front of the hut where the body lies, striking each other with hatchets as they dance. Meanwhile, the wives of the chief squat round the corpse, keeping up a ceaseless lamentation. After some days spent in this manner the stiffened limbs of the chief are forcibly bent, and the body is then placed in a wicker coffin and mounted on the higher of two steps or stages prepared for its reception. The lower stage supports an earthenware vessel in which the fluids from the body are collected. In this manner it is left for several weeks; the horrid contents of the jar are eventually used by the witch doctor for magical rites."
Eating the flesh of a corpse to become associated with its virtues was a common Australian practice; in some cases the mourners were smeared with the fluids from the body, and when the remains were cremated the ashes were used in a like manner. If a further instance of the custom is necessary to show that it is by no means extinct, we may recall an incident which happened in China in the year 1912. One of the leaders of the rebellion was executed in Nankin; after being shot, his body was opened and his heart extracted. It was cooked in accordance with the rites practised in the Ming Dynasty. This highly prized portion was afterwards cut up and distributed amongst the soldiers who had carried out the execution, in the belief that the courage and skill of the chief would be passed on to them by this means.
That we have at least known of such things in the British Isles, if only in legend, is shown by a fantastic story told in Scotland of a certain Dr. John Fian, Geillie Duncan and others meeting the Devil at North Berwick Kirk--of black candles round the pulpit, from which his Satanic Majesty called the roll and preached a sermon, and of the "rifling of three graves for the purposes of magical cookery."
It will be obvious to anyone who has examined a mummy in a museum that the body has been deprived by a process of embalming of those fluid elements which go so largely to make up the construction of our bodies. The fluids having been drawn off from the arteries and cavities, antiseptic liquids would be introduced to render the body immune from the ordinary courses of mortification and decay. These fluids taken from the body were used for certain ceremonial purposes. Of such unsavoury ingredients medicines were concocted in the middle ages, whose curative properties lay in their supposed magical power. To distinguish them from the more legitimate, if equally experimental nostrums which are prescribed for the cure of our ills, the physician placed the sign of the cross on the prescription, as an earnest that the curative elements in his medicine did not depend on any supposed powers of sorcery. This sign, which has long since lost its meaning, is used on prescriptions to-day; curative charms of one sort or another are still to be found--"charming" warts, for instance, is still held to be efficacious.
Medical science once made use of certain powers attributed to the dead body--as the quotation of Kipling reminds us:
"If it be certain as Galen says,
And sage Hippocrates holds as much
That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily healed by a dead man's touch."
It was generally believed that certain forms of disease, particularly ulcers and cancerous growths, might be effectively healed by being touched by a dead man's hand, as "King's Evil" was held to be cured by the hand of the King.
This remarkable superstition is met with in many forms; in Scotland, for instance, it was thought to be necessary in order to avoid the possibility of being haunted, that those who took part in the funeral rites, must not only see the body before it was shrouded or borne to the grave, but also touch it. It was further held that the corpse of a murdered man would not decay till it had been ceremoniously "touched."
Looking through the records for a trace of such customs in our own country, we find a very significant old Cornish belief that children should be made to kiss the dead, in order that by so doing they might receive from them the gifts of long life and physical strength. Even now amongst the lower orders of society we find that kissing the dead is looked upon as a pious necessity, an unwholesome habit which might well have a deeper meaning than the mere promptings of affection.
Whilst with all our pagan survivals, we can hardly be accused of such revolting practices as have been described, we can certainly find a trace of totemism in the hatchment. If we seldom see it in use, it is no fault of the "Dismal Trader," for whatever there may be lacking in his shop window as a sign of his calling, there you are certain to find the emblazoned hatchment, by which means he seeks to impress the public with a sense of the rank and social importance of his clientele--full well he knows the world to be a snob, and no one trades upon the fact more effectively. Even the poor seamstress disguised under a French name and claiming to be a "Court" dressmaker, is a poor second.
Properly the hatchment--of which the word achievement is but a corruption--is the arms or escutcheon of a person granted to him in recognition of some personal prowess. In Herald's College it will still be referred to as "achievement." In the form in which we find it exhibited in the undertaker's window, it is framed and ready to be hung at the death of a distinguished patron on the front of his mansion, to notify the fact of his decease; from the house it would afterwards be removed to the church where the body has been interred.
The arms are emblazoned on a diamond-shaped "field." To denote the death of the master of the house, the right half of the device would be sable or on a black ground, but in the event of the death of his lady, the left half will be "argent" or silver, the "field" being reversed. For a widow, widower or unmarried person the whole of the "field" will be sable.
The custom of the use of the "achievement" is readily traceable to the totem stage of society.
Whilst looking at the hatchment displayed in the undertaker's window, we shall probably have noticed amongst the trappings of his trade, a number of tall brass candlesticks reposing prominently in a glass case, and they serve to remind us of the very important part which candles have played in all ages in the observance of funeral rites. The word funeral, properly speaking, denotes a torchlight procession, for it is derived from the Latin "funeralis " from funis, a torch. It was at one time the general practice to bury at night by torchlight, and long after this was discontinued, torches or candles were carried in the funeral procession and were placed about the body, from the moment of death till the time of burial.
The reason for this is worth some consideration. The Christian, whilst condemning the habit of burial at night as a pagan practice, and if only for that reason to be avoided, sees in the flickering flame a symbol of the "light of faith," but this hardly goes to the root of the matter. An old chronicler, in claiming the lighted candle as an "Emblem of Joy, Heaven and Life" says, "Secondly, we make use of lights to put all the powers of darkness to flight," but we shall be nearer the truth with all respect to his pious aspirations, if we reverse the order of his thoughts, for it is clear that the purpose of surrounding the body of the dead with lighted tapers was primarily to scare the evil spirits from an attack on the now helpless "sleeper."
We are told that in parts of Ireland twelve reed canes were used in olden times in place of candles to scare the devils from the departing soul, for it was supposed that a "circle of five was an effective protection from the powers of darkness."
Darkness has always been held to favour the conditions in which ghosts of the departed may materialize. The subtle psycho-plastic matter of which the apparition is compounded--a dough-like substance, which the modern investigator claims not only to have handled, but to have actually weighed and examined under the microscope, will not readily withstand the action of light. J. Hewat McKenzie tells us that "the necessity for darkness during materialization is in harmony with the creation of all animal and vegetable structures, as the former are built in the darkness of the womb of the animal body and the latter within the darkness of the soil."
That our forefathers held the funeral light as a very important matter we shall see from many old customs.
Symbolically, the lighted torch has ever been an emblem of life--and extinguished--as of death. Poets have compared its flame, blown hither and thither by the adverse winds of fate, to the uncertainty of human life.
The American Indian, mourning for one of his tribe, will kindle a torch from "holy fire" and brandishing it three times round his head, extinguish its flame in water, in token of death, a custom which reminds us of the Roman usage of extinguishing the lighted flambeaux carried in the funeral procession of the mourners in the earth which would presently cover the remains.
One of the principal tributes which it was customary to pay to rank and position was a great burning of candles, and the more wax consumed the greater the honour it was considered had been paid to the dead.
The amount of wax required for the use of the Church was very considerable, as its consumption was not necessary for ceremonial purposes only, but also for lighting the edifice. This was met by a charge, and like many other contributions in the past, it was paid in kind. Twice a year "waxcot" was collected; the word is derived from the Saxon "sceat" which means a contribution, thus waxceat, corrupted in course of time to "waxcot," was a contribution in kind to the Church for the altar and other lights. We meet the word again in the expression "scot" (or sceat) free--signifying tax or contribution free. In addition to this imposition it was also customary for a person to leave a sum of money by will to provide candles for use at their funeral, and to be placed round the tomb on the anniversary of the death. Not infrequently a hive of bees would be offered for the same purpose, or for some other specified use. Dr. Gasquet quotes the following example: "At Bromley, Margaret White, widow, who died in 1538, by her will gave one hive of bees to support the light of All Hallows, and one hive to support the light of the sepulchre, and a third to the light of St. Anthony."
The composition of the materials for church candles is stipulated and rigidly adhered to. Bees-wax is specially used in the manufacture of the dark yellow candles connected with the services of the dead, and during one of the ceremonies which the Catholic Church performs during Holy Week, a special prayer is said for the bees, whose industry provides the lights for the ensuing year.
Whilst on the subject, we may call to the mind the curious custom of "telling" the bees of a death in the family. If this precaution should be neglected it has been thought that they would at once abandon their hives--never to return. The proper method of procedure is to knock at the hive with the door key of the house, an instrument we shall find used by the "bidder" in giving invitations to a funeral. The hive is then tied round with a band of crape, whilst the little inmates are solemnly informed of the catastrophe. Good tidings were also told to the bees, as Kipling reminds us:
"Marriage, birth or buryin',
News across the seas,
All your sad or merryin',
You must tell the bees."
In addition to "waxcot" various other contributions were exacted in pre-Reformation days of the nature of the tithe which is still levied. Harassed during life by taxes and assessments of various kinds, even death did not bring a relief from their responsibilities. When our forefathers stepped for a moment from the dull course of their daily routine in satisfaction of some human necessity, they called attention in so doing to their otherwise neglected existence, and at once someone would demand a tax. At marriage the "merchet" was paid to the lord of the manor, who would be down again on his unfortunate tenant for the collection of "heriot" at his death, when to the Church "mortuary" would also be due.
Heriot was originally a due under the feudal system, and consisted of the return to the feudal lord of the horse and military equipment with which the vassal had been provided, in order that he might serve his master in battle or private feud. It was one of the many "good old customs" sanctified by age, and retained for the sake of revenue, long after any excuse for its existence could be claimed; when war horses and armour no longer provided were obviously not there to be seized, a farm horse or a cow would be demanded from the relatives, who were reckless enough to enjoy the luxury of having the head of the house taken from them by death.
In the fourteenth century the lord of the manor claimed the best possession of a deceased tenant, whatever it might be, and so long as he left not less than three head of live stock the Church was allowed to take what was judged to be his second best possession.
Capes gives an instance from Sudshot, showing that in the early fourteenth century the heriot had sunk to a hen and two pence, because the deceased had no animals at all.
Mortuary was paid to the Church at death, and it was supposed amongst other things to make reparation for anything due to the Church, which had either been overlooked or wilfully neglected. The matter was, however, regulated by an Act in 1529, which forbade the toll on the goods of a deceased person when their total value did not exceed ten marks. A sliding scale of charges upon the property of the dead was fixed for goods of a value over that amount. In its last stages the mortuary became associated with a charge made for a funeral sermon, and this imposition ceased altogether at the end of the eighteenth century.