DEAD FACES CHANGE
The Experiences of Undertakers.
Smiling in Her Coffin
Mother Yearnings Gratified in the Life Beyond
A Corpse That Blushed
[New York Mercury.]
“Man and boy, I’ve been in the business nearly fifty years, and if I had to begin over again, I don’t know that I would choose any other.” He was a retired undertaker who spoke. The writer was his companion in a coach on a mourning mission to a Long Island cemetery lately, and he ventured the suggestion that there must be a dreadfully depressing uniformity in the business which would be calculated to deaden the finer sensibilities and to induce a hardened callousness in those engaged in it for so long a time.
“There is as much variety among the dead as among the living,” said the undertaker, “and one’s interest is awakened and one’s sympathies excited by the changes of expression so frequently noticeable on the faces of the dead. Dead faces blush and smile and sometimes look sad and inexpressibly mournful.” Becoming reminiscent, the undertaker related some incidents in his long experience, illustrating the peculiar changes of expression that sometimes came over the faces of the dead and which have for the living such thrilling and ghastly interest.
Probably thirty years ago I was called to a house in Bond street. The corpse was a beautiful young woman of thirty or so, of fine, clear blonde complexion and finely formed. She had died suddenly under peculiar circumstances, and her husband, who appeared to be an excitable and jealous man, much older than his wife, was rushing around tearing his hair and cursing and threatening when I was admitted to the chamber of death. I told him that his grief was unseemly and shocking and begged him to restrain himself. He bade me send my assistant to look after the wagon outside, closed the door of the room connected with that in which the body lay, and sitting down in a chair with his knees close to mine, told me that his wife had been unfaithful to him; that he had suspected her for years, and that her death was a judgment of God, not only to punish but to expose her. He said her sister’s husband, who was a doctor, had been her paramour, and while visiting him she had been suddenly stricken with hemorrhage of the lungs and had died in a few minutes. It was a dreadful story. I said that probably he was mistaken, and I urged him to keep calm.
Before leaving the room to listen to the husband’s story I had noticed what a peculiarly wretched and suffering look the corpse had. When I returned and summoned my assistant I felt confident that this sad and disconsolate expression became gradually intensified as our melancholy work proceeded. Even my assistant noticed and commented on the anguished look of the departed, and the thought of it dwelt so much on my mind that I dreamt about the deceased that night, and I told my wife in the morning what the husband had told me, winding up by saying that I felt she was wrongfully accused.
When I called again with the coffin the husband was absent, but the look was frozen and settled in the face. It was impossible to so dispose of the features as to banish that purgatorial look of martyrdom. I was nearly through when the husband entered the room. He presented the greatest possible contrast to the man I had seen two days previously. He was meek, tearful, broken up, and could scarcely speak for sobbing. In a few words he told me that he was a monster unfit to live. He had wrongfully accused the best and most innocent women that ever lived. Her own sister had been present at the whole interview with the doctor, and up to the moment she was stricken with death; and, moreover, had adduced the most convincing evidence to prove that his own ungovernably jealous suspicions had all along been unfounded. I had been standing at the door with my back to the corpse, as he sobbed and spoke.
When I turned again there was a distinct smile playing over the dead features, like moonlight on rippling waters. His eyes followed mine, and he rushed to the coffin, crying: ‘Mary! Mary! Speak to me! Speak to me! She lives! She is not dead!’ He told me to run for Dr. ___, who lived a few doors away, and inside of ten minutes he was present. But he found her to be quite dead, although the smile remained, and with that sweet, serene and happy smile she was laid away to her long repose.
Another case has haunted me for a still longer period. The lady was a widow of fifty or thereabouts, and her only son was a sailor, employed on one of those clipper ships that traded with China, and he would sometimes be away from home two years at a time. He had been away a year when she was taken with her last sickness, which, I think, was rapid consumption. She was a deeply religious and emotional woman, and her son—Theodore, I remember the name was—was a good, affectionate lad of three or four and twenty. Before the end it became painfully probable to the doctor, the attending minister and the nurse that the mother’s life voyage and the boy’s sea voyage, were running a close and uncertain race. He was expected home in November. It was the beginning of that month, and the hope was ever present to the dying mother’s mind that she would be spared long enough alive to see him—to see him if only for a single fleeting moment. Her prayers to that end were touchingly earnest and incessant.
But it was not to be. Just as the ship that bore the boy was sighting the Sandy Hook highlands, the mother’s spirit was passing yearningly away. When I was called upon to perform the last offices for the deceased I was deeply impressed with the look of perplexed suffering that the face wore. Canker sorrow seemed to have eaten away the placid, sweet look that was natural to her wasted but benign face. The day of the funeral came. There were not many present in the modest little home away down on the Hook, but all who were present were acquainted with the family circumstances and the conversation in low tones turned on the poor dead lady’s disappointment in not being permitted to see her son once again before she went on the last long dark journey.
By and by the old clergyman came, and one of his first acts was to look with tear-filled eyes at the sad face of the corpse. He began the exercises in a low tone, but intensely earnest, speaking of the wishes of the deceased and the inscrutable higher Will that had denied their fulfillment. He had got thus far when the young man himself, with a big parcel in his hand for his mother, staggered into the room, and, as he reached the coffin, burst into a torrent to weeping as if his heart would have burst from his bosom. Everybody was plunged into involuntary tears and some minutes elapsed before the minister could recover his composure. The young sailor, who had been gazing with agonizing fervor upon the dear dead face, here put his hand on the cold, pale brow and said: “Oh, mother, speak to me—speak just once!”
And I thought, and the minister said that he thought, that a flickering faint smile played across the features. But whether the smile was there transiently or not, every body saw that the dead face had cast aside suddenly its anxious and despairing look, and that it now looked blissful and happy. It was a great and notable change, and formed the talk among that little earnest circle for many weeks afterward.
The undertaker was asked if within his experience he had seen a dead face blush. He said that he had. It was not by any means a common phenomenon, yet physicians attempted to explain it by physical reasons, which I am not learned enough to enunciate.
A case in which an apparent suffusion of the blush of modesty came under my notice was peculiarly pathetic. During the summer the young lady was staying in the country, and was killed by being thrown from the carriage in which she was riding. She was to have been married to a young lawyer in this city in a week. I was summoned to professionally attend to the corpse and bring it home to her parents in this city. The face of the beautiful girl wore a sweet, reposeful expression as if she had entered into perfect beatitude. Before the funeral ceremonies began in the house the young lawyer, accompanied by the mother, father and sister of the deceased, paid the corpse a sad parting visit. It was quite manifest to me and to all of them that the dead young lady blushed when her lover kissed her lips. So vividly distinct was the blush that the sister started and placed her hand on the cold brow and addressed the deceased by name.
“After all, though,” he said in conclusion, “the saddest and most common look of the dead is that Phoenix-like, marble rigidity—so inscrutable, awe-inspiring. Nothing can so stun the senses or chill the heart-blood of the beholder as that. I have met the dreadful expression in all its forms, and I never could become quite indifferent to it if I were to practice the undertaking business a hundred years.
The Enquirer [Cincinnati OH] 6 November 1886: p. 13
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.