THE "passing bell" is the herald of death, but the custom of ringing it has largely been abandoned in this country. Its object was to call attention to the fact that a soul was "passing" into the next world, and asked your prayers. More than this, it was believed that the ringing of the bell frightened the ever-present evil spirits, who would be making a special effort at the moment of death to obtain possession of the soul. It was at one time a common practice to ring the church bells during a thunderstorm, for Wagner (quoting Jurandus) says, "It is said that the wicked spirits that be in the region of the air fear much when they hear the bells, and this is why the bells be aringing when it thundereth, to the end that the foul fiend and wicked spirits should be abashed and flee, and cease from moving of the tempest."
A special bell was reserved for this purpose, known in Scotland as a "mort-bell," and another called the "soul-bell" tolled after death had taken place. It was possible to tell by the sound of the "soul-bell" if it was rung for an adult, or for a child, for in the former case the tenor was sounded and in the latter, the treble. It was, moreover, customary to distinguish the sex, by tolling three times for a man and twice for a woman, followed, after a pause, by a stroke for each year corresponding to the age of the deceased. Nowadays a bell is sometimes tolled twenty-four hours after a death, but is seldom heard till the procession is in sight of the church, when its solemn note at minute intervals denotes the arrival of the body for burial.
Amongst other old customs, the practice is recorded of ringing three times before the gravedigger disturbed the burial ground for a new grave, whilst Howlett speaks of "ringing home the dead," for he tells us that in Shropshire the bells chimed till the procession reached the church, when the minute bell was tolled, and at Hatherleigh in Devonshire a lively peal was rung after the funeral, as elsewhere is usual for a wedding. In this, we are reminded of the cheerful strains of the military band which plays the soldiers home from the funeral of a comrade.
The will of a lady who recently died in London contained the following provision. After stating that her body was to be buried at Burford, Salop, it read: "I direct that when my coffin enters the churchyard there, the church bells shall ring in a joyful peal, according to an old Salop custom."
The earlier practice is a relic of the days of communal life in village or hamlet, where the joys and sorrows of the individual were commonly shared--where the parish church was, moreover, the common centre of all activities, a place of record, law and order, as well as of worship, to which, in time of stress or rejoicing, all thoughts were turned.
Modern life, tending to separateness, has done much to destroy this feeling of kinship, and many old customs have been lost in consequence. To-day, it is true that the passing bell might toll unheeded--if it could be heard at all, above the hooting of motors or the grinding of machinery--and few would stay a moment at work or pleasure to "wing" a kindly thought to a soul passing to Eternity.
Gasquet, writing of the times of the old Trade Guilds, speaks of their employing a bellman to announce not only the death and burial of a departed craftsman, but his anniversary. He quotes the following, "The Sacrist was reminded to send the bellman round about the city, to proclaim the 'obit-day' of one Richard Chapman, and every year his will. At each street he was instructed to ring his bell and say, 'For the sowles of Richard Chapman and Alys his wyf, brother, syster of Corpus Christi Gylde to-morne (i.e., to-morrow) shall be theyre yereday" for which service he was to receive one penny. His object was to call the various members of the fraternities and societies to attend funeral and anniversary masses, and pray for the soul of the brethren. The hand-bell used was called the Rogation bell, from its use in calling people to church. It was rung in funeral processions, from the house of mourning to the church. The ancient Romans also made use of a bellman to announce death.
In some country villages in England and Scotland an official known as the Bidder may still be met with, whose duty it is to "bid" to the local funerals by knocking at the house doors with a key; in the towns he would ring his bell.
Murray, quoting a statistical account of Scotland compiled at the end of the eighteenth century, thus gives the form of his announcement, "You are desired to come to such a one's burial to-morrow against ten hours." No person was invited by letter in those days, and although the mourners assembled "against ten of the clock" the corpse was never interred till the evening, so little did they value time. The prescribed form of announcement by the parish beadle, perambulating the streets with his bell, was as follows: "All brethren and sisters, I let ye to wit there is a brother departed at the pleasure of the Almighty--here he would lift his hat--called _____. All those that come to the burial come at ____ o'clock. The corpse is at ______."
In the funeral procession the beadle walked before the corpse, ringing his bell.
Almost all the quaint customs, traces of which we shall discover in many countries, will be found in Brittany generally garnished with picturesque additions of its own.
De Braz gives the following account of the method adopted by the good people of Pol-de-Leon in "bidding" to a burial. "Should the deceased be a man, then four old men, or if a woman, four old women from an almshouse make a circuit of the town, in either case preceded by two barefooted orphans, ringing a bell. Here and there at a point of vantage--the bell having ceased--the children in doleful voices recited these words, "We recommend to your pious prayers _____ who has died to-day and whom we shall bury to-morrow. Take notice therefore, such of you as are faithful, to pray for his soul." This oration was concluded by the usual ejaculation, "May he rest in peace."
We can hardly imagine in these strenuous days, how it was possible, not only for relatives and personal friends, but for the neighbours generally, to leave their work, sometimes for days at a time, to take part in these funeral celebrations. At the summons of the "bidder" they flocked to the house of mourning, in many cases bearing with them certain specified contributions to the funeral feast.
To-day, when we telegraph our condolences and telephone to the florist for a "wreath," we are clinging tenaciously to the principle if not observing the actual customs of other times, but in nothing are we more conservative than in our ludicrous persistence in wearing mourning "weeds."
In the same way that we have found the word "corpse" to have originally signified the body of the living, now used to denote the dead; so the word "weeds" at one time accepted as applying to garments generally, is now used to describe the ceremonial dress of mourners, in particular that worn by the widow.
"A hapless pilgrim moaning his abide,
Poor in his view, ungentle in his weed,"
is an illustration of this.
Mourning clothes were also known as "doole," a word equivalent to "dole" expressing a "portion" or "pittance." Derived from the Latin "doleo" to grieve, it therefore carries a double meaning which very well expresses the sense in which the word "doole" was accepted as "something given away in relation to grief," for we find that it was the custom for the relatives of the deceased to present mourning garments to their relations, to the clergyman who conducted the burial service, also to intimate friends, and, by way of charity to certain poor retainers and others who attended the funeral. The following verse of Ben jonson's, quoted by Ditchfield, in an admirable book which throws rather a fierce light on "The Old-time Parson," shows that "doole" was one of the many pickings which fell to the parson's lot, and gives more than a hint at some others.
". . . draws all the parish wills,
Designs the legacies and strokes the gills
Of the chief mourner; and whoever lacks
Of all the kindred, he has first his blacks."
A few years ago, the writer was shown a drawerful of wide black scarves, presented to the Vicar of a Yorkshire country parish on the occasion of many funerals at which he had officiated. This is a survival of the custom of giving "doole."
The expense of providing mourning must have been very considerable, but a foolish display of wealth to uphold the family honour is a very old human failing, particularly at the time of death. What is merely a vulgarity in the rich is apt to have serious consequences when indulged in by the needy, whose natural love of ostentation and display is carefully nurtured by the "Dismal Trade."
The mourning garment was originally a sort of loose black cloak, very much the same as that worn by nuns. It was designed to entirely cover the ordinary attire, and would be made up in a few general sizes, as it would have been obviously impossible to produce garments to fit a variety of persons at short notice.
Evelyn wrote in 1695: "I saw the Queen (Mary) lie in state," and continued, "Never was so universal a mourning. All the Parliament-men had cloaks given them, and four hundred poor women," etc.
We learn that over nine hundred black gowns were distributed at the funeral of the Earl of Oxford, who had been heavily fined by Henry VII for an excessive display of power and wealth, as exhibited by the rank and number of his retainers.
Froude, writing of Edward VI's reign, gives some interesting particulars of an attempt to restrict extravagance in the matter of "doole" at the funeral of Lady Seymour. For reasons of State, a great public funeral was thought to be inadvisable. The matter being put before the Lords the following pious conclusions were arrived at. "The Lords weighed with themselves that the wearing of 'doole' and such outward demonstration of mourning not only did not profit the dead, but served to induce the living to have a diffidence of the better life to come, to the departed in God, by changing of this transitory life, yea, and divers other ways did move and cause scruple of coldness in faith unto the weak." They further reflected, "besides, that many of the wiser sort, weighing the impertinent charges bestowed upon black cloth and other instruments of those funeral pomps, might worthily find fault with the expense thereupon bestowed. Considering, therefore, how at present the observation of the time of outward mourning and wearing of the 'doole' was far shortened and omitted, even amongst mean persons, from that it was wonted to be; considering further how private men should reserve their private sorrows to their own houses, and not diminish the presence of their Prince with doleful tokens--the Council dispenses the Duke (of Somerset) for wearing of 'doole' either upon himself or upon any of his family, or the continuing of other personal observances, such as heretofore were had in solemn use, as serving rather to pomp than to any edifying."
Froude justly remarks, "that if these injunctions were sincere, they were hastily adopted, and as soon forgotten, for in the following March, Wentworth, the Lord Chamberlain, was interred in Westminster Abbey where there was great 'doole' and a great company."
Mourning in the days of the Stuarts was a serious business and lasted for a very long time. Lady Fanshawe, in her will, requested that her son and daughter should wear it for three years after her decease, an injunction from which they could only hope to escape by marriage.
Even in this period of rigorous etiquette, there were those of better disposition, for we learn that Lady Sussex, despite the fact that she had spent four hundred pounds (worth very considerably more in those days) on her husband's funeral to express her "love and valy of him," declined to accept "doole" from her relatives at the decease of a member of the family, as she was living in retirement and saw no one.
In view of the sacred association of man and wife as expressed by the bond of marriage, considered as it was as indissoluble and sacramental, we shall expect to find the mourning of a widow for her husband as bound by special conventions, and this especially so in days when the thought of a second marriage for the woman would be looked upon with great disfavour and suspicion. It was for this reason that we find it a common practice for the widow to retire to a convent or to become what was known as a "vowess" living in strict seclusion, and devoting the remainder of her days to prayer and good works, both of which in her happier state may have been neglected--and enshrining in her heart the memory of such admirable qualities as her husband may have possessed. Putting all finery aside, the widow adopted the sombre habit and veil of a nun. It was the custom for a dowager of position to retire to the dowerhouse. "Dower," it should be explained, is that portion of a husband's estate which falls to his widow (the dowager) at his death, passing at her death to his heirs. Hence the wealthy widow became a dowager or person so endowed, and it was a common practice for a family of position to provide a special house on the estate for her residence, leaving the ancestral home to the heir, as a cradle for the next generation. In her unquestioning acceptance of self-effacement as a natural consequence of her widowhood, we see the shadow at least of the horrible practices of earlier times, which might well have condemned her to be actually sacrificed, and her body buried with that of her lord and master, for his comfort in a future state, a sentence commuted in more enlightened times to a form of lifelong imprisonment.
To the old-time widow, except perhaps in the case of a very young woman, the thought of a second marriage would be repugnant. To-day it is not uncommon to meet with people who have "a feeling" that second marriages are in the nature of ungodliness.
In the sixteenth century, regulations were made, restricting the use of mourning as to quantity and dictating also the quality of the materials, and the exact manner in which the garments were to be fashioned.
The chief point of interest in the mourning habits of woman in the Middle Ages was the wearing of the barbe, a long pleated arrangement, often represented on memorial brasses. For those above the rank of Baroness the barbe was worn above the chin, and in the lower estates it was fastened below the throat. It consisted of a piece of fine linen. The term is derived from the Latin "barba" or beard. It is to the convent also that we must look for the origin of the widow's cap, and particularly for the veil or "streamers," the survival of the veil once covering the face, but now thrown back and diminished in size. The grotesque widow's bonnet is still sometimes seen with a shortened veil covering the face, the lower part of which it conceals, beneath the deep hem of double crape.
In the windows of certain small shops in the Jewish quarter of any city may be found curious brown matted wigs which are sold to the orthodox Jewish matron, who still cuts off her hair when she marries, in order to render herself no longer attractive to men in general.
In Egypt, Greece and Rome, both men and women cut off their hair as a sign of mourning, in which circumstances the men wore wigs and the women caps. So, too, in "taking the veil," the nun sacrifices her tresses--the symbol of her personal vanities--a custom followed by the widow, but at a later period she adopted the widow's cap, closely covering her head to disguise the fact that whilst she admitted the principle, she was no longer prepared to part with her hair. The wearing of white cuffs probably also came from the convent. Webb says, in referring to the matter, "The white cuffs of the widow recall those of the nurse, and similar ones are used by some members of the legal profession as part of their mourning."
A black crape "weeper" was worn at one time by men, as a token of mourning, bound round their hats and hanging down their backs. At the funeral of a child or a young girl, white took the place of black as an emblem of purity. The "Trade" still carries on the tradition when "extras" are provided.
The origin of the custom has a significance of its own.
Wagner attributes it to a survival of the "Liripipe," a long-tailed tippet depending from the hood worn by men in this country during the Plantagenet period. In the reign of Henry VIII the hood was exchanged for the hat, but the tippet was retained in the form of the hat-band.
Of late years the mourning "weeper" was shorn of its tails and width which a few years ago reached within an inch of the top of the silk hat, became gradually reduced, till it ceased to have any special significance.
The following custom was very general in Switzerland thirty years ago. The men mourners in the funeral procession carried their hats under the left arm. Round the hat a "weeper" was tied, two yards in length. Over the brim a deeply bordered handkerchief was spread in the centre of which reposed a lemon, which was eventually placed ceremoniously in the grave, presumably as a token of the sharpness of grief.
A curious old French custom insisted that men should wear long black coats and a special form of headgear to which a kind of coif was attached which partly hid the face; whilst their women-folk used a covering for the head and neck, made in two pieces of material, the widow of the lower classes retaining it till her death unless she married again.
In common with so many of our funeral customs, the use of black for mourning garments is connected with the deep-rooted dread of the return of the dead. It was believed that when cloaked or veiled in sable hue human beings were invisible to the spirits and thus free from any possibility of molestation.
Whilst black has been generally used for the purposes of mourning, it is not universal. Symbolical of night, the absence of colour seemed best fitted to express a soul abandoned to grief, the most respectful, and therefore the safest attitude for the living to adopt towards their dead, whom they wished above all things to propitiate.
In the year 1498 Anne, Queen of Charles VIII of France, dressed herself and surrounded her coat of arms with black on the death of her husband. This was considered an innovation, as white had previously been used by the French Queens. It could hardly have shocked the rigid etiquette of the Court as much as the action of Louis XI, who, a few years previously, forsook the customary purple of mourning for a hunting suit, half red and half white for the sake of simplicity.
So absurd were the restrictions before the fifteenth century that a widowed queen was not allowed to leave her apartments, which were heavily draped in black, till a year or more after the death of her royal spouse.
The order of mourning was revised by Mary, Queen of Scots, who was known as the White Queen, because she mourned in white the death of her husband, Lord Darnley. White weeds were also used by the ladies of ancient Rome in China and Japan.
In the Stuart period, beds draped entirely in black, with bedclothes to match, were considered as a proper accompaniment of mourning. This gruesome paraphernalia was lent to relatives and friends when they had need of it. At the death of Lord Sussex, Sir Ralph Verney sent a black bed and hangings to the widow, but later, she announced her betrothal to her third husband, the Earl of Warwick, and in so doing, asked what she should do with the now inappropriate piece of furniture, which she seemed anxious to be rid of, in view of her altered circumstances. When Sir Ralph was left a widower the family bed was unobtainable, for he was travelling about at the time; he, therefore, had to content himself with such solace as he might obtain from a black nightcap, a black brush and comb, black velvet slippers, etc.
Amongst the colours used to express grief, perhaps yellow, a symbol of decay, is the most common. It was used by the Egyptians amongst others. With it, the native of Central Africa paints his body as a sign of mourning, as the Australian paints himself white and the American Indian with black. In Brittany the widow's cap was of yellow or a light brown--the hue of withered leaves--which is also the prevailing colour in Persia.
Blue or violet is the "doole" of the Turk, the former being used in France and Belgium in connection with the death of a child, as representing not only the celestial blue of the heavens, but also the traditional colour worn by the "Mother of the Saviour" at Golgotha. Violet or purple, with which the Roman soldiers clothed the Saviour as "King of the Jews," is the colour adopted by the Christian Church as a sign of penance and mourning, and with which the pictures and ornaments of the Catholic Church are veiled from Passion Sunday till Easter. Black vestments are, however, used in masses for the dead, and on Good Friday.
In the more remote English country villages, we may often see special mourning and wedding garments--a weird assortment of past fashions, which are only brought to light on the occasions of family ceremony from the press where they lay embalmed for generations in camphor or lavender.
The sight is surely not relatively more ridiculous than the orthodox frock-coat or "cut-away" worn in conjunction with a pair of evening dress trousers.
Knowing the value set on ostentatious displays of grief, we are not surprised to find the black bordered handkerchief still in use, particularly during the funeral procession, and at the grave, where it is calculated to produce an effect which is an apology for the absence of the historical "wailing women."
It is in the highest, and again in the lowest grades of the social scale (always the last to be touched by the tide of progress) that mourning is insisted on with a rigour which is simply fanatical.
In the case of the poor one is left wondering where the money comes from to pay for the luxury of grief.
When the cold hand of death is laid on the small wage-earner whose family has subsisted from week to week on his slender takings, often enough the last shilling in the house has been gone to provide some urgent necessity during his illness.
Hardly is the toil-worn body cold when the whole family, as if by some miracle, appear in new black dresses, and the widow is swathed in the customary crape. How is it done, we ask in astonishment, in view of the fact, that to refit any one member of the family in ordinary circumstances at a short notice would be considered as a financial problem quite outside the scope of their resources. Well, it is done, somehow. You may see the "impossible" performed a hundred times a year in any poor neighbourhood. Of course there are burial clubs (as there were in Ancient Rome), and there are pawnshops, ready-made clothes and cheap materials, but insurance is too often an impulse in times of comparative prosperity and subscriptions are allowed to lapse during the first period of adversity. The pawnshop has already absorbed anything pawnable, else how could the family have lived through the expensive days when the wage-earner was "off sick."
Knowing the proverbial generosity of the needy, it may be supposed that some kindly neighbour has come to the rescue, but this source of supply will be resorted to only as a last desperate expedient, for according to the fierce code of honour prevailing in the district, this is a time for display, not for borrowing, and who knows better than the widow that a score of coldly criticizing eyes are watching events through broken Venetian blinds and dirty Nottingham lace curtains, which screen something yet more sordid, in order to see how the Joneses or the Williamses come through the ordeal. What will the Church do for Widow Jones--the Church that married her--and has not seen her since?
If we add to such a situation real grief, real despair and much untutored sentimentality, we have a pretty problem, and one that has to be faced quickly, for you can't keep a corpse waiting too long. Well, it rests between the moneylenders at a penny a week interest on the shilling, and such terms as may be made with various branches of the "Dismal Trade."
Go down into the slums and see how generously this folly is catered for--a question of business, perhaps--of supply and demand.
If there be any consolation to be gained in this sorry matter, it is in the contemplation of certain promises made to those who "do business" with widows--and to those who "grind the face of the poor."
Many instances might be given to show how hard it is for an enlightened individual to stand up against the weight of conventional ignorance at a time when affliction has rendered resistance most difficult. The following are two instances from personal experience.
A superior servant, a mere girl, married a house painter. Within a year of the event, the husband fell from a ladder and was killed.
The poor little widow bought a cheap black dress and a very simple black straw hat to wear at the funeral. Her former employer, who had much commended this modest outlay, met the girl a few days later swathed in crape, her poor little face only half visible under a hideous widow's bonnet complete with streamers and a veil. Asked why she had made these purchases she explained that her neighbours and relations had made her life unbearable because she did not want to wear widow's weeds, and at last she had to give in. "They said that if I would not wear a bonnet, it proved we were never married," she sobbed.
In other stations of life many a brave attempt to break down these horrid conventions has been over-ridden by some ghoulish relations on a plea of want of respect to the dead.
The scene of the following incident was a house in one of the "best parts" of a well-known London suburb.
A death had taken place in the family, and it had fallen to the lot of the eldest daughter to make the arrangements for the funeral.
She asked for a plain elm coffin without any ornaments.
"Elm," said the horrified undertaker, "but you can't have anything but polished oak in a road like this."