Composting the Dead in Naples

Recently there has been much talk about a plan to compost the dead in urban burial towers, the Urban Death Project. You can even support it through a Kickstarter campaign. From an ecological point of view, this has many advantages: it would be cheaper for families; precious land would not be wasted on cemeteries; no embalming would be needed, reducing use of toxic chemicals;  cremation’s high energy costs could be avoided. And families would come away at the end with a nice bag of compost.

On the downside, there are still some bugs to be worked out: the heat of composting does not destroy everything–disease-causing prions, for example and the end product may not be safe to mulch your vegetable garden with. From an historian’s point of view, if this plan became the regular method of burial, cemeteries would disappear and with them, much beauty and historical information. The compost is also apparently not guaranteed to be completely free of other peoples’ relatives, which might bother some families. On a personal note, I probably wouldn’t volunteer to be composted; I’m not a joiner.

While the Urban Death Project is a hip, modern, scientific, and green take on corpse disposal, the notion of communal graves where the dead might rot in peace is not new. N.P. Willis, an American author visited some gruesome burial pits in Italy in the 1830s (during a cholera epidemic, I might add.) Then, as now, there was death tourism.

The road, after leaving the campo, runs along the edge of the range of hills enclosing the city; and just below, within a high white wall, lies the public burial-place of Naples. I had read so many harrowing descriptions of this spot, that my curiosity rose as we drove along in sight of it, and, requesting my friends to set me down, I joined an American of my acquaintance, and we started to visit it together.

An old man opened the iron door, and we entered a clean, spacious, and well-paved area, with long rows of iron rings in the heavy slabs of the pavement. Without asking a question, the old man walked across to the further corner, where stood a moveable lever, and, fastening the chain into the fixture, raised the massive stone cover of a pit. He requested us to stand back for a few minutes to give the effluvia time to escape, and then, sheltering our eyes with our hats, we looked in. You have read, of course, that there are three hundred and sixty-five pits in this place, one of which is opened every day for the dead of the city. They are thrown in without shroud or coffin, and the pit is sealed up at night for a year. They are thirty or forty feet deep, and each would contain perhaps two hundred bodies. Lime is thrown upon the daily heap, and by the end of the year the bottom of the pit is covered with dry white bones.

It was some time before we could distinguish any thing in the darkness of the abyss. Fixing my eyes on one spot, however, the outlines of a body became defined gradually, and in a few minutes, sheltering my eyes completely from the sun above, I could see all the horrors of the scene but too distinctly. Eight corpses, all of grown persons, lay in a confused heap together, as they had been thrown in one after another in the course of the day. The last was a powerfully made, grey old man, who had fallen flat on his back, with his right hand lying across and half covering the face of a woman. By his full limbs and chest, and the darker colour of his legs below the knee, he was probably one of the lazzaroni [the poorest of Naples], and had met with a sudden death. His right heel lay on the forehead of a young man, emaciated to the last degree, his chest thrown up as he lay, and his ribs showing like a skeleton covered with a skin. The close black curls of the latter, as his head rested on another body, were in such strong relief that I could have counted them. Off to the right, quite distinct from the heap, lay, in a beautiful attitude, a girl, as well as I could judge, of not more than nineteen or twenty. She had fallen on the pile and rolled or slid away. Her hair was very long and covered her left shoulder and bosom; her arm was across her body; and if her mother had laid her down to sleep, she could not have disposed her limbs more decently. The head had fallen a little way to the right, and the feet, which were small, even for a lady, were pressed one against the other, as if she were about turning on her side. The sexton said that a young man had come with the body, and was very ill for some time after it was thrown in. We asked him if respectable people were brought here. “Yes,” he said, “many. None but the rich would go to the expense of a separate grave for their relations. People were often brought in handsome grave-clothes, but they were always stripped before they were left. The shroud, whenever there was one, was the perquisite of the undertakers.” And thus are flung into this noisome pit, like beasts, the greater part of the inhabitants of this vast city—the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous together, without the decency even of a rag to keep up the distinctions of life! Can human beings thus be thrown away!—men like ourselves —women, children, like our sisters and brothers! I never was so humiliated in my life as by this horrid spectacle. I did not think a man—a felon even, or a leper—what you will, that is guilty or debased—I did not think anything that had been human could be so recklessly abandoned. Pah! it makes one sick at heart! God grant I may never die at Naples!

While we were recovering from our disgust, the old man lifted the stone from the pit destined to receive the dead of the following day. We looked in. The bottom was strewn with bones, already fleshless and dry. He wished us to see the dead of several previous days, but my stomach was already tried to its utmost. We paid our gratuity, and hurried away. A few steps from the gate, we met a man bearing a coffin on his head. Seeing that we came from the cemetery, he asked us if we wished to look into it. He set it down, and the lid opening with a hinge, we were horror-struck with the sight of seven dead infants! The youngest was at least three months old; the eldest perhaps a year; and they lay heaped together like so many puppies, one or two of them spotted with disease, and all wasted to baby-skeletons. While we were looking at them, six or seven noisy children ran out from a small house at the road-side and surrounded the coffin. One was a fine girl of twelve years of age, and, instead of being at all shocked at the sight, she lifted the whitest of the dead things, and looked at its face very earnestly, loading it with all the tenderest diminutives of the language. The others were busy in pointing to those they thought had been prettiest, and none of them betrayed fear or disgust. In answer to a question of my friend about the marks of disease, the man rudely pulled out one by the foot that lay below the rest, and, holding it up to show the marks upon it, tossed it again carelessly into the coffin. He had brought them from the hospital for infants, and they had died that morning. The coffin was worn with use. He shut down the lid, and, lifting it again upon his head, went on to the cemetery, to empty it like so much offal upon the heap we had seen.

Pencillings by the Way, Nathaniel Parker Willis, London: George Virtue, 1852

Willis, by the way, was a friend of Poe and published his poem “The Raven.” He also defended Poe’s reputation after his death. Willis’s idea of a decent burial would have been the standard Victorian one: the body washed, dressed, and coffined. A wake or watch, where the body was not left alone. A religious ceremony, then hearse and carriages to the cemetery for burial in a grave in the family plot. Eventually a monument with a touching inscription erected above the grave. Subsequent pilgrimages and picnics at the cemetery. Distinctions, shrouds, and virtue all intact.

Didn’t the pits eventually fill up? Were the whitened bones left in the pits at Naples reused in any way? Animal bones were often burnt to make pigments or ground up for fertilizer. Perhaps these bones were moved to an ossuary. Skulls disinterred from Neapolitan churches and kept in the Fontanelle charnel house eventually became the subject of a local cult.

Italian funeral procession Gaetano Dura c. 1830-40
An engraving showing a more affluent Italian funeral. Gaetano Dura, c. 1830-40 http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/25714.html?mulR=1854290710|31

A slightly earlier travel writer tells much the same story:

In humble life, no box is provided,—coffin-shape being unknown in the highest. But all here is done in a plain and palpable way; and the occasions are as numerous, where the human remains, in conveyance through the streets of the Neapolitan or Roman Capital—(and, I presume, generally) —are not protected from absolute exposure by a cloth, or a raised awning, as those where they are: the exposure or non-exposure rests in the body’s being borne forth in dress or in comparative, or, it may be, absolute nakedness. In either case it is scrupulously washed clean, and laid out to seem a wax figure: this office rests not with the relatives or domestics of the family, but constitutes the employment of a body of persons, of whom it is the livelihood, and who follow the corpse in procession, each enveloped in a white robe, that disguises the person,—even the face of the wearer being covered, with glasses in the linen, opposite the eyes, to give the train power to perform their duties in detail. The performance, to poor as well as rich, is obligatory on this fraternity ; and the shew they exhibit gives almost as much consequence to the funerals of the one as the other. In Rome the bodies are consigned—coffinless let it be—to earth: and in the exterior of Naples also, is a general cemetery, of which, in sequence through the year, one of its 365 receptacles is diurnally opened, and all who are brought on the same day, are, in utter nakedness, shot into the one pit—that pit to be re-opened on the same day in the following year. But at Naples it is also the practice to reposit corpses numerously in the Church vaults—each in such a position over a hole, that, as it putrifies and moulders, the remains drop into cellarage below, and make room for another corpse to succeed. Mr.__ was present at the stripping of the corpse of a priest—to the shoes—and the placing him in this position, amid remnants of mortality, and in a stench which must beggar description: he tells me he never witnessed a scene so odious or hideous. Minutes of Remarks on Subjects Picturesque, Moral, and Miscellaneous, William Webb, 1827

Thoughts on common graves, composting the dead, or a practical use for bones? Wait for the effluvia to clear before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Other grim and grewsome stories of funerary and mourning practices may be found in

The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape.

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.

 

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“The Altar was a Mother’s Grave”: Married in a Cemetery: 1898

Going to the Chapel.

MARRIED IN A CEMETERY

At the Foot of the Grave of the Bride’s Mother.

Queer Ending of a Romantic Wooing

Mary Moulton Becomes Mrs. Scammel in Peculiar Circumstances.

No stranger wedding ceremony was ever performed than the one which on a recent Sunday united Alfred Scammel and Mary Moulton in Blue Rapids, Kan., They stood hand in hand at the foot of a grave in the Oak Hill cemetery and were there made man and wife, at the grave of the mother of the bride, who had blessed and approved the union, but who died before she saw the pair united.

The little company gathered there in the city of the dead looked strangely solemn in the fading light of the February day and there was little to suggest the gayety of a wedding in the solemn words of the minister or the grave faces of bride and groom.

For many years Miss Moulton, the bride, had been fatherless and between her and her mother there had grown up an intimacy and affection different in many ways from that ordinarily exhibited by mother and daughter. They were more like loving sisters. They were friends and companions and the tenderness and devotion each exhibited toward the other had often been remarked by their friends.  And when over a year ago Albert Scammel came a-wooing and wrought himself around the gentle heart of the daughter until she felt her life would not be complete without him, the mother joyed in the union and blessed it and said it was well. She entered into all the preparations for the crowning event in the life of her daughter with more than a mother’s zeal and devotion. She was as earnest in her work for the happiness of Mary as though it were her own nuptial day which was approaching.

The wedding was set for February 13 of last year. The guests were bidden and the feast was set and it remained only for the words of the minister to join the lives of those who had chosen one another from all the world for all time. Then came sorry and suffering and the gaunt hand of death. On the eve of the wedding the faithful mother was stricken with illness and the wedding was postponed. She grew rapidly worse and on February 13, the day set for the ceremony, she passed away. The shock of her mother’s death almost carried away the bride-to-be. She withered under it and when at last she began to recover her health and strength she went every day to the cemetery to kneel upon the sod which sheltered the mortal remains of her whom she loved so dearly and to pray for her eternal happiness.

The young man came with her, he who was ready to cleave to her in sickness and death, and, kneeling there on that green mound, it came to them that it would be fitting they should be wedded there above the mother’s grave and on the anniversary of her death. Thus it came about that this strange ceremony was performed in the acre of mourning amid the gleaming headstones and the weeds of sorrow. A few friends were bidden to the wedding, and when they were assembled at the grave the young man and the young woman came down the avenue of bare and leafless trees hand in hand. At the foot of the grave they halted and the minister, standing in front of the marble shaft erected in memory of the mother, made them man and wife.

Thus was the idea of this odd service carried out. The church was beautiful. Oak Hill cemetery; the lights were the slanting rays of the sun playing hide and seek with the shadows of the great trees; the flowers were the loving mementos placed upon the mounds of the sleeping dead; the music was the soft carol of birds and the requiem of a gentle wind, and the altar was a mother’s grave.

All around the little company were the graves of the dead; above them arched the blue sky; the tender charms of nature were everywhere displayed; the sounds of priestly prayer and orphan’s sigh, gentle breeze and twittering birds mingled in an anthem from nature to nature’s God, and the fast declining sun, in a final burst of gold glory; gilded the mother’s monument and shone radiantly upon the young bride like a benediction.

The Parsons [KS] Daily Sun 26 March 1898: p. 3

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil, who is never surprised by the morbid vagaries of the human race, has heard a number of stories about couples plighting their troths over coffins, in coroner’s offices, and in burying grounds. In Russia, a notoriously superstitious land, a cemetery marriage was supposed to stop an epidemic.

In Witepsk, Russia, in order to stop the ravages of the cholera, two couples were married in a cemetery. The ceremony attracted a crowd, and the epidemic increased. Magic circles were drawn around some of the villages, and various heathenish incantations resorted to, but still the disease gathered in its victims. Then the Israelites were forbidden to call in doctors, and the mortality became frightful. How the epidemic as arrested is not told.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 7 December 1871: p. 7

Any number of historic cemeteries have designated special areas where weddings may be held in romantic gazebos, under ancient trees, and by tranquil lakes.  Recently, when Mrs Daffodil was visiting a local graveyard, which advertises that it hosts weddings, she saw a pretty clearing where a Chinese bridge spanned a little pond. It was a simply perfect location for the nuptial photographs–except that the picture was rather spoilt by a miniature spinney of birches just below the pond, marked by a discreet sign denoting it as a place to scatter a loved one’s ashes.

More on strange doings in cemeteries may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father’s Day

A Man Buries Himself Alive: A Story for Father's Day urn willow

In this heart-rending story, a father’s grief drove him to literally join his lost child in the tomb.

Extraordinary Suicide in New Orleans.

A MAN BURIES HIMSELF ALIVE

HE TAKES POISON IN A TOMB

The New Orleans Crescent of the 24th gives the following remarkable story of a suicide

Sylvester Rupert, 37 years of age, an Englishman by birth, and by trade a ship carpenter, lived with his wife and two children in a house on Perdido street. In October last the yellow fever, then prevailing, counted among its victims the youngest child of the Ruperts—their little girl Lizzie, about four years old, and the particular pet of the father. This was a blow from which the father never recovered. Not able to buy a tomb, he had the child buried in the ground in Greenwood Cemetery. The grief preyed heavily upon him. It was his only thought; and, being out of his regular employment, he found employment in his grief.

He bought a burial lot and some bricks and other material, and with his own hands, and all alone in the Cemetery, built him a brick tomb. He had not the means to make the tomb a stylish one; so in its mouth or entrance he fitted a wooden frame, and on this frame he fitted a piece of board and secured it with screws in its four corners. On this board, with which he enclosed the vault,  (in lieu of the usual brick and mortar or marble slab) he had carved nicely with his knife the burial inscription of his child. The tomb finished, he disinterred the child’s body and placed it there. He fastened the board with screws, in order that he might afterward have no trouble in removing it when he felt like gazing upon the decaying remains of his child.

This employment finished, it was his habit to visit the Cemetery, open the tomb, and look at the corpse of his pet. He always carried a screw-driver in his pocket with which to remove and replace the board and also to remove and replace the lid of the coffin. Neither the haggard aspect of the shrinking little corpse, nor the foul odor of its decay could repel him, and his morbid grief. His visits were frequent, and sometimes his wife went with him. He frequently complained to her that he could not get work; and this inability doubtless fostered the despondency which was drawing him to death. He frequently spoke of having no faith in the future, and of death as a desirable thing.

On Wednesday he went to the Cemetery with two shrubs which he had purchased and planted them in front of the tomb. On Thursday, when he left home, he told his wife that if he had no better luck in finding work she would never see him again. He also said something about having a place in which to rest.

That evening, or that night—for no one saw him in his gloomy proceedings—he visited the cemetery; taking with him his screw-driver, an iron trunk-handle, a small rod of iron, a piece of wire, some new screws, and a large vial of laudanum. Unscrewing the board of the tomb, he threw away the screws and filled the screw-holes in the board with clay.

With his new screws he then secured the trunk-handle to the inside of the board. This work, of course, had to be done outside the tomb. Pushing his child’s coffin aside, he got in by its side, taking with him his poison and the other articles with which he had provided himself. His hat he placed upon the coffin; his coat which he had taken off, he wrapped around a brick for a pillow. He shut himself in with the board, by means of the handle he had screwed to it; the board fitting outside the wooden frame. The iron bar, which was of the proper length, he placed across the frame inside. The thickness of the frame would not allow the bar to pass through the trunk-handle on the inside of the board; so he secured the handle and the bar by means of his wire, coiling it through the one end around the other. He did not succeed in fitting the board squarely upon the frame. One corner of it caught upon the brickwork outside the frame; this he did not discover, probably owing to the darkness of the night; and but for this little circumstance his fate would probably have never been discovered, or not at least for many years. Having thus hid himself away, as he fancied, beyond mortal discovery, he drained off the contents of his laudanum bottle, composed himself on his back, placed the brick and coat beneath his head, and went to sleep, and on into the unknown region of the suicides.

As he did not return home on Thursday night, his wife feared the worst, remembering well the tendency of his late conduct and the tenor of his parting words. On Friday morning she rose early and went out to the cemetery. She looked all around, and failed to find her husband. She went and looked at their tomb, and was about to leave, when she happened to notice that the board did not fit snugly into the frame as usual. Looking closer, she discovered the mud in the screw-holes; and putting her hand on the board, found it was standing loosely. She pulled it out a little, and the first thing she saw was the dead face of her husband. She fainted away, and laid in the grass she could not tell how long. She recovered at last, got up and went and informed the sexton, Mr. Merritt, of her discovery. The latter went and looked at things, and sent word to the coroner; and the inquest was held, as we have stated, on Saturday.

The coroner’s verdict was in accordance with the facts so plainly apparent—suicide by laudanum.

Albany [NY] Evening Journal 2 February 1859: p. 2 LOUISIANA

This story was so detailed, yet so bizarre in its unique details of self-immurement, that I thought it might have been a journalist’s invention. Grave records show that Sylvester Rupert, who died 20 January 1859, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

Often the 19th-century press focused on brutal, drunken, or absent fathers, yet there are a distressing number of stories of fathers pining themselves to death or committing suicide to follow a dead child or being visited by the  prophetic ghost of a lost darling. A Cincinnati man who said that his daughter came and stood by his bed at night, begging him to come to her, cried, “There’s the wraith of my child—she’s winking at me—I shall, shall go.” He eluded his terrified family, ran upstairs, and cut his throat. In another sad case, a railroad engineer whose child had died set a place for her at the dinner table and spoke to her as if she was still there. He told his wife that the little girl accompanied him on the locomotive and assured him that he would be with her soon. Shortly afterwards, he was killed in a train wreck.

This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available for Kindle. Or ask your library/bookstore to order it. You’ll find more details about the book here and indexes here.

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.

Mr Mathias Rises from the Grave: 1888

a mausoleum.JPG

MONSIEUR MATHIAS

[From the French of Jules Lermina, in the Paris “Figaro.”

Everybody in the little town of Lyre-sur-Ys was astonished when it became known that Mr Mathias was dead.

He was barely forty-five years of age, and was a robust man, as straight as an arrow. About three years before he had become the husband of a young girl of twenty, a niece of the tax collector, and whom he had loved with frenzy.

Of course, once dead, Mr Mathias was credited with having been during his lifetime the possessor of every virtue. It would have gone hard with the one who should have dared speak of him as having been a usurer or a miser, as people termed him while living.

No man would have dreamed of publishing anew the account of that celebrated marriage, which certainly did him honour, and which would have brought back to mind the remembrance how all had feared that tall, artful, avaricious and rich man whom people supposed to occupy his spare moments in concocting poisons, with which he experimented on dogs. It was no time to talk about that then. He was dead. Peace to his ashes.

After all, thinking the matter over, was there anything so very extraordinary about this death It was plain that Mr Mathias had had forebodings of its approach, for had he not, but a short time before, sent to Paris for workmen to erect in the cemetery the mortuary chapel that was at that moment waiting to receive his mortal remains? Besides it had been noticed that of late he had prowled about the house as if fearing mysterious robbers. He sequestered his wife and closed himself up for weeks in his laboratory, the chimney of which seemed in ablaze every night. All these were the premonitory symptoms of brain trouble had said Dr Labarre, who had decided that death had resulted from apoplexy.

Mr Mathias had a splendid funeral. One-third of the population of the town had followed his remains to the grave-yard, and it may even be said there were a few moist eyes when the oaken coffin was lowered into the crypt of the chapel, a real monument in itself, where two men of his size might have slept at their ease.

The mourners returned from the funeral, wondering what the widow would do.

* * *

Now, the truth of the matter is that Mr Mathias was not dead.

Two hours after the ceremony, any one who might have been in the vault where the coffin rested would have certified to the truth of this statement. Two sharp clicks, like the snap of a spring-, resounded, and the coffin opened like a closet. Mr Mathias sat up, stretching his limbs just like a man waking up. Through a grating in the ceiling a little light entered. Mr Mathias stood up, slowly rubbing his slightly benumbed knees.

Taking all in all, he felt comfortable, quite comfortable. The dose of the narcotic, which he had carefully measured himself before taking, had had the effect he desired. People had supposed him dead and buried, so much the better.

Since a long while Mr Mathias had made his preparations. The vault had been fitted up with great care. In it were suitable clothing, food, and a few bottles of good wine. As nothing stimulates the appetite more than a funeral, even if it is one’s own, Mr Mathias seated himself comfortably on his coffin, broke his fast and drank good luck to the future.

It is about time to say why, of his own free will, Mr Mathias was at that moment six feet below the surface of the ground.

As usual, there was a woman mixed in the matter. Unmoved by feminine charms until the age of forty, Mr Mathias, formerly an apothecary, who made a fortune with anti-spasm pills, fell in love with pretty Anne Peidefer, the niece of the tax-gatherer at Lyre-sur-Ys. He had bluntly proposed to the young girl, who had just as bluntly refused to become Mrs Mathias, in consequence of which he fell in love like a fool. I beg pardon I should say like a man of forty who allows himself to fall in love. Not being of an over-honest nature, he had woven such a subtle web about the tax-gatherer, that in less than a year’s time, knowing that the Government’s cash did not count up right, the unfortunate man was seriously considering the advisability of committing suicide. It was at this moment that Mr Mathias appeared in the guise of a saviour and made his terms. The niece offered herself up as a sacrifice to save an uncle who had been a father to her, although her affections were already pledged to a clerk in the office of a notary in the neighbouring town. As a sad victim on the altar of duty, Anne became Madame Mathias.

She soon felt all the consequence of the catastrophe. Mr Mathias (and perhaps he was not far wrong) was convinced that his wife hated him. From this conviction to the belief that she was deceiving him, there was but one step. Ever tormented by this suspicion, he became a monomaniac. His wife never put her foot out of doors, and nobody came to see her. Still, Mr Mathias imagined that the reason he did not catch his wife wrongdoing was on account of his awkwardness, and in his own mind he voted himself an ass.

It was then that a bright idea struck him. He would pretend that he was going on a journey, not to Versailles or Havre, as do comedy husbands, but on a long, long journey, from which it would seem very difficult for him to return.

And then, some night, he would come back as much alive as ever, to the great confusion of the guilty one.

He allowed himself three days’ time, and he was quite pleased with himself as he thought of all this, in stretching himself out comfortably in his coffin once more.

Mr Mathias was getting impatient as the third day drew to a close. He waited until the cemetery clock struck eleven, the hour he had chosen to begin operations.

His plans had all been well laid. The wall of the graveyard bounded his property. He had on hand a complete suit of black clothes in which to array himself as a phantom druggist. In the graveyard only would he wear his shroud, to be in keeping with the predominating colour of the locality. Once over the wall he would hie straight to his wife’s apartment. Then the fun would begin!

Mr Mathias dressed himself, and, everything being all right, he tilted over the marble slab covering the vault, climbed up into the mortuary chapel, opened the door, and walked out into the graveyard with his winding sheet on his arm.

As soon as he got into the alley, he unfolded the ample shroud and tried to cast it around his shoulders. But the sheet was quite heavy, and he failed in his attempt. Just as he was about to try it over again he heard a voice behind him say:

‘Hold on! I will give you a hand.’

Not to realise what a disagreeable surprise this was, would be a certain proof that one had never been at midnight in a graveyard trying to put on one’s shroud.

The voice that had addressed Mr Mathias came from the sexton of the graveyard, old Grimbot, an odd fish, well known in all the neighbouring taverns. He drew near and looked Mr Mathias full in the face, exclaimed:

‘Hello! is that you, Mr Mathias? Already!’

Mr Mathias, not a little embarrassed kept on trying to wind his shroud about him, hoping that a ghostly appearance would rid him of his inopportune companion. It did not, however. On the contrary, Grimbot kindly assisted him in putting on his sheet and arranging it so that the folds fell gracefully.

‘I have just left my tomb,’ began Mr Mathias, in a hollow voice.

‘So I see,’ said Grimbot interrupting him. You seem to be in a much greater hurry than the others.”

Mr Mathias did not listen to him. He was now taking long strides, walking on tiptoe, just like a ghost. Grimbot kept up with him and continued

‘’The idea does not come to the others so soon. They generally let a month or two go by.’

Mr Mathias suddenly turned toward him and extended both arms, exclaiming:

‘Begone, profane man! Begone!’

‘Tush! Tush!’ said Grimbot, in a fatherly tone. ‘Don’t mind me—after all I suppose you want only to take an airing like the other fellows.’

Mr Mathias kept on straight ahead, not deeming it worth his while to answer. He soon perceived, through the darkness, the gate of the cemetery. Being always prepared for the worst, he had a few louis in his pocket. ‘Come,’ said he, offering a couple of gold pieces to Grimbot, ‘let’s waste no time in talk. Here let me have the key.’

‘What! The key! you want to go out! That’s a funny notion! But, I say, none of that!’

‘I will give you four louis!’ groaned Mr Mathias.

‘Say now, stop that,’ replied Grimbot, ‘or else I’ll knock you on the head. I have no objection to your leaving your tomb and walking about. The others do so too ‘

‘The others! what others?’

Grimbot gave a wide sweep around with his hand, as he replied:

‘Why, the dead, of course!’

‘The dead—who is talking to you about the dead? Why man, I am alive, still living don’t you see?’

‘Phew! that is an awful joke; but, see here, l am a good fellow. Come along and take a drink with me.’

Like a pair of pincers his hand grasped Mr Mathias’ wrist. He dragged him to a small building, where he lived, and made him enter on the ground floor.

Mr Mathias was literally dumbfounded. After closing the door Grimbot got a bottle from a shelf, and, filling two glasses he took one and held it up, saying:

‘Here’s to you, Mr Mathias.’

‘Listen to me, good man,’ said Mr Mathias. ‘You want to have your little joke at my expense. Well and good. But there is a time for all things. For a reason that concerns me only, I have allowed myself to be buried. Now business of great importance requires my presence outside. Let me go, and, I assure you, I shall pay you well.’

While he was speaking, Grimbot had slowly walked around the table and taken a position, standing, his back against the door.

‘You are a good talker,’ sneered he. ‘So you are alive, eh? Well, you are not the first who told me that. You see I hear such strange stories. I am quite fond of my subordinates. Every night one or two of them come without ceremony to take a drink with me. Last night it was the notary. You know whom I mean your neighbour, Radel, the one that has the broken column. The night before last I had a call from Mme. Claudin, a mighty fine looking woman I can tell you. I am a good fellow. I let them walk about at night and chat with them but as to letting them go out, that is quite another thing.’

Mr Mathias began to feel uncomfortable. And no wonder, for Grimbot spoke with perfect composure, like a functionary who understood the responsibilities of his office.

He was a medium-sized, thick-set man, with hands like a gorilla’s. His eyes were black and glistening. A shiver ran through Mr Mathias’ frame as the idea struck him that the man was crazy.

Yes, that must be it. He must be a visionary fellow, who believed his graveyard peopled with ghosts. He lived in a fantastic world, the creation of a drunkard’s brain.

Mr Mathias began talking, pleading, supplicating. Why, how could he, the good, kind, intelligent, Grimbot, make such a mistake as to take him for a dead man, and he burst into a laugh.

‘Here!’ said Grimbot curtly; ‘enough of this! so long as you won’t behave reasonably, you will have to go in again.’

‘Go in again! go in where?’

‘Into the tomb!’

‘Never!’

‘You won’t! Once! Twice!’

Mr Matias looked at the enormous hands. Overcome with terror, he glanced around, looking for an opening to escape through. There was but one, the door, and there was Grimbot propped up against it! Anyhow, he had to pass, cost what it may! So he rushed forward with a scream.

Grimbot quietly put forward his open hand, into which the throat of his assailant fitted closely. Mr Mathias hiccoughed and tried to struggle. The hand closed more tightly. Mr Mathias slid down on the floor, kicked about for a little while, and then remained motionless.

Grimbot, like one used to occurrences of this kind, picked him, and, walking with the dignified step of a man conscious of having done his duty, he carried him back to the tomb, where he cast him into the crypt. He then kicked the slab back into its place, closed the grated door, and resumed his walk among the tombs muttering:

‘Did you ever see the like? Wanted to go out, eh! And me lose my situation? Not much.’

This is why Mr Mathias’ widow was able shortly after, to marry the one she always loved.

Tuapeka [NZ] Times, 25 April 1888: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The husband-pretending-to-be-dead motif is well-known to folklorists; usually it ends in tears, murder, or divorce. Here is a representative specimen:

A FAITHLESS WIFE TRAPPED BY HER HUSBAND

Stockholm, April. 10. Karl Peterson, a wealthy merchant, who had only been married a year, became suspicious of his wife, and arranged with a doctor and a solicitor for a mock death. The husband was placed in a coffin, and his will was read, leaving all his property to his wife.

Directly the doctor and solicitor departed, the wife telephoned to her lover the splendid news that her “monstrous husband was dead.” The lover arrived and kissed the wife, and Peterson thereupon leaped out of the coffin and confronted them. The wife fainted and the lover fled. Petersen was subsequently granted a divorce.

Press, 13 April 1914: p. 7

But in this month of loves and doves, one does like a happy ending, particularly for the much-tried Madame Mathias.

And how refreshing it is to find a public functionary so assiduous in his duties as well as impervious to bribery!  The citizens of Lyre-sur-Ys, alive or dead, must surely congratulate themselves on the efficient M. Grimbot. Mrs Daffodil feels confident that he never lost a corpse to a Resurrectionist.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Death Bell: 1866

Munich Leichenhaus
The Munich Leichenhaus or Waiting Mortuary, meant to prevent burial alive.

In some parts of Germany, such is the general dread of being buried alive that a system of precaution against this premature act is in vogue, by which more than one person has been restored to life and friends after being mourned for dead. The plan is, for the corpse to be placed in a comfortable apartment, with face uncovered, and with a cord or wire attached to the hands in such a manner that the slightest movement will cause the tinkling of a little bell in an adjoining apartment where some one is always on the watch till there are either signs of life or decomposition, to give the assurance of hopeless death. This custom has led to some striking scenes and curious revelations; and one of the most remarkable of these we are now about to put on record, as we received it, not long since, from the lips of the narrator:

“I had two bosom companions, and we three were nearly always together when our circumstances would permit. We were not alike in scarcely any particular, and for this reason, perhaps, we liked each other all the better. We differed on nearly every point in science, art, literature, philosophy, and religion, and argued every point we differed on.

“On one thing, however, we did agree, and that was, the possibility of being buried alive and the unutterable horror which must attend the subsequent consciousness of the fact. So, in health, we solemnly pledged ourselves, that if within reach of one another at the time of the supposed decease of either, the living should faithfully watch by the senseless form till the return of life or the certainty of death.

“My young friend, Adolph Hofer, was the first to go. He was a believer in the immortality of the soul, and the identity of the spirit with that occupying the mortal tenement. Of course we made our arrangements for watching the corpse according to our compact, but without the slightest hope of ever seeing another spark of life in that loved form.

“It was on the second night after the death of Hofer that Carl and I were sitting in an adjoining apartment conversing about the deceased and his religious belief. We had attached a small cord to the fingers of the corpse, and connected it to a little bell close to us, so that we could be warned of any movement, without being obliged to remain beside the body, which, for various reasons, would not have been agreeable to us.

“If Adolphe’s ideas in regard to the future state are correct,’ observed Carl, in the course of his remarks, ‘there is no certainty that he may now be with us, even in this room.’

“Yes,” returned I, “ if they are correct, Which I do not believe. When a man dies, he is dead, at least so far as this world is concerned.”

“That is your opinion, Jules,” said Carl; “but opinions don’t make facts.”

“It may fairly be presumed they are based on facts, when they cannot be reasonably controverted. If man exists after death as a roving spirit, give me some evidence of it, and then ask me to believe.”

“And what about ghosts?” said Carl, who was both skeptical and superstitious—and he glanced furtively and timidly around the room as he spoke, as if he expected to encounter some fearful apparition.

“Bah!” exclaimed I, contemptuously, “you know my opinion of ghosts and hobgoblins— that they have no existence except in the brains of timid fools.”

“At this moment we heard, or rather fancied we heard, a strange noise in the adjoining apartment.

“What is it?” inquired Carl, in a timid whisper.

“Nothing,” replied I, rousing myself, with a full determination to shake off what I conceived to be foolish fancy. “Are we men or children, to get frightened at the noise of a rat?”

“Hush! hark! I hear something still,” whispered Carl, now fairly trembling with fear.

“Then, if there is anything, we must know what it is!” said I, as I rose and took up the light for the purpose of going to look at the corpse. “Will you accompany me, or shall I go alone?”

“Carl Heilsten slowly and silently arose, as one who felt called upon to perform a fearful duty; but scarcely had he got on his feet, when the little bell connected with the dead was rung violently.

“My nervous system never received such a shock before or since. It seemed for the moment as if I was paralyzed. The light dropped from my hand and was extinguished, and great beads of perspiration stood all over me.

“But I remained inactive only for the time it would take one to count ten. Reasoning that my friend had come to life, and needed immediate assistance, I hastily procured another light; and merely glancing at Carl, who had fallen back upon his seat, white and helpless from his sudden fright, I rushed into the apartment of the corpse, expecting to find Andolphe living, if not actually sitting up or standing.

“To my utter astonishment, however, I found only the dead form of my friend— cold, rigid, motionless. There was such an inflexible look of death on his features, that I could not believe there was a single spark of life in the body, and a close examination of lips and heart proved there was none in reality. And yet the hands had been moved, and were drawn to one side, but rather as if jerked there by the bed-cord, which was hanging somewhat loose, than as if stirred by any internal power.

“But what had moved the hands and rung the bell? This was the startling mystery. The room was not large, and contained no great amount of furniture, and was easily searched. I had just passed the light under the bed and around and behind everything, when Carl, appeared at the door, pale, trembling, and covered with a cold, clammy perspiration.

“Is he alive?” he rather gasped than said.

“No,” I replied, “nor has there been any life in him since his breath went out.”

“Merciful God!” he ejaculatd, nervously grasping a chair for support—”what rung the bell, then.”

“That is the mystery I am trying to solve,” said I “It is possible there may be some person concealed here.”

“I cautiously opened the door of a long, deep closet as I spoke, in which hung the clothes of the deceased, and went in and examined it thoroughly. No other human being was there, and nothing had been disturbed. There was no outlet to the room except the door communicating with the apartment in which we had been watching, and two windows looking out upon a lawn, and the sashes were closed and the curtains drawn. showing no signs of recent disturbance. I then re-examined the room, and particularly the bed, but without making any new discovery.

“This is all very strange!” said I, half musingly, and looking inquiringly at Carl— “very strange indeed!”

“It must have been something supernatural!” he replied, in a hollow whisper, and moving over to the chest in the corner, he sank down upon it.

“As he did so, the sharp click of the spring lock caused him to bound up as if shot. For a moment or two he stood trembling, and then said with more nerve:

“I believe I am a cowardly fool, to be scared at everything! I do not fear anything human, though,” he added, “but this unearthly business unmans me.”

“I now re-examined the corpse, to be sure there were no sign of life in it, and found not only death there, but the beginning of decomposition. Perfectly assured of this, we went into the other apartment, and sat down, to watch through the remainder of the night and ponder the mystery. Scarcely were we seated before we fancied we heard dull, muffled sounds in the dead room, followed by something like a smothered human groan. Carl’s teeth now fairly chartered with terror, and I confess I never felt less courageous in my life. These strange noises only continued for a short time, then gradually died away into silence, after which we were disturbed no more.

“In the course of time our friend was buried, and some time after the funeral we proceeded to open his strong box or chest, according to his direction. Then it was that our supernatural mystery had a natural but horrible explanation:

In that chest was the black and decaying corpse of one whom we had known in life !

“The following is our conjecture:

“Cognizant of Adolphe Hofer’s money and jewels, of their place of deposit, and of our mode of watching the dead, he had, on that eventful night, entered the dead-room through a window, at an early hour, and concealed himself in the closet till midnight; and then set about his work of robbery. Some accidental noise having alarmed us, as he could tell from our conversation, he had either in his haste to secrete himself, or intentionally to frighten us still more, rung the bell in the manner stated, and then got into the chest, which had a powerful spring-lock. My friend Carl, by accidentally sitting down on this, had sealed his doom; and his subsequent groans, and terrible efforts to burst from his narrow prison, were the strange noises which had so disturbed us the second time. The man’s death was a fearful retribution, and the discovery of his dead body spoiled an otherwise wonderful ghost story.

The Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 3 November 1866

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: While deploring their corseted officers and their penchant for invading Belgium and France, Mrs Daffodil must express guarded admiration for Germany’s zeal to ensure that no mistakes—such as burial alive—occur to deplete the ranks of the Fatherland’s citizenry. The London-based Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was equally complimentary, saying that Germany and Austria were the only countries to take the peril of premature interment seriously. In point of fact, there seem to be no records of corpses actually reviving in the so-called “Waiting Mortuaries,” or “Totenhaus,” although the gases of decomposition stirred many a false alarm, but it is the thought that counts.

mortuary chamber Munich Death Waiting Mortuary 1897

For more tales of the grim and grewsome, see The Victorian Book of the Dead, available on Amazon and for Kindle.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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.

Death by Owl

skull owl finis.JPG

This weekend begins the “International Festival of Owls,” and while we do find some touching stories of owls as pets and grudging acknowledgment that they keep down vermin, the papers of the past are more likely to report on owls killing domestic fowls or sheep, or on monster owls with 4-foot wingspans. Owls are silent, taloned killers and they have long been heralds of death. Even today some people believe that their call is a token of doom. It must have felt that way to this unfortunate Long Island woman:

OWL IS CAUSE OF SUDDEN DEATH

YOUNG WIFE SUCCUMBS TO ATTACK OF APOPLEXY

Heard Omen in Screeches.

Dies When Bird Flies Against Window

New York, June 15. Mrs. Josetta Coonan O’Neill, wife of James T. O’Neill, assistant corporation counsel in Brooklyn died suddenly in their summer home in Argyle Park, near Babylon, L.I., early yesterday, from apoplexy caused, it is believed, by fright when a screech owl flew against the window of her room just before she retired. Mrs. O’Neill for two days had lived in fear of the owl, a dark-feathered bird that had followed her about the grounds and had passed and repassed her husband and herself when they went out. Her dread is believed to have reached a fatal climax when the owl flew against the window in the darkness, screeching.

The body of Mrs. O’Neill last night lay in the home of her mother, Mrs. Thomas Coonan in Seventh street, Brooklyn, on the Park Slope, the home from which the young woman went forth a bride only last December.

Mrs. Coonan, who is an invalid, was in the Argyle Park home of her daughter when Mrs. O’Neill died. There was no warning that death was to visit the house. Mrs. O’Neill, only five minutes before her death, had passed into the room of her mother and kissed her good night. The younger woman then apparently was in her usual health. It is thought, however, she was suffering secretly through her fear of the owl, which at that moment was screeching dismally from the limb of a tree near the house, and that she concealed her fear for her mother’s sake.

Mrs. O’Neill was in the railroad station in Babylon at 5.40 o’clock Tuesday afternoon, when her husband arrived from Brooklyn, and together, as usual they walked to Argyle park. The owl was not then in evidence, for it was still daylight. After dinner, however, when O’Neill went out to rake a flower bed he had been preparing for his wife, the owl began to screech nearby. The flower bed is in front of the house and only 50 feet from the front porch where Mrs. O’Neill sat watching her husband. Suddenly she uttered an exclamation and her husband looked up to catch a glimpse of the owl that swiftly passed within a foot of his face, crying as it passed.

Three times the bird made the passage in front of him until, in exasperation; he threw his hoe at it. The hoe went over a fence and the owl perched again in a tree, letting out a succession of raucous screeches. To O’Neill it seemed as if the bird mocked him, and he tried to hit it with a stone, but the owl only flew away unharmed.

Mrs. O’Neill was much disturbed by the actions of the bird, which the night before had pursued her and her husband in their walk to the village. O’Neill hardly could persuade her to go out for their usual walk, but at last she went, though expressing a fear the owl would give them no rest. She said the persistence of the bird was an omen. Her husband treated the subject lightly, saying he would get a gun the next day, and end the bird and the omen too.

But Mrs. O’Neill’s fears of being pursued quickly were verified. Scarcely had they gained the street when the owl, out of the darkness, darted past their faces, uttering its hoarse scream. The bird, O’Neill observed, waited until it was passing before it screeched. Once it went so close to them its wings fanned their faces, and Mrs. O’Neill stopped, trembling, and grasped her husband’s arm, saying she could go no further. They had walked no more than 300 yards from home. They just had turned back when the owl again passed them, screeching. All the way to the house the owl passed and repassed, and at last Mrs. O’Neill’s terror became so great she released her husband’s arm when they almost had reached the steps and ran into the house, where she sank trembling into a chair. Her husband reassured her and afterward they sat on the porch and watched for the appearance of the bird, which at intervals flew close to the steps. By that time Mrs. O’Neill seemed to have recovered her courage, and laughed and chatted with animation. Afterward they went into the house where O’Neill wrote letters and Mrs. O’Neill read and commented on some of the articles she looked at. She still maintained the air of cheerfulness. It was almost midnight when they thought of retiring. Mrs. O’Neill’s last act was to kiss her mother.

Just after the wife entered their room, which is on the second floor, O’Neill left it for five minutes. It was in his absence the owl is thought to have struck the screen of the window. When O’Neill returned his wife apparently was asleep. Believing she merely was feigning sleep the husband pinched her earl slightly but she made no response. Then, becoming alarmed, he looked closely at his wife and observed her pallor. He called her mother and the maid and telephoned to Dr. Harold E. Hewlett of Babylon, who on arriving, said Mrs. O’Neill had died from apoplexy.

At dawn yesterday, the owl again flew near the room where lay the body of Mrs. O’Neill. In a second flight the bird flew against a screen door which gives egress from the room to a balcony.

The nurse who had been summoned and several others in the room saw the bird hurl itself against the screen as if to break its way into the room. It uttered its cry, fluttered to the floor of the balcony and then again flew to its favorite perch in a tree nearby. O’Neill, when asked last night about the owl, said it had persisted in following his wife and himself. The Argyle park home has been owned by the O’Neill family for 20 years, but Mr. O’Neill said he never had seen the owl until two days ago. O’Neill said the owl was not larger than an ordinary pigeon, but had a great spread of wings. Springfield [MA] Union 15 June 1911: p. 2

Now, I’m sure a naturalist would hoot at the idea that the owl had anything supernatural about it, and perhaps rightly so. Owls are intensely territorial. The “favorite perch” could have been its nest and it might have been defending its eggs or owlets. Owls are well known for attacking people who come too close. They sometimes hurl themselves against windows, believing the reflection is an intruder. One owl even attacked a window of a room where a stuffed owl was kept. But it does seem a little odd that the bird only showed up two days before Mrs. O’Neill’s death and that it attacked the room where her body was laid out.

Rational explanations aside, the owl is, of course, a token of death.  The unfortunate Mrs. O’Neill believed it had come for her and that she was doomed. Other headlines for this story also emphasized a belief that Mrs. O’Neill was scared to death. “Dies from Fear of Owl,” “Dread of Owl Causes Death.” “Bride of Three Months Scared to Death by Owl.” Even the New York Times’ headline read: “Hears Owl Screech; Dies,” although the Times article mentions that Mrs. O’Neill was also grieving for her father, who had died five weeks previously and that she had had a “nervous breakdown” over his death. In a post on people who died of fear, I cited “broken-heart syndrome,” which is triggered by a sudden loss or shock.

The “superstition” of believing that owls hooted of death was supposed by all educated and right-thinking people to have been wiped out by 1911 (except in isolated pockets of rural or ethnic ignorance).  A 1912 article rather scornfully stated that the barn owl was the source of more ghost stories than any other living creature, with its uncanny cry and ghastly face. Owls trapped in chimneys and furnaces were exposed as the source of haunted house rumors; eerie moans in burial vaults were revealed to be roosting owls. Such things really took all the fun out of folklore. But despite ridicule, there was a deeply-rooted belief in the malignity of owls.

A gravedigger had this to say:

“It seems like the graveyard is their natural element, especially when there’s lots of big trees and ivy-grown vaults. To hear an owl hoot in the night here, as I do sometimes, when everything is still, would make your blood run cold. They don’t keep it up right along through the night, so you can get used to it; but it will be quiet for a long time–so still that you get almost afraid to breathe, and the falling of the leaves startles you–then all of a sudden you’ll hear the long hoot-too-toot and a dull rushing in the air, as a big owl sails by and drops down upon a vault beneath the hill…

“I can always tell when there’s going to be a busy time here,” he continued. “When the owls are particularly plenty and keep up an awful hooting during the night I look for the funerals next day. They always come. When the owls hoot, it means funerals.”

“I don’t like owls,” the old man went on, scraping the red clay from his spade with the toe of his boot. “I don’t like ’em; they don’t mean good. Dead people are good enough in their way, I get used to them. But owls are a kind of half-dead and half-alive bird, and if t’warnt that I knew they couldn’t get at ’em, I’d believe they lived on dead people.” The Independent Record [Helena, MT] 9 December 1883: p. 9

A half-dead and half-alive bird. A perfect description of the skull-faced barn owl, silent and deadly one moment; screaming as if knifed the next. You’ll find a selection of owl calls here. Even knowing what is coming, they are unnerving.  A screeching owl dive-bombing out of the dusk; hitting window screens; screaming like a banshee–it is like something out of The Birds and it is no wonder that, in her weakened state, Mrs. O’Neill felt that a taloned angel of death had come for her. Death is the thing with feathers…

Other fatal owl attacks? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

 

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.

The Tombstone Censor

angel carving tombstone W V Gazetteer and Bus Dir 1882-3

Think you can have anything you want carved on your tombstone? Think again. When a Lancashire man’s family wanted to write “Sleep Tight Dad” with Xs representing kisses on his monument, the local parish priest objected and asked for the offending gravestone to be removed. The parents of a young soldier were forced by Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati to take down a “Sponge-Bob-“shaped monument, at least temporarily.  Such cemetery sensitivities are nothing new. In 1905, the Tombstone Censor was on the job and in the news.

THE TOMBSTONE CENSOR

He Sees That No Unseemly Inscription Mars the Cemetery

A tombstone censor is employed by most large cemeteries. It is the duty of this man to see that nothing unseemly in the way of a tombstone is put up.

A young engineer in a Norristown mill was killed by the explosion of a boiler, and the family of this young man, believing that the mill owners had known all along that the boiler was defective, actually had carved on the tombstone the sentence, “Murdered by his masters.” The tombstone censor, of course, refused to sanction such an epitaph.

On the death of a certain noted prize fighter the surviving brother of the man wanted to put in a glass case beside the grave a championship belt, four medals, a pair of gloves and other trophies of the ring. But the censor’s negative was firm.

A widow who believed that the physician was responsible for her husband’s death wished to put on the tomb, “He employed a cheap doctor,” but the tombstone censor showed her that such an inscription would lay her open to heavy damages for libel.

Atheists sometimes direct in their wills that shocking blasphemies be carved on their monuments. The censor, however, sees to it that these blasphemies do not disfigure the cemetery. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 22 June 1905: p. 3

There was a relatively recent case in England of a widow being made to take down her husband’s cricket-bat tombstone, but I’m unable to find the reference. The story was practically identical to this one:

A Remarkable Tombstone

[Sheffield (Eng.) Telegraph.]

All day Sunday a large number of people visited Wadsley Church-yard to inspect a tombstone which has recently been erected to the memory of Benjamin Keeton. The characteristic of the tombstone is that immediately after the worlds “In affectionate remembrance of,” and before “Benjamin Keeton,” there is engraved in very bold relief a set of stumps, six inches across, with balls on, the stumps being a foot high; a cricket-bat, which is across the stumps, the bottom of the bat resting on the ground, the bat being eighteen inches high, and the handle appearing as if it were wrapped with the orthodox waxed thread. The Vicar and Church Wardens as soon as they saw the stone, communicated with the widow of the deceased, and required her to remove it in three days. The widow of the deceased says there has been nothing irregular, and she has no intention either to remove or deface the stone. On the other hand, the officers of Church say that the putting up of the stone was a trespass, as the stone got into the church-yard surreptitiously. Keeton was a professional cricketer. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 January 1877: p. 2

This article, from a monument-makers’ trade journal, spells out the law in England and mentions a few high-profile cases.

THE LAW AND TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS.

Not long ago an American newspaper called attention to the fact that the vestry of an English church refused to allow a few lines of poetry to be inscribed upon a tombstone in the churchyard. The ground of their objection was that the verses were held to be “mere doggerel.” The vestry was undoubtedly unaware of the fact, brought out by the newspaper, that the “doggerel” was from the pen of no less a writer than Longfellow, whose bust is given an honored place in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. As if to even up for this international slight, the same writer recalled the fact that another vestry board refused to permit a tombstone inscription from Tennyson, on the ground that it was sacrilegious.

The curious epitaphs that so frequently find their way into print must often cause the serious to grieve. That a tombstone is no place for jocularity, for sarcasm, for mawkish sentimentality or for grotesque exaggeration is one of those things that should be known without teaching. But it is not known, and a tombstone censor would be an overworked official in almost any community. It is a question how far church officials or cemetery directors could go in the supervision of epitaphs or inscriptions in this country. That the law would frequently be invoked is evident. \With the Established Church in England, the condition of affairs is far different. A recent exchange touches on this matter, and quotes several decisions that have a general interest to readers of Stone. The writer says: It would appear from many legal decisions that, notwithstanding the powers vested in an incumbent, he has no legal right to refuse to allow an inscription on a tombstone in his churchyard of a simple and scriptural nature. Apart from the sentiment of the question it was never intended or contemplated by the Legislature that the ordinary’s power to regulate the inscriptions on tombstones should be oppressively or arbitrarily exercised. Sec. 28 of 15 and 16 Vic., ch. 85, provides (inter alia) that any question which shall arise touching the fitness of any monumental inscription placed in any parts of the consecrated portions of the burial ground shall be determined by the Bishop of the diocese. In the case of Keet vs. Smith, L.R. 4, Adm. and Eccl. 398. and P.D. 73, the incumbent objected to the promised inscription on a tombstone, and on application being made by the father of the deceased for a faculty, the Chancellor of the diocese and the Court of Arches refused it, but the Privy Council, seeing nothing objectionable in the inscription, directed it to issue. The objection taken by the incumbent in this case was that the deceased was described as “The Reverend,”‘ he being only a Wesleyan minister, and as such, in the incumbent’s opinion, not entitled to the prefix” “Reverend.” The inscription in its entirety was as follows:—”I.H.S. In loving memory of Anne Augusta Keet, the younger daughter of the Rev. H. Keet. Wesleyan minister, who died at Owston Ferry, May11th, 1874, aged 7 years and 9 months. Safe sheltered from the storms of life.” It should be remarked that no exception was taken to the latter part of this inscription.

Again in the case of Breeks vs. Woolfrey. Curt 887, Sir Herbert Jenner said:—”It was not denied, nay it was admitted, that if the inscriptions were of the character attributed to them in the citation, viz., contrary to the articles, canons and constitutions, and to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England—no person had a right to erect a tombstone with such inscriptions impugning the doctrines of the Church of England, and that a person so offending is liable to be punished.” The inscription in this case was “Pray for the soul of J. Woolfrey,” and the court held that such an inscription was not illegal. Stone; an Illustrated Magazine, Volume 19, 1899

Apparently the Tombstone Censor could not be everywhere, for there were a surprising number of stories in the 19th- and early 20th-century press about epitaph lawsuits, such as these two:

A CURIOUS EPITAPH

Tombstone Maker, of Wheeling, W. Va., Takes a Queer Revenge and Gets in Serious Trouble.

Among curious epitaphs, that which is engraved on the monument of James Rine, of Wheeling, W. Va., is certainly the most unique. List most epitaphs of interest, says the Chicago Daily News, this one does not spring from an attempt to eulogize the dead; on the  contrary it is a distinct effort to cast disgrace upon the sleeper beneath the stone. The inscription, besides the name, date of birth and death of the deceased, tells the world in large letters that “This Ain’t Paid For.”

Some years since James Rine had Tombstone Maker Carroll erect on the family lot at Stone Meeting House Cemetery a monument for which he gave his note in payment. Before the same matured Rine died, with his estate insolvent. Carroll, being unable to collect his claim, inscribed on the stone: “This Ain’t Payed For.” In consequence, the nearer relatives had him indicted. Morning Olympian [Olympia, WA] 19 November 1899: p. 4

LIBEL SUIT CAUSE UNIQUE

Tombstone Inscription Curious

Widow is in Dilemma.

Hamburg, May 28. From Heligoland comes a curious libel action for the German courts to deal with in the course of the present sessions.

Last year the lighthouse-keeper on the island died, and his affectionate widow put up a tombstone on which was inscribed: “Neglect shortened thy life in the Spring of thy years.”

Friends of the widow say this was a dig at the authorities, who sent no relief to the lighthouse-keeper when he needed it, but the local doctor has read it as a reflection on himself. So he has filed a suit for libel.

Now the widow is faced with a dilemma. She denies any reflection on the doctor, and, as she draws an official pension she does not wish to fall foul of the authorities. Her defence, therefore, is that she set up the inscription for her own neglect of her husband in his last hours. Oregonian [Portland, OR] 29 May 1910: p. 2

Either standards have become much more lax in some cemeteries or the Tombstone Censor was looking the other way when this particular monument was carved. Any other actionable epitaphs? Laser-etch on a slab of Vermont marble and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

[Thanks to Michael Robinson for the BBC article that inspired this post.]

Portions of this post (with more odd mortuary jobs) appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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.