A Man of Vision: The Glass-Coffin Inventor

A recent article in the Guardian about what happens when urban cemeteries are full mentioned that in Kuala Lumpur and some other Asian cities, the urns of the dead are kept in mechanical columbaria. Specific individuals may be accessed at the touch of a button from the filing system. This reminded me of a piece from The Victorian Book of the Dead, about an inventor of glass coffins, a Man of Vision, creating not just glass coffins, but a vacuum seal to preserve the body, the design of the vaults to hold them, and a filing system for corpses. He even suggests a pleasant way to spend time with the dead.

COFFINS MADE OF GLASS

“It’s almost worthwhile dying to be buried in one of them,” said the inventor of a glass coffin yesterday to a Times reporter. Henry H. Barry, the speaker, who lives on Fifth street, just below Spruce has for many years interested himself in transparent systems of burial. After conceiving the glass casket he kept it a secret for a long while, until, on October 24th of last year, it was patented. He is searching for a capitalist and the reporter became one for the time being.

“Yes,” continued the inventor, “I believe the success of this thing is going to be immense. There is one San Francisco firm that will take thousands of the coffins to sell to Chinamen.” [to ship bodies back to China for burial.]

“What is the advantage of glass for domiciles of the dead?”

“In the first place, one has perfect preservation. Before being placed in the vial the patient is embalmed. I may say that the coffin is devised on the walnut shell principle, in two halves. After my customers are once securely packed in coffins I apply an exhaust pump, take out all the air and hermetically seal up the aperture. Then the thing is accomplished. I believe, sincerely, that the whole business will last through several generations. There is the advantage that no infectious disease can come through the glass. The flesh of the subject will preserve its natural tints and relatives and friends will be able to view the deceased for years to come.

“As a sanitary reform it is unparalleled,” he went on; “tenanted coffins can be piled up like any other merchandise anywhere and stay there for years. Some people might prefer to keep relatives in their own houses, nicely put away in the coffins. There is nothing objectionable about the idea. When buried in cemeteries there will be no exhalations whatever, and in case of the removal of graveyards, the coffins can be taken up and carted away with no more offense than would be given by so many kegs of nails.” “What are [sic] the dimension and shape of the coffin?” asked the reporter.

“They can be made of all sizes. The glass is three-eighths of an inch thick, and the coffin is oval with a concave top. It would not do to have it flat as with a vacuum inside it the glass would collapse.” “Wouldn’t they get smashed in cemeteries?” queried the incipient investor.

“On the contrary. We have a system of toughening the glass that makes it like iron. A spade struck against the coffin with a good deal of force will not break it. Body-snatchers would get their fingers cut, but that’s all right. I don’t legislate for ghouls. There is no end to the variations which can be made on these coffins. The glass can be clouded so that only the face is visible. It can be colored, or butterflies and weeping willows can be placed at intervals all over the surface. There are a thousand ways of ornamenting the exterior.”

“What will they cost?” was the next question.

“From seven up.  Seven dollars, I mean, of course. They could possibly be manufactured of such choice material and so beautifully etched as to cost as much as a thousand dollars each. I have often wished that at the time of President Garfield’s death I had had a glass coffin. I am sure it would have been used. I propose to form a company, with a capital of some half a million of dollars. No, sir, I will not sell you the patent outright, so it’s no use pressing me to do so. I have too much faith in its future for that. Another reason is that I am determined it shall not get into the hands of monopolists who will run up the price of coffins to a fancy figure. This casket was invented as much with the idea of benefitting the poor as anything else. Of course there will be money in it for me, and I suppose I shall have to accept whatever comes.”

Mr. Barry then proceeded to unfold the particulars of a remarkable scheme. He said that he had often heard a proposition discussed for excavating and constructing huge catacombs in this city for the reception of the dead. In that case, he thought, his invention would be invaluable. He called the scheme a “trust and safe deposit idea.”

“We should have a vast system of vaults,” he explained, “in which coffins would be placed. Spaces could be reserved for families. Here, in a stall, would be a father; by his side his wife; on the upper shelf the grandmother and grandfather, and above that the other ancestors. Each coffin would have a number at its foot, and catalogues would be issued giving the names of the occupants, for instance, ‘Henry Jones, 241.’ Above the vaults would be a suit of elegant reception rooms into which visitors would be invited. They could sit down and call for, say, ‘No. 241.’ An attendant would go down stairs, slide the casket indicated up on to a little barrow, come back again and leave it with them as long as they liked. They could look at it, have it taken to its shelf when they were through, and return home. A certain amount of rent would, of course, have to be exacted. What do you say of going into the enterprise? It will ‘take’ assuredly. There are a lot of other millionaires thinking the matter over, so you had better decide at once. Good afternoon. Let me hear from you in a few days.” Philadelphia Times

Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ] 29 March 1883: p. 2

Of course glass coffins weren’t really new–Alexander the Great was said to be buried in one and there were reports of ancient Egyptian coffins made of glass, but perhaps the vitrified faience inlays were what was being described. Glass coffins were the resting places of many sacred corpses or parts thereof, of spouses kept above ground for inheritance purposes, and of fairy-tale princesses. It’s the up-to-date sales-pitch with all the add-ons that sets this maker and his inventions apart. You might say Barry was thinking outside the box.

Another article gives Barry’s glass coffin patent date as 24 October 1882, but I haven’t been able to locate it. I’m also really quite perturbed that I cannot find an image of a glass coffin I thought I’d saved–it was a lovely purple-ish color and molded with dragonflies, like a piece made by Lalique. Search for “glass coffins” and pretty much all you find are the waxen cadavers of dictators and saints.

Other early filing systems for human remains? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Thanks to Michael Robinson for sending me the Guardian article.

Most of the post above appears in The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

A Dead Nun for Dia de los Muertos: Nobody expects the Spanish decomposition…

Sor Francisca Teresa de Jesús lying in state. Dead nuns in Hispanic convents were laid out with floral crowns signifying the crown of righteousness. banrepcultural.org

On this day when the dead are celebrated and remembered with the ofredas of Dia de los Muertos or the liturgy of an All Souls’ service, I thought it would be pleasant to recall the Legend of the Obedient Dead Nun.  Nuns, of course, take vows of poverty, chastity, and, most importantly, of obedience. A nun’s Superior stands as Christ’s representative on earth and she must be obeyed as one would obey God Himself. It can be a most difficult vow to keep—particularly if you are dead.

IT was after she was dead, Senor, that this nun did what she was told to do by the Mother Superior, and that is why it was a miracle. Also, it proved her goodness and her holiness—though, to be sure, there was no need for her to take the trouble to prove those matters, because everybody knew about them before she died.

My grandmother told me that this wonder happened in the convent of Santa Brigida when her mother was a little girl; therefore you will perceive, Senor, that it did not occur yesterday. In those times the convent of Santa Brigida was most flourishing—being big, and full of nuns, and with more money than was needed for the keeping of it and for the great giving of charity that there was at its doors. And now, as you know, Senor, there is no convent at all and only the church remains. However, it was in the church that the miracle happened, and it is in the choir that Sor Teresa’s bones lie buried in the coffin that was too short for her—and so it is clear that this story is true. The way of it all, Senor, was this: The Senorita Teresa Ysabel de Villavicencio—so she was called in the world, and in religion she still kept her christened name—was the daughter of a very rich hacendado of Vera Cruz. She was very tall—it was her tallness that made the whole trouble—and she also was very beautiful; and she went to Santa Brigida and took the vows there because of an undeceiving in love. The young gentleman whom she came to know was unworthy of her was the Senor Carraza, and he was the Librarian to the Doctors in the Royal and Pontifical University—which should have made him a good man. What he did that was not good, Senor, I do not know. But it was something that sent Sor Teresa in a hurry into the convent: and when she got there she was so devout and so well-behaved that the Mother Superior held her up to all the other nuns for a pattern —and especially for her humility and her obedience. Whatever she was told to do, she did; and that without one single word.

Well, Senor, it happened that the convent was making ready, on a day, for the great festival of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe; and in the midst of all the whirring and buzzing Sor Teresa said suddenly—and everybody was amazed and wonder-struck when she said it— that though she was helping to make ready for that festival she would not live to take part in it, because the very last of her hours on earth was almost come. And a little later—lying on her hard wooden bed and wearing beneath her habit the wired shirt of a penitent, with all the community sorrowing around her— Sor Teresa died just as she said she would die: without there being anything the matter with her at all!

Because of the festival that was coming, it was necessary that she should be buried that very night. Therefore they made ready a comfortable grave for her; and they sent to the carpenter for a coffin for her, and the coffin came. And it was then, Senor, that the trouble began. Perhaps, because she was so very tall a lady, the carpenter thought that the measure had not been taken properly. Perhaps, being all so flurried, they really had got the measure wrong. Anyhow, whatever may have set the matter crooked, Sor Teresa would not go into her coffin: and as night was near, and there was no time to make another one, they all of them were at their very wits’ end to know what to do. So there they all stood, looking at Sor Teresa; and there Sor Teresa lay, with her holy feet sticking straight out far beyond the end of the coffin; and night was coming in a hurry; and next day would be the festival—and nobody could see how the matter was going to end!

Then a wise old nun came to the Mother Superior and whispered to her: telling her that as in life Sor Teresa had been above all else perfect in obedience, so, probably, would she be perfect in obedience even in death; and advising that a command should be put upon her to fit into her coffin then and there. And the old nun said, what was quite true and reasonable, that even if Sor Teresa did not do what she was told to do, no harm could come of it— as but little time would be lost in making trial with her, and the case would be the same after their failure as it was before. Therefore the Mother Superior agreed to try what that wise old nun advised. And so, Senor—all the community standing round about, and the candle of Nuestro Amo being lighted—the Mother Superior said in a grave voice slowly: “Daughter, as in life thou gavest us always an example of humility and obedience, now I order and command thee, by thy vow of obedience, to retire decorously within thy coffin: that so we may bury thee, and that thou mayest rest in peace!”

And then, Senor, before the eyes of all of them, Sor Teresa slowly began to shrink shorter —to the very letter of the Mother Superior’s order and command! Slowly her holy feet drew in from beyond the end of the coffin; and then they drew to the very edge of it; and then they drew over the edge of it; and then they fell down briskly upon the bottom of it with a sanctified and most pious little bang. And so there she was, shrunk, just as short as she had been ordered to shrink, fitting into her coffin as cozily as you please! Then they buried her, as I have told you, Senor, in the comfortable grave in the choir that was waiting for her—and there her blessed shrunken bones are lying now.

From  Legends of the City of Mexico, Collected by Thomas A. Janvier, New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1910

The illustration shows Sor Francisca Teresa de Jesús lying in state after her death. [Photo from banrepcultural.org.] There is a genre of Hispanic paintings called Monjas Coronadas, depicting nuns in elaborately embroidered cloaks, huge floral or jeweled crowns, carrying candles, flowers, and religious figures. It was bridal raiment and it could never be too fine: these brides were marrying the King of Heaven and must reflect His Glory. When they died, the nuns were laid in state in the choir, again crowned with flowers symbolizing the crown of righteousness awaiting them in Heaven.(2 Timothy 4: 8)

In Monjas Coronadas, Profesion y muerte en Hispanoamerica virreinal, by Alma Montero Alarcon,  there are photos of excavations of nuns’ graves at the Convent of the Incarnation, Mexico City. These show the wire frameworks for the elaborate floral crowns the nuns wore on their days of Profession and on their deathbeds still in place on the skulls. (I have tried in vain to find images online; the photos in the book are under copyright.) The images are, as the nuns would have been the first to point out, a stark reminder that all things pass:

 ¿Ves la gloria del mundo?
Es gloria vana;
nada tiene de estable,
todo se pasa.

St. Teresa of Avila

Feliz Dia de los Muertos!

SOURCE: Monjas Coronadas, Profesion y muerte en Hispanoamerica virreinal, Alma Montero Alarcon, Museo nacional del Virreinato, 2008

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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 Girl in the Car: 1903

woman in coffin 1876 American Enterprise. Burley's United States centennial gasetteer and guide

Ghost Editor, Fort Worth Telegram

Dear Sir: I had never been a believer in the supernatural prior to the occurrence of the incident which gives rise to my story, but the facts which I am about to relate had the effect of purging the skepticism that had hitherto prevailed in my mind regarding such matters.

During the year of 1903 I was employed as an express messenger on the Fort Worth-Texarkana run.

One night there was transferred to my car from the western division a coffin containing a corpse consigned from El Paso to Schenectady, N.Y., and while this is no unusual traveling companion for an express messenger, the night in question was one which prompted thoughts of the supernatural, gloomy with a stillness in the air that foretold the approach of a heavy storm.

Being absorbed with routine matters which demanded my attention, little time was given to thought of the contents of the pine box lying in a far corner of the car. Vivid flashes of lightning and the ominous aspect of the sky made it plain that the elements would soon be warring. Being forty-five minutes late out of the last station passed and due in Longview at midnight, we were traveling at a rapid rate with an endeavor to make up the time lost. The air of the car being somewhat close, I stepped to the door and threw it half open. Simultaneously a blinding flash of lightning, accompanied by a crash of thunder, made me start back involuntarily from the open door. Before I could recover my composure, a gust of wind swept thru the car, extinguishing every light. I sprang to the open door and slammed it together, avoiding a deluge of rain that fell as the sluice gates of heaven had been opened. Turning quickly with a view to relighting my lamps, a flash of lightning revealed to me the form of a girl about twenty years of age standing in the center of the car. In my astonishment, thinking that my imagination had served me with an illusion, I waited for a second flash that again revealed the form of the girl, and while my gaze was limited to the momentary glare, I took in every detail of her figure and dress. She was attired in a brown street dress with long gloves to match, and her dark hair fell loose in a mass around her shoulders, contrasting strongly with the paleness of her face. For a moment I could scarcely move. My first thought was of how this girl could have gained entrance to my car while the train was moving at the rate of forty miles an hour. Another lightning flash showed the girl advancing toward me with her arms outstretched in a imploring attitude. My glance in this brief second also reverted to the farther par of the car, and to my horror observed the lid of the coffin thrown to one side and now standing open. This was the first time that I had associated the form of the girl with the supernatural, and my senses seemed to leave me as I dashed to the door and slammed it violently ajar. As I did, something seemed to pass me, and vanish out into the storm, followed by a wailing cry that even now at times rings thru my ears. I staggered back from the door from which I had sought to plunge and fell heavily to the floor of my car.

When the train reached Longview the baggage man climbed into my car and discovered my condition. A stiff drink of whisky brought me back to my normal senses and I recited my story.

After the lamps had been re-lit, a promptly investigation was made of the box in my car, which was found intact and strongly nailed.

Various opinions were presented by my train associates, and I caught  some of them winking knowingly.

I carefully noted down the address and destination of the coffin and the name of the consignor. A few days later I wrote to Schenectady requesting of the consignor a description of the corpse, and a week later received an answer describing in both feature and figure the girl whom I so fully described to my fellow workers the night of the visitation. I answered this letter, confiding my interest in the matter, with the request to be advised if the lady had formerly worn a brown dress, receiving a reply in the affirmative and to the effect that it was in this she had died from heart failure thru climbing a flight of stairs at a hotel in El Paso.

Do I believe in ghosts/ Well, I have another occupation than that of express messenger. Yours truly,

W.K.T. SCOTT

Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 13 December 1907: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  A nice, shuddersome story!  One can readily understand the narrator’s resignation from his occupation after such an uncanny encounter.

After the American Civil War, when embalming became more widespread, it was commonplace to ship corpses via the rails. The Wells Fargo company was one of the first in this field; they found an ingenious and heartless way to exploit the deaths of consumption patients.

AN INDUSTRY IN CORPSES
How an Express Company and an Undertaker Whack Up on Consumptives.

The Wells-Fargo Company does some queer things in the way of business, but the strangest perhaps is a new line, worked up by one of the shrewdest agents of the country at Denver. Colorado is a sort of last chance of consumptives, and pretty generally they die there. Most of them are supplied with money from home in regular installments, so when they die not enough coin is found among their effects to pay an undertaker. Undoubtedly many of them would be buried by the county, but right here’s where the company gets in.

It has a contract with an undertaker who takes charge of the body, embalms it, and gets it all ready for shipment. Then the Fargo agent wires to the agents in the towns from which the deceased received letters. If any relatives can be found it is a sure thing, and nine times out of ten enough friends can be found to put up a check for the undertaker’s charges and transportation. When this has been done the body is shipped to the friends or relatives by fast train, and turned over by the agent. The company makes a fat annual profit out of this melancholy business–“the corpse industry,” they call it—it is a good snap for the undertaker, and this county is saved just so many dollars. Many a time there have been three to four corpses at once in the company’s “cooling room” at Denver awaiting notice from friends in just this way. It is a cold day when W.F. & Co., can’t discover a new way to turn an honest penny.

The Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 19 July 1891: p. 18

Mrs Daffodil thanks Chris Woodyard for that diverting Wells Fargo anecdote, which appears in her book, The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.

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.

The Haunted Vicarage: 1840s

The first some of a series of ghastly tales for the month of Hallowe’en.

The Haunted Vicarage

We had been engaged eight years, Martin and I, ever since I was seventeen and he twenty four and the ‘living’ for which we have been patiently waiting had not yet been offered to him. Martin was still a hard-working curate in the smoky town where my father resided, and those kind friends who are always ready to play the part of Job’s comforters began to ‘hope that Eleanor’s long engagement would end in marriage after all.’

Great, therefore, was our satisfaction when a country vicarage was offered to Martin. The nomination came so strangely too. The living had first been offered to one of his college friends, a much older man than Martin, but as Mr Brown wrote to say that he felt that a younger man would do better justice to the work of a scattered country parish, and that he had therefore mentioned Martin to his friend the patron ,who was ready to offer him the living, it is needless to say this offer was thankfully accepted. The income was a fair one, at least to our modest views, and both of us looked forward to a residence in the country as only dwellers in a murky town are capable of doing. We felt quite touched by Mr Brown’s self-abnegation in declining Heathhurst for himself, at least until we saw the place.

I am writing now of the days of my youth, some fifty odd years ago Travelling was then a more difficult and expensive business than it is nowadays, and our slender means did not justify our making a long journey by coach to ‘prospect’ our new abode before settling there. Martin had agreed to take the furniture of the Vicarage at a valuation from the executors of the former incumbent (who had been an old bachelor and an invalid, and had resided as little in his parish as possible without provoking episcopal censure), and the price asked for ‘plenishing’ was so very moderate that Martin was willing to risk paying it without inspection of the articles named. Our quiet wedding, followed by a few weeks’ honeymoon at the seaside, then took place, and we left for our new home.

Both of us were looking forward to a life of activity and usefulness. We reached Heathhurst with some difficulty —it appeared to be off the track of every line of coaches; but at last our post-chaise lumbered into the village at the close of a summer’s day. My first impression of the place was that of dampness. The straggling village was low-lying and even on this July evening mist gathered heavily over the sluggish stream which meandered through the valley. The church stood on slightly higher ground, and the Vicarage nestled against the churchyard wall. As its name implies, Heathhurst was surrounded by magnificent woods, now gay with the glory of their summer foliage, but this added to the prevailing dampness of the atmosphere. As we found in our subsequent excursions in the neighborhood, the soil abounded in what the country folk called ‘ground springs,’ unexpected little water courses which bubbled up after rain, and converted a portion of the woods and pastures into veritable morasses. The scenery around was pretty, but as I looked at my new home I understood why Mr Brown, who had attained an age when people consider the possibility of rheumatism, was so willing to transfer Heathhurst to his ‘dear young friend.’

However, here we were, and both young and strong, and ready to make the best of things. The Vicarage was a roomy old house, and its furniture was of a solid old-fashioned description, far better than we had expected to find it. Martin would have abundant exercise for his zeal in bringing his parish into something like decent order, to judge from the neglected condition in which poor old Mr Hamilton had allowed it to fall, and after the first shock of arrival (and disillusion) was over we set ourselves resolutely to work. Sanitary science was less studied some half-century ago than it is now, and even the discovery that the churchyard itself formed, as it were, one side of our kitchen (the house being built against the churchyard wall) did not alarm us on health grounds, though the circumstance explained the persistent damp which oozed through the kitchen wall on this side. We had brought an old servant with us from my father’s house, and this maid and a girl from the village comprised our domestic staff.

For the first few weeks we were both so busy, I unpacking and arranging within doors, Martin organising his parish arrangements, that we had no time to think of other matters, But as we became settled in the home I noted a dejection in our faithful maid’s demeanor. One day when I was remarking how Mr Hamilton had neglected the parish, Sarah ‘spoke out,’ as she phrased it.

‘Oh, ma’am, ’tis easy to talk of neglection, but as Susan says, ‘tisn’t everyone as can live at Heathhurst Vicarage.’

Susan was the rosy -cheeked village girl imported to assist our factotum.

‘The house is rather damp, certainly,’ I said; ‘but so is all the neighborhood. We keep up good fires, and we are all well enough.’

‘Ah, I wish it was nothing more than damp that’s wrong here,’ sighed Sarah.

Then came out a long story. It appeared that the proximity of the churchyard was supposed to be objectionable, not on grounds of health, but for other causes. Some occupants of the burial ground–notably a certain squire deceased many years back were said to ‘walk,’ or at least to rest uneasily in their graves. Knocks and sighs, and other unpleasant sounds were said to be heard in the Vicarage kitchen, especially during the autumn and winter months and these occurrences prevented any good cook consenting to tenant the servants’ premises, and were said to have induced Mr Hamilton to spend so much of his time at a place ten miles away, driving in on Sunday to perform the usual church services.

Summer waned early that year, and the winter came in unusually wet and windy. There was much illness in the village, and Martin was overworked visiting the sick. We, too, were busy at home, for the local doctor lived a long way off, and Sarah’s experience was often of value in carrying out his directions regarding invalids. She and I were often out all day, tramping long distances to carry nourishing food and simple medicines to our poorer parishoners.

There was literally no society at Heathhurst. The population consisted of a few farmers and their laborers, the former being little better educated than the latter. Ten miles away was a pretty country town, but we seldom went there, as we had not conveyance, unless we borrowed or hired a farmer’s gig. A great depression sometimes settled on me as I sat in the Vicarage parlour and looked over the damp, dripping landscape. It rained almost continuously for weeks, and I contracted a chill which clung about me and affected my health. Then—was it fancy?—I began to think that there really were odd noises in the house. Susan had occupied all her hours of leisure in relating various ghost stories, local and otherwise, to Sarah, who conscientiously retailed them to me with all the certainly of unquestioning faith. Then Susan herself discovered that she was ‘feared to remain at the Vicarage come the winter,’ and departed to seek another service.

Martin, who had scoffed at the story of ghostly visitation, asserted that it was the dullness, not the noises, that led Susan to weary of her place, and to enter the service of an adjoining farmer, where as he remarked, ‘the girl has all the farming men to flirt with, and no old servant like Sarah to scold her.’

But anyway Susan left, and we had great difficulty in supplying her place, finally being reduced to take an orphan from a distant workhouse, who couldn’t be expected to indulge in the luxury of ‘nerves.’ Betsy was a stolid-looking young person with an abnormal appetite; but the Vicarage kitchen was too much for her after a week or two. She came to me one morning in floods of tears beseeching to be sent back to the workhouse. ‘For them knocks and groans behind the kitchen wall, ma’am, is more than I can stand.’

‘It’s the old Squire,’ remarked Sarah, grimly; ”tis his vault that lies nearest to our kitchen, and I tell Betsy it’s a warning to her—as tells so many lies every day—to see how the wicked do not rest even in their graves,’

‘He’ll bust in some day, I know he will,’ sobbed Betsy, ignoring the personal application of Sarah’s remark. ‘Please, ma’am, you and master is very good to me, and I never had such a sight of good victuals before, but I can’t—I can’t abear them noises.’

‘What are the noises like?’ I asked, for though, sitting alone in the evening when Martin had been called out to baptise a dying child or visit a sick person, I often fancied I heard odd sounds, they were not of the distinct and terrible kind described by Betsy.

‘He rummages about in his grave,’ sobbed the girl, ‘and he sighs, and he groans, and then he raps, raps, raps agin our wall.’

‘Sarah, you cannot believe all this?’

‘I believes my ears,’ remarked Sarah, ‘and hearin’ what I have about Squire Parsons I don’t wonder he does sigh and groan. Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, I don’t hold that reading any form of words over a grave makes the wicked rest easy in it.’

Sarah was, as I have before remarked, a sturdy Methodist, and only attended our church because there was no other place of worship within ten miles. The woman was superstitious, and yet courageous, but her superstition was more infectious than her courage, believed in the restlessness of the defunct Squire as firmly as did the New English Puritans in the certain existence of the Salem witches, and was prepared to confront the perturbed spirit as Cotton Mather did the supposed emissaries of Satan.

‘If the Squire comes, he comes,’ said Sarah, with grim resolution.

‘I’m thankful to say I’m better prepared, having been converted many years ago, to see a ghost than Betsy is. But it’s my thinking that the old Squire is obliged to keep his own side of the wall while pious folks are in the kitchen, and it’s just that makes him so mad. Now, if Betsy sat there alone, seeing that Betsy tells lies, which is one of the greatest of sins—‘

But Betsy was not inclined to put her virtue to the test, and departed back to the union, nor did we attempt to supply her place.

Sarah was willing to face the noises alone. I think Martin, fully occupied out of doors, scarcely thought about the matter as I did. He believed that the Vicarage, like all old houses, was full of odd noises probably due to rats which were exaggerated by the superstitious fears of the servant. But to myself, now out of health, and a good deal alone owing to Martin’s multifarious occupations in the parish the ‘fancy’ which I might have laughed at in days of health and spirits became a real terror. I myself had never heard the full noises; they only occurred in the kitchen itself but I thought about them, and dwelt on the subject till I became so unwell and nervous that Martin urged me to go to my father for a visit to recruit myself. But I would not leave my husband, neither was I strong enough to undertake a long journey at this time of year. The local doctor prescribed tonics, and asked if I had no friends who could come and stay with me and cheer me up. But I had led a very retired life owing to my father’s bad health I had no sisters, and my few girl friends were now married and scattered. My stepmother—I had lost my mother in infancy—was a kind woman, but too much occupied with father to be able to pay a visit.

Martin and the Doctor comforted themselves with the reflection that by-and-by more cheerful noises than the supposed knocks and groans might resound in the old Vicarage.

‘Of course Mrs Fleming is inclined to be nervous and fanciful just now,’ said the Doctor to my husband, ‘but when the baby comes we shall hear no more of the noises in the kitchen. That superstitious old servant of yours will be too busy to notice them.’

Kind and devoted as Sarah was, I could hardly have had a worse companion at this time. Strong in her religious convictions, she sat day after day in her kitchen, like a sentinel on guard, singing hymns in a cracked voice in the evening, and apparently deriving a grim enjoyment from the very idea that she was carrying on a successful struggle with the restless sinner on the other side of the wall. But I, ailing and lonely in the parlour above, would shiver and cower with nervous terror as I fancied I caught some sound, like a knock or a sigh, which might be the wind, and might be the Squire.

One evening in December—how well I remember it still!—a veritable tempest raged and shook the house. Martin had been summoned to the deathbed of a parishioner at a distance, and so bad was the weather that I had urged him to accept the proffered offer of a bed at the house, instead of returning through the winter night. He had been reluctant to leave me so long, but finally consented; indeed, he could hardly have found his way back in the storm of wind and rain. I was so solitary that, little as I liked the idea of entering the kitchen, I made up my mind to descend and speak to Sarah, whom I found tranquilly knitting by the fire. The kitchen looked so cheerful in the ruddy glow of the logs that I lingered awhile after I had given the order which I had made the pretext for my visit. Suddenly ‘rap, rap, rap’ sounded loudly on the wall behind me, followed by a long-drawn gurgling sound. I screamed with terror, but Sarah was calm.

‘Eh, ma’am, but he’s worse than ever to-night,’ she remarked ‘I’m thinking maybe ’tis the day of the month when he died, or something like that; but I never mind.’ But here the noise recommenced, so loudly and wildly that even the resolute woman grew pale. ‘Come away, come away, Miss Eleanor,’ she exclaimed, clutching my arm; but as she spoke came a rending sound; the wall of the kitchen burst open, a rush of water filled the room, and oh horror! a large black coffin sailed out of the aperture in the wall, and fell with a crash on the floor! I knew no more!

I was ill for many, many weeks, they told me afterwards, and Martin expected to lose his wife as well as his child. When I gradually awoke to consciousness I was not at the Vicarage, but at the house of a kindly neighbour, where the doctor had advised my being carried as soon as I could be moved on a mattress.

It was long before I recovered the shock of that awful night; long before I could even hear the explanation of that terrible apparition. It was a simple enough story after all. The churchyard, like the rest of the neighbourhood, had its ‘ground spring.’ One of these had sprang up in the vault of the wicked Squire, and actually floated the coffin, for years when the spring was full the water had been striving to burst through the wall, and the leaden coffin had acted as a kind of battering-ram. Hence the odd noises (always worst at the wettest times of the year), hence the terrible catastrophe.

We never returned to Heathhurst Vicarage. A friend of my father happened to have a living fall in his gift, which he offered to Martin, and some months after my illness we removed to the pretty south-country Rectory where I have passed the rest of my days, first with my husband, then with my son. Homebury Rectory has been ‘noisy’ enough during the last half century, tenanted by our merry healthy children and grandchildren; but the ‘knocks’ were of a different description from those that froze our blood at Heathhurst.

The patron of that latter living, who was a kindly and liberal man, was so horrified at the occurrence which so nearly cost me my life that he pulled down the old Vicarage and rebuilt it on higher ground, so that the present vicar’s family are not exposed to the risk of the irruption of coffins into their kitchen. But I shall never forget my residence in that haunted Vicarage home fifty years ago.

Southland Times 18 June 1892: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A salutary lesson, indeed, about the importance of well-drained soil. Modern builders would surely not be so careless as to abut a kitchen against a churchyard wall with all its attendant unpleasant effluvia. Mrs Daffodil does not usually attend the cinema, but she has been told that this story echoes the plot of a “horror” film called Poltergeist, which exaggerated the number of coffins and pictured mummified corpses emerging from their graves. One coffin was certainly bad enough for the unfortunate Eleanor.

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

The Pauper’s Coffin: 1865

Pauper’s coffin and wheeled hand-cart bier, Saltmarshe Chantry of Howden Minster, 1664 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pauper%27s_coffin_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1624985.jpg  Richard Croft / Pauper’s coffin

ONLY A PAUPER.

The Dundee Advertiser of Wednesday says–On Sunday evening a man. named Peter Fyffe, about 60 years of age, a flax-dresser by occupation, and residing in Irvine-square, Bell-street, died very suddenly. Between-nine and ten o’clock he was apparently in his usual state of health, but soon after that he became ill, and died shortly before eleven o’clock. His sister, Widow Keillor, with whom he resided, being in poor circumstances, applied to Mr. Jack, the inspector of poor for the parish of Dundee, to bury the corpse of her brother, which he at once agreed to do, and the funeral was fixed for Tuesday afternoon. Widow Keillor says–“A coffin was brought to the house about one o’clock to-day (Tuesday) by two men. It was long enough, but it was neither deep enough nor wide enough to contain the corpse. The men, when they saw that the coffin was not large enough, commenced to make the body of my brother fit it. One of the men put his knee on my brother’s breast and pressed with all his might, in order to make the corpse go into the coffin. The bones of my brother’s right arm cracked, and, although I could not say positively that it was broken, it seemed very like it. The whole bones of his body seemed crushed. It was impossible, notwithstanding all the exertions of the men, to make my brother’s body fit the coffin, which, burst. When it was seen that the body would not go into the coffin they went away for another one, which they brought; and when my brother’s body was taken out of the coffin, a considerable quantity of blood was in it. The second coffin exactly fitted my brother’s corpse, and when it was brought to the house one of the men said he admitted that the first coffin was too little. I felt very much shocked at the way in which the men crushed my brother’s corpse into the coffin, which was much too small, and Mrs. Keith, and Mrs. Fraser, and Mary Taylor remonstrated with the men, and told them that if they did not use the body rightly they would complain to the authorities.” This statement Mrs. Keillor declared was true, and not in the least exaggerated; and when our reporter read it over to Peter Devine (weaver), Helen Henderson (millworker), Agnes Imrie (millworker), and Barbara Henderson (sack-sewer), who were all in the house, and who stated that they saw the whole proceedings, they corroborated it in every particular.

Liverpool [Merseyside, England] Mercury 15 April 1865: p. 5

Other newspapers added the following details:

One woman exclaimed—“God pity me, to see a man of such respectability as he was in his day come to that, and be treated so miserably at his latter end.” Several of the neighbours with whom our reporter spoke on Tuesday night substantiated statements which the deceased sister had volunteered.

Mrs Keillor added that the parochial authorities sent a good hearse to convey her brother’s remains to the Eastern Cemetery, and she accompanied the remains to their last resting place, where, in her own words, she said—“I did what perhaps never a woman did before—I put the head of the coffin in the earth.”

We are satisfied that it is neither with the knowledge nor approval of the Chairman, Committee, or higher officials of the Parochial Board, that any such proceedings as narrated above had occurred. It is imperative however, that such instructions be at once given as will prevent any repetition of them, and nothing is so likely to effect this as taking the matter from the region of street rumour into public notice by the press.

The Western Flying Post or Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury [Sherborne, Dorset, England] 25 April 1865: p. 8

An investigation before the Parochial Board was held into the circumstances of this incident:

ILL-TREATMENT OF A CORPSE.

An examination took place before the Parochial Board Committee yesterday, in reference to the alleged ill-treatment of the corpse of Peter Fyffe, flaxdresser, Irvine Square, Bell Street, by the undertaker employed by the Parochial Board. Mr Francis Molison occupied the chair; and there were present–Messrs Niven, Guthrie, Mills, Ness, Morrison, Lorimer, Isdale, and Low.

David Gorrie was the first witness examined. He deponed that he was assistant-inspector, and stated that a woman called on him for a funeral order on Monday, between twelve and one o’clock. She produced a certificate from the registrar that the death was properly registered. He gave an order to the contractor for such funerals, Mr James Lindsay. The deceased was not a pauper on the roll. The woman told him that they wanted to bury the corpse immediately; but he told her it could not be buried for twenty-four hours. The order was then given her by him. James Lindsay was unable to be in attendance, and the next witness was

David Lindsay, son of Mr Lindsay, the contractor. He deponed that two women came to his father’s shop about four o’clock on Monday, with air order from the Inspector of Poor, for him to bury the deceased Peter Fyffe. They stated that they wished the funeral to take place immediately; but he said that it could not be done till next day. They said that deceased was an ordinary sized man; and he did not think it necessary to go and measure the body, but made an ordinary sized coffin. Next day, he went up about twelve o’clock for the funeral taking the chest with him. He found the body lying on the door, covered with rags. There was blood lying on the floor beside it. It appeared to him that the blood had come from the mouth. They lifted the body into the coffin; but found that although the coffin was long enough, it was too narrow. They tried to put the body into the coffin. They then put the lid upon the coffin, and screwed it at the bottom and the top. They found=that it would not close at the sides, the coffin being too narrow and being thus forced out. The body seemed to have swollen. They did not crush or push the body in any way, or injure it, or break any ot the bones. They found that the coffin was too small, and took it out. They then took back the small coffin and made a new one, large enough. They went back about five o’clock with the coffin, and the funeral was carried through. He denied that any ill usage whatever had been given to the body, but admitted that the first coffin was too small. If he had taken the measure of the body, it would have been all right. In this there was some fault. When the lid was put on the first coffin, he merely pressed the sides to get the lid on. The lid broke, but the corpse sustained no ill usage.

Robert Lindsay, another son of the contractor, was examined. He generally corroborated his brother s evidence, and denied that the corpse was injured, or that any inhumanity was used towards it. The contractors often got ill-usage from folks in the discharge of their duty. The women in this house seemed to be worse of drink. There was one man in the house, and he and the women said the coffin was too small. They were not squeezing nor pressing in the body, but the women in the house called upon them to put on the lid, in consequence of the strong smell that was in the house. It was scarcely bearable. He was satisfied that no injury was done to the body through putting it into the first coffin. There was blood about the mouth before they touched it, and that was not caused by the restriction of the body.

The following is a copy of Mr Lindsay’s contract with the Parochial Board:– “Dundee, 17th March, 1861.

“To the Committee of the Parochial Board

“Gentlemen, I hereby offer for the interment of paupers—

Under 12 years, . . . 10s Above 12 years, . . 17s 3d

“James Lindsay.”

From the first charge, 6s has to be paid for ground, and 3s for juveniles.

The Chairman said no member of the committee supposed but what the interment of the paupers was conducted in the same way as the interment of any other class, and that the bodies were measured in the ordinary way.

Margaret Fyffe or Keillor, sister of the deceased, deponed that she lived in the same flat with him. Shortly after the death of her brother, about eleven o’clock on Sunday night, some police officers came in. They said they would send a doctor, but none came. Her brother was quite well during Sunday. He took his supper heartily that night. She went to the Registrar and got his death registered next morning. She then went to the undertaker, Mr Lindsay, with an order she got from Mr Jack. She told him to come immediately and coffin the corpse. He said he would not come till next day at twelve o’clock. He came next day, but the coffin was too little. He tried to put in the body, but it would not go in. They pressed in the arms and forced down the body. She heard something crack; it was either the coffin or the body. She thought they ought not to have brought such a small coffin. They tried to put on the lid, but those in the house insisted on their taking out the body, and the contractor did so, and took away that coffin and came back some time after with a bigger one, and the funeral took place.

Mrs Fraser was next examined. She was a neighbour. She saw Lindsay come with the coffin. She told him it was too small and too thin. It might have been long enough, but it was too narrow. The body was swollen, and they could not put it into the coffin. They screwed out the top end of the coffin and tried to force in the arms. They forced them down by the side, and put their knee on the lid of the coffin to force it down. She heard something crack. It was either the arm of the man or the coffin that cracked. She thought they were improperly using the corpse. She went along with Ira Keillor to Lindsay on the night before the funeral, when the order had been got from the Inspector of Poor. She told him the condition of the body, and that it would require to be measured, because it was very large. The contractor did not come to measure it, and took up a small coffin. She described the treatment of the body. She thought the contractor acted wrong in forcing in the body in the wav he did.

Mrs Keith said she saw Peter Fyffe after he died. She heard Lindsay told to come and inter the body. Lindsay said the usual hour was twelve o’clock, and that he would come next day. She did not recollect him being told that the body required to be measured. She was present when the body was put into the first coffin. She saw that it was too narrow. She also saw them pressing it in. She heard something crack. It was either the coffin or the body.

Helen Henderson was present when the body was put into the first coffin. It was long enough, but it was too narrow about the shoulders. They lifted the arms and placed them across the breast. They endeavoured to press them down by the sides. They then put on the lid; Mr Lindsay put his knee on the lid to screw it down, and something cracked. Those in the house complained that they were ill-using the body, and they took it out, and took away the coffin, and brought a new one.

Mary Taylor, a neighbour, deponed that she was at the door of the room, and saw the contractor put the body in the coffin. She saw the coffin was too narrow, and that after the body was put into it, it was taken out again, and a new coffin taken up.

Peter Devine was in the house when Fyffe was coffined. He helped Lindsay to put the body into the coffin. The coffin was too small, and they pressed the body down into it. The arms were first put across the breast, and then forced down the sides. They then put on the coffin lid, and screwed it down at the top and the bottom; and, after trying to screw out the sides, could not get it done owing to the coffin being too narrow, and the sides being forced out. Mr Lindsay put his knee on the head of the coffin to screw it down, when the lid broke. Either the body or the arms cracked. He thought that they were trying to force the body into the coffin. He had been in the habit of seeing bodies screwed into coffins. It was the practice for the undertaker to put his knee on the lid of the coffin before screwing it down. This was a usual practice.

At the close of the above examination, the Chairman said that this was the first complaint against Mr Lindsay, and he had conducted on an average 280 funerals a-year for the last three years. The terms which were allowed Mr Lindsay were what he himself proposed. He did not think they could come to any finding in the meantime, but that an adjournment could take place till Mr Lindsay could attend.

This was unanimously agreed to.

The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 15 April 1865: p. 3

Within two days, the same paper was deploring the state of parish funerals–and leveling a very thinly veiled accusation of murder.

PARISH FUNERALS.

The investigation which has been instituted by the Parochial Committee of Management into the circumstances attending the funeral of Peter Fyffe has disclosed a state of things, the existence of which was not before suspected, and will not be suffered to continue. The investigation is as yet incomplete, and there are some contradictions in the evidence, but enough is certainly known to render it necessary that an alteration in the system should take place. The Parochial authorities contract with Mr Lindsay for the performance of funerals which are conducted at the expense of the parish. They pay the prices which were proposed by the undertaker, and though the charges are small, we must suppose they were sufficient to remunerate the tradesman for his cost and trouble. The Parochial Committee had no idea that pauper funerals were managed in any essential respect differently from those of other poor people. Of course they did not expect that they would be carried out with such ceremony and “circumstance” as those of the rich or well-to-do; and, probably, if they thought of that part of the subject at all, they did not suppose that the same delicate attention to the feelings of survivors would be displayed as when corpses are carried from handsome mansions to the “narrow home,” which is the final resting place of all. There is, and we fear there always will be, a rougher, not to say ruder, and a less ceremonious manner adopted toward the poor than is exhibited toward the wealthy. As the world is, and as average men are, that is inevitable. Ceremonious formality implies the devotion of time, and attention, and care. The well-off can pay for it and buy it; but the poor cannot afford the outlay, and have to do without what is in fact a marketable commodity, just as they have to do without funereal feathers and other trappings. All that people who know what the world is are perfectly aware of; but no one acquainted with the Chairman of the Parochial Board and the gentlemen who compose the Committee of Management, could for a moment believe that they thought the funerals paid out of the funds under their control, were marked by any circumstances showing the slightest disregard for the impulses which make most men regard death as sacred, and cause the corpse of the poorest to be treated, if not with tenderness, with decent respect. If they had imagined that was possible, we may be sure they would have provided against it ; and the promptness with which the pending investigation has been set on foot, and the fairness with which it has been conducted, are guarantees that whatever is amiss will be fully remedied. The defect in the system appears to have been that when parish coffins were ordered, they were made by guess without the corpse having been measured. That method may answer in the majority of cases, because there is an average of size; but it is necessary to provide for exceptions. The way taken to do that was, it seems, to ask the person bespeaking the coffin if the corpse was of an ordinary size? There is some dispute as to what was done in that respect, in this instance. The assistants of the undertaker say they were told a common sized coffin would be sufficient. On the other side, it is averred they were informed the body was large and swollen, and that an extra large coffin would be required. We cannot decide between these conflicting accounts. The coffin was, it is said, made of an average size, and taken to the house of death. That was on the Tuesday. A miserable place, it appears, that house was. The dead man had not been a pauper; but it is clear that, so far as comforts were concerned, he had been far worse off than those who are supported out of the rates in the Poorhouse. The body was on the floor, covered with rags. Blood was about it, and the undertaker’s assistants think the fluid had come from the mouth. The corpse was swollen so that a larger coffin than ordinary was wanted. That was soon perceived, and directly it became evident the coffin ought to have been taken away and a larger one procured. There will be no difference of opinion about that. But an attempt was made to force the body into the coffin. There is a dispute as to the degree of violence which was used; but that there was some violence no one who reads the report of the enquiry can doubt. It may be, very probably is, an exaggerated statement, that the bone of one of the arms or any other bone was broken; but that force which ought not to have been applied was exerted, is not to be disputed. The proof is that, on the admission of the persons who took the coffin, the lid is shown to have been broken. It was, we hope and believe, the noise of the creaking of the lid which led to the impression that a bone had been fractured. Some allowance must be made for the undertaker’s men. They had an unpleasant, we might say a disgusting, duty to perform. It is said the stench was almost unbearable ; and it is not unlikely they were urged by the bystanders to get the lid on as quickly as possible, as well as impelled by their own sensations to get through their noisome task as soon as they could; but nothing in the circumstances could justify the attempt to thrust the body into the coffin, obviously too narrow for it, by using a degree of force, which, if it did not crack bones, broke the lid. Such things must not be suffered to be repeated. When the body could not be pressed in, because, whatever violence the corpse might have been able to have borne, the coffin would not stand it, that was done which ought to have been done at first. The body was replaced on the floor, and, without any undue delay, another and larger coffin was procured. Between the time when the small coffin was taken away and the larger one brought, there was ample opportunity for the relatives of the deceased to have examined the body, and ascertained if it had sustained any injury, but we do not hear that that was done, and if it was, we have not the result before us. If it was not, we must infer indifference on the part of others than the undertaker’s men. If it was, we may dismiss as an exaggeration the allegation that bones were broken. We will not anticipate the decision at which the Committee will arrive as to this particular case; but for the future we cannot doubt it will be provided that bodies shall be measured before coffins are made. That is necessary to prevent the possibility of scenes which should not be allowed to occur in the homes of the poorest, or even of the most worthless. We owe it to our common human feelings to see that the dead are treated decently and respectfully.

But this case suggests to us reflections on something beside the conduct of the undertaker’s men. We are tempted to ask the question–How did Peter Fyffe die? a question which appears to us, at least, as important as the other–How was Peter Fyffe buried? We do not know that the finding an answer to that question can be said to be within the province of the Parochial Committee; but the matter is one which should recommend itself to them as well as others in their capacity of citizens. We gather from the statement of the sister of the deceased, that he appeared quite well on the Sunday and took a hearty supper, and that at eleven o’clock he was dead. What did he die of? There does not seem to have been any medical man present, either before or after death. We do not hear what were the symptoms of the illness, nor what remedies, if any, were used, nor who, if anybody, saw the man die. The sister registered the death on the Monday morning. What account did she give to the Registrar. What disease is set down in the books as that of which Peter Fyffe died? Couple this uncertainty with the facts that on Tuesday the body was horribly swollen, and that there was blood about it and upon the floor on which it rested among rags; and it seems to us there is something else to be enquired into than the way in which the funeral was conducted. We do not point to any specific suspicions. We know nothing more of the facts than is disclosed in the evidence; but when a man is said to have been well at supper-time and dead at eleven o’clock, when no doctor was called into him, and a registrar’s certificate obtained, and the corpse, swelled and bloody, buried within two days of the death, we cannot help asking the question, “How did Peter Fyffe die?” In England the facts would render the summoning of a coroner’s jury certain. Here we have no coroners, but surely such a case is one that ought not to be suffered to pass by in silence. For all we know, enquiry might lead to a perfectly satisfactory result, but enquiry of some kind there certainly should be.

The Courier and Argus [Dundee, Tayside, Scotland] 17 April 1865: p. 2

And there, as far as I can see in the papers, the matter ended.

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Laid in a leaden coffin and placed in a gloomy vault: 1882

Mummies found in church vault, British Library

London Coffins.

Two or three years ago it was our fate to inspect officially certain vaults in an ancient church of much historical interest that was undergoing repairs. The object was to ascertain beyond a doubt who had been buried in three leaden coffins. They were doubtless great personages, but there was nothing to tell us who they were, and it was expected that we might find inscriptions of some kind to throw light on the subject. The coffins, though they had been originally as strong as lead could make them, had been entombed from a century to a century and a half. Their condition was lamentable. The lead was here and there broken into large fissures, through the forcible explosion of confined gases, and it was not difficult to distinguish the contents. All had been embalmed according to the best rules of art. But the result showed how miserable had been the effort to secure an imitation of immortality. The appearance of the bodies generally was that of ragged skeletons dipped in tar, black, horrible, and repulsive; the whole a painful satire on the so-called embalming system. One of the bodies was that of a nobleman of high rank. To think of a man in his social position, who had figured in gorgeous pageants, being condemned alter death, by the over-kind solicitude of relatives, to a fate too revolting for description. Had he been a parish pauper he would have been buried in the earth, and his body would have long since mouldered into dust, while the exuberant gases would have been harmlessly wafted away in the gentle breezes that serve to give life to the vegetable world. Being a nobleman, he had been, by way of distinction, laid in a leaden coffin and placed in a gloomy vault, liable to become a piteous spectacle to future generations. One of these leaden coffins, more rent in pieces than the others, contained a form which was recognized by a medical gentleman present to be the remains of a young female, probably a young lady of quality in her day, admired for her beauty and the splendor of her long yellow tresses. What a fate had been hers. On touching the head a part of the scalp came off, along with a stream of hair that doubtless at one time had been the pride of the wearer. Melancholy sight! And why had the body of this gentle creature with her flowing tresses been consigned to a condition that brought it under the gaze of a body of official investigators, more than a century after dissolution, instead of being decorously laid in the dust, there to sink in the undisturbed rest that had been beneficially destined by its Creator? Let those who maintain the practice of  entombing in leaden coffins and vaults answer the question.– Chamber’s Journal.

The Dayton [OH] Herald 11 July 1882: p. 2

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

An Artistic Undertaker: 1901

Miniature porcelain tombstone for a 4-year-old child, 1859 http://auctions.freemansauction.com/auction-lot-detail/1410/1056

AN ARTISTIC UNDERTAKER

The Element of Uncanniness Eliminated in His Pretty Shop.

The most artistic undertaker’s shop in New York is on Eighth avenue. Most undertakers are content with one fine casket under a glass case for their show window display, with perhaps an impressive velvet curtain as a background. But this Eight avenue man has what might be called a “dressy” window. He has all the newest ideas for making undertaking and its trappings less uncanny in their aspects than formerly.

For this purpose he has filled his immense corner show windows with a quantity of palm trees—not the real, but the artificial sort—high and imposing, with drooping spiked leaves and all the melancholy of the willow, with a certain modern style of their own as well as a suggestion of tropical warmth. Beneath these palms he has carelessly scattered a number of caskets of different colors, sizes and finish.

For the frivolous, there are shades of violet velvet from faint lilac to deepest purple and the very latest things in  embossed cloths and fruity interior decorations. Then there are odd complicated arrangements opening with springs like folding beds and metal caskets with locks and keys of heavy and substantial make. Beneath the palms these are displayed with as much careful grace of arrangement as regards shade as though they were park benches.

But the daintiest touch is given by the tombstone models, miniature replicas of beautiful designs in monuments. Time was when one selected a tombstone from a book of cold black and white designs, but here you can see the styles, gay little arched effects and tiny angels showing the color and general effect of the tombstone when finished. They are small, for the tall, sky piercing shafts in the samples measure no more than two feet. Little girls wander in now and then to try and buy them for their dolls, but they are intended solely for undertaker’s bric-a-brac. New York Sun.

Irish American Weekly [New York, NY] 15 June 1901: p. 6

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead. 

Gloomy Coffin-Makers Go on Strike to Recover their Cheerfulness: 1903

The Coffin Maker Has a Just Kick.

Because the employees of two of the largest coffin factories in New York feel that they have the same right to laugh and be merry, in spite of their daily toil, that is given to the majority of mankind, they are out on strike. A thousand workmen have laid aside their tools and say they will not take them up again unless they are assured of a nine and one half-hour workday and a three-hour day on Saturday. They have been toiling among the coffins for ten hours six days a week. The more sensitive of the workmen complain that it makes them gloomy and melancholy to fashion tenements for the dead ten hours a day and right up to quitting time on Saturday. The somber associations of the coffin factory, they assert, are not easily got rid of, with the result that they do no recover their cheerfulness and attain a frame of mind to enjoy their leisure until late on Sunday, which curtails their pleasure and renders them undesirable associates for their friends. “A fellow can’t help thinking of his own end when he is hammering these dead boxes together, a striker is quoted as saying. “You get in the habit of wondering who is going to occupy the coffin and often you have a notion that it will be yourself. We’re not a gloomy lot naturally; all we want is an opportunity to be cheerful out of business hours.” The striking coffin makers will have the profound sympathy of professional joke writers, usually the most solemn and serious-minded of men. The right of the coffin maker to appreciate and enjoy the humor of the comic supplements in the Sunday newspapers is a sacred one, and if his hours of toll paralyze his power of laughter he has a perfect right to strike or choose another occupation, say undertaking. It is not, however, the usual thing for men to take seriously the duties with which they are most familiar. Only a short time ago an undertaker in a nearby city gathered up and put together the horribly mangled remains of a man who had been dashed to death by a fall over a cliff 500 feet high. While he worked he whistled, “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” And the majority of those, who day after day are thrown in contact with death and suggestions of the dark and narrow house speedily lose the innate sense of fear and awe that controls those who seldom contemplate the common end of man.

Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 25 June 1903: p. 4

Mrs. Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Readers with an curiosity about matters mortuary may find the following post on the girl shroud-makers of New York to be of interest. The young ladies, who seem a cheerful lot, mention the coffin department and how quickly they became used to working with these reminders of mortality. The article was followed by a discussion of shrouded spectres: shrouded ghosts and superstitions about the habiliments of death. You will also shudder at a recent post on phantom coffin makers as an omen of death.

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.

Other stories of funerary workers appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the DeadThe Ghost Wore BlackThe Headless HorrorThe 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.

Funeral Drill: 1912

FUNERAL DRILL.

Two stories are told quite seriously by a contributor to London ‘Truth, which it is difficult to accept at face value. The first relates a system of funeral drill to which a wife in the shires declares she has been subjected. She writes:

“Sir,—Some months ago I married ___, who is a well-known but eccentric man. After the honeymoon we retired to his estate, when began the annoyance of which I complain.

Every Wednesday a hearse and several mourning coaches are driven up to the front door, and mutes carry down from my husband’s bedroom a coffin which is supposed to contain his remains!

Draped in widow’s weeds, and accompanied by several of the servants, I have to follow this, my husband marshalling the procession, and directing the proceedings generally!

‘Be careful; do not ram the rails,’

‘Bend your head more reverently, dear,’

‘Slower, please,’

‘Keep your distances; it looks so slip-shod.’

The coffin is raised into the hearse, and I and several of the householders occupy the coaches, whilst the gardeners and others follow on foot, my husband drilling us until the funeral service is completed, even to the lowering of the coffin into the grave!

I can scarcely hope that this letter will not be intercepted, but should it reach you, will you publish it, that your readers may know to what length a man will go in indulging his peculiarities?”

Mataura [NZ] Ensign, 26 February 1912: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: That gentleman’s eccentricities were not as singular as one might think. The Divine Sarah was celebrated for allegedly sleeping in her coffin, or, at the very least, posing for photographs in it:

Sarah Bernhardt posing in her coffin.

A certain lady who is not over-religious, in the usual acceptation of the term—Madame Sarah Bernhardt—has her whole life toned and seasoned and solemnised by the presence of the grim, even if dainty, case in which her mortal remains are to be interred. She has got a new coffin to replace the old one, which some time ago, along with her other personal effects, was seized by her relentless creditors. The present coffin is daintily lined with blue silk, and at the head has a soft little pillow trimmed with Valenciennes lace. It is Sarah’s grim humour to sleep in her coffin sometimes; and, to be quite consistent, she dresses herself in something not unlike a shroud. But usance dulls the edge of appetite, and this funeral fad of the Divine Sarah has a tendency to make the coffin a joke and the grave a jest.

Roses and Rue: Being Random Notes and Sketches, William Stewart Ross, London: W. Stewart & Company, 1890: p. 168

Returning to Mr Funeral Drill’s eccentricities, “peculiarities” is perhaps the kindest euphemism for such tastes. The lady’s statement about the note being intercepted suggests alarming and sinister possibilities. If this were a Gothic Novel written by a lady with three names, our heroine would be a great heiress, wooed in a whirlwind courtship and married before she could discover her husband’s morbid fancies. Then, one day, the funeral drill would go on without her and the coffin would be buried, the lady’s absence explained by an indisposition which would shortly lead to a permanent residence in the South of France for her health, despite no one seeing her en route. Her tragically early death in France would be announced and shortly thereafter Mr Funeral Drill would remarry….

Mrs Daffodil suggests that after the first few repetitions of this macabre ritual, the lady should have taken steps to ensure that the next funeral was no drill, but the genuine article.

For more on Victorian funerals and mourning, please consult The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, also available in a Kindle edition.

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 on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

The Irish at the Gates of Death: 1917

Irish bog oak mourning brooch, c. 1860, Victoria & Albert Museum

THE IRISH AT THE GATES OF DEATH

In Ireland the living are dominated by the dead to an extent unknown probably in other countries. It is a willing servitude, based upon two powerful sentiments—the constancy of Irish family affection, and their Catholic solicitude for the eternal welfare of those they love whose mortal existence has been brought to an end. Death, as the extinction of-life, as a farewell for ever to the warm^ precincts of the cheerful day, is not regarded as a matter of very great importance. No race faces death, whether on the battlefield or anywhere else, with more unconcern than the Irish, or, when lying on the bed of sickness, accepts with more resignation the doctor’s pronouncement that there is no hope. They can pass into the eternal silence with a joke on their lips. I have heard a story of a dying Irishman who, when asked by the priest, in the course of the administration of the last religious rites, whether he was prepared to renounce the devil and all his works, exclaimed, “Oh, don’t ask me to do that, your reverence. I am going to a strange country and I don’t want to make myself enemies.”

If there is any concern in the mind of the dying, it arises from some uncertainty as to what may happen in that strange country, the other world. This feeling finds expression in the quaintest and most wayward fancies. Canon Sheehan, the author of Luke Deimage, and other novels of Irish life, who was a parish priest in county Cork, relates that an old farmer after receiving the last sacrament of extreme unction said to the priest: “I want you to say a word to rise me heart for me long journey, your reverence. Will the Man above have anything agin me in His books?” This dread simile was prompted by sad experiences of the land agent’s office, arrears of rent and the fear of being thrown out of house and home. “I’m sure,” replied the priest, “Almighty God has pardoned you. You have made a good confession, and your life has been a holy and a pure one.” “And did your reverence give me a clear resate?” asked the old farmer. Here was the land agent’s office again.  “I’ve given you absolution, my poor man,” said the priest. The dying man was satisfied. Thanks, your reverence,” were his last words. Another story I have been told shows the droll forms which the same thought assumes in the minds of relations. A farmer who was dying had occasional fits of coma, or profound torpor. The doctor advised the wife, when one of those attacks came on, just to moisten the lips of the patient with a little brandy. “Doctor, dear,” cried the poor wife, with reproach in her voice, “is it to go into the presence of his Maker with the smell of spirits in his breath you’d be havin’ him?”

It is to the family that the visitation of death brings terrors and obligations. At first it has a crushing and stupefying _ effect by reason of the void it makes in the domestic circle, and, afterwards, it entails a lasting devotion to the memory of the loved one who has passed away. So long as a member of the family lives, the dead, in a sense, never dies in Ireland. They survive in the prayers that are said for them, morning and night, in the Mass on each anniversary of their death, in the weeping and wailing over their graves, years upon years after they have been laid to rest. You rarely if ever hear among the peasantry the expression “dead and gone.” Death is simply a passage from one life to another. What you do hear is, “She’s in Heaven,” “God sent for her,” or “He’s with God,” telling of the life of the dead hereafter, of their eternal companionship with angels and saints.

The custom of “waking” the dead, with the drinking, smoking, and conversation of the large company of neighbours who assemble in the house of mourning, appears incongruous and repulsive to those who are unacquainted with its remote origin or the kindly and humane motives which underlie it. The wake is a very old institution. It existed among the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. Shakespeare and Scott give instances of medieval revels in honour of the dead. The custom survives in a different form, but with somewhat identical motives, among the Irish, almost alone of the ancient peoples.

“Waking” means, for one thing, “watching.” The English way of leaving the corpse shut up in a room, all alone, would be most repellent to the Irish nature. It would be regarded as a desertion of the dead. The Irish keep close company with their dead until the very last moment of the burial. The body is clothed in a shroud, made in imitation of the habits worn by certain Orders of Friars, and in the hands, crossed reverently on the breast, is placed a crucifix. The walls near the bed are hung with clean white sheets on which are pinned bunches of flowers, laurel leaves and holy pictures. Lighted candles, seven in number, are placed on a table. They are symbolical of hopes and aspirations relating to the dead. That he or she has been cleansed of the seven deadly sins—pride, covetousness, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, and sloth ; that he or she possessed the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost—wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord, and the seven principal virtues—faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and that the relatives joined their sorrow with the seven dolours of Our Blessed Lady—the prophecy of Simeon that a sword of sorrow should pierce her soul; the flight into- Egypt; the loss of Jesus in the Temple ; meeting Jesus with His Cross ; the standing beneath His Cross; the receiving the Body of Jesus; and the burial of Jesus. The room is frequently sprinkled with holy water to banish any evil spirits that may be hovering round. All this is in part a survival of the public lying-in-state of the bodies of great personages, a ceremonial that, once rather common in Ireland, is now reserved for ecclesiastical dignitaries and national heroes.

The Irish people are at all times addicted to companionship, to association with their fellows, and the desire for it is strongest perhaps when death has visited them nearly. We know that we are mortal and ephemeral; that nothing is more certain than that death will come. Every day almost we are reminded that death is the common fate of all in reading our newspapers and meeting with funerals in the streets. Yet there is always an element of the terrible and incomprehensible in the sight of one that is near and dear to us, one, as we know from long experience, capable of the most loving thoughts and deeds in our regard, lying there inert, deaf to familiar voices, unconscious for ever of the joys and tenderness of domestic life. A chill runs down one’s spine, as though the icy coldness of death emanated from the remains and penetrated subtly into one’s frame, and we seek for consolation and support in the sociability of the living. And the neighbours, ever quick in showing sympathy, crowd in to ease the sting of death, to cheer up the spirits of the bereaved, to distract them for a while from the crushing thought of their irreparable loss.

First entering the room where1 the corpse lies the visitors kneel and say a prayer for the eternal salvation of the departed soul. Afterwards in the kitchen, snuff, pipes and tobacco, whisky and stout are served to the company. The dead person is in his house for the last time, and, as host for the last time, dispenses hospitality. What he would do, but can do no longer, those who love him best do for him. Memories of his kindliness and good nature are revived by the neighbours. “’Tis he that had the bright smile and cheery word whenever you met him, and no matter what you might want of him, sure you had only to say the word to get it with a heart and a half.” Stories are told by the elders, and politics discussed; forfeits may be played by the young of both sexes, or, more likely, riddles given for solution. But the Irish are most reverent in the presence of sorrow and nothing unseemly is permitted in these efforts to give relief to the relatives from cares that weigh heavily on their spirits. Manifestations of grief are not entirely suppressed, but they are confined to the chamber of death. In some parts of Ireland it is believed that the soul of the dead person is detained on earth by tears and lamentations, and that not until the sorrow of the relations is appeased can it turn contentedly to face the eternal judgment. To a young widow who was sobbing by the death-bed of her husband, I heard the remonstrance addressed—”Don’t be crying that way, asthore; or you’ll keep him from his rest.”

Here and there throughout the country where waking has been abused by excessive indulgence in drink, the authorities of the Catholic Church have tried to abolish it altogether. It is therefore not so common as it used to be, especially in the towns and the larger villages. Religious services have been substituted for the ancient observances. The body is removed from the house to the parish church, where it remains for the night in its coffin resting on a bier near to the high Altar ; and in the morning the Mass for the Dead is said before its removal for interment. There could hardly be a more notable example of the influence of the Church. The Irish are slow to adopt new ideas. They are among the most conservative people in the world in their adhesion to traditional habits and customs. Especially do they resent any innovation which touches their dead. It is their deep and reverential respect for the Church, rather than their instinct as to what is right and proper, that induces them to part from their dead for a night. They bow their heads in submission, but so heavy lies the immemorial past upon them that in their hearts they doubt whether in doing so they are quite loyal to their dead.

In the case of the keen (Gaelic caoine) or funeral lamentation— one of the eeriest death chants to be heard from the crushed heart of sorrowing humanity—the Irish also adhere to a custom held sacred by their remotest ancestors. It has come down to us from the Pagan era. Walker, in his Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards, says the object originally was to propitiate the gods by proclaiming the genealogy, rank, possessions and virtues of the dead person. Spirits whose requiem was not thus sung were liable to be condemned eternally to a state of unrest. Geraldus Cambrensis, the Welsh writer who visited Ireland in the twelfth century, describes this funeral song or wail as it was practised in Christian times. Its purpose then was to sound the praises of the dead without regard to any supernatural or religious motive. The keeners, in the course of their chanting, put a number of questions, as if with a view to discovering why it was the person lamented had died. If a man, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? If a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love, or if the blue-eyed maidens had treated him with scorn? The keen of the twentieth century differs very little in form or spirit from the keen of the twelfth century. The cries of lamentation usually take the form of questions which are asked in a half-singing, half-reciting and sobbing voice. “Mo cushla machree (pulse of my heart), why did you die from me? Wasn’t it you that was the best of husbands and fathers, giving joy to all that knew you, and wouldn’t those that love you go through fire and water to save a hair of your head from being hurt?” The piercing wail of a mother for a favourite son is most heartrending to hear.

“Ah, Michael, me ville astore (my ten thousand treasures), sure your like was not to be found on all the broad acres of Ireland, and your death has cast a shadow on the country that no sun will ever disperse.” In towns the keen is cried in the room where the corpse is being waked before the start of the funeral. In rural districts, where the journey to the graveyard is often long, the keen breaks out at intervals, and then the whole countryside rings with the weirdest lamentation.

To have “a grand buryin’ with all the neighbours at it” is the last thing the Irish peasant desires of this world. A farmer who married a penniless girl was asked why he made so poor a match. “My wife,” he answered, “has thirty brothers, uncles and cousins, and if I was to die to-morrow her faction could give me as long a funeral as the King of England.” It is an object of solicitude long before the end is felt approaching. During a visit to the remote parts of Donegal I was told so great was the difficulty of getting a coffin made that many people gave the only carpenter in the district sheaves of oats or a sack of potatoes annually by way of a retaining fee for this service when they died. I remember a curious case that came for decision before a bench of magistrates in my native city of Limerick. An undertaker was asked by an old maid to make her coffin, and his proposal “to complete the job” for £4 was thought by her to be reasonable enough. When the coffin was finished the undertaker brought it to the woman’s house and received £2 as part payment; but being unable to obtain the balance he was reluctantly obliged to summon her. The defence set up by the woman was that the undertaker was not only to supply the coffin, but bury her respectable for the £4, and as he had not yet fulfilled the latter part of the agreement she submitted that he was not entitled to be paid the remaining £2. The case, which caused much laughter in court, was dismissed. Then the old maid turned to the undertaker and said, “As soon as you perform your part of the contract, I’ll not be behindhand in completing mine.” Wandering beggars, lone creatures who have no one belonging to them, who tramp the countryside for a living, carrying all their worldly goods on their back, are known to stint themselves of food in order to add an odd penny or sixpence, now and then, to the sum of money, kept in a secret hiding-place in their clothing, and intended to pay the expenses of the burial. An old fellow of this class who, feeling ill, sought refuge in a workhouse and died there, had a piece of paper, with his little hoard—the slow accumulations of many a hard year—on which he had written: This is to bury me. Bury me decent, or I’ll haunt you.” Thus all through life he was providing against what he would have thought the last misfortune and final disgrace—a pauper’s coffin, and a grave in the “yellow hole,” as the workhouse pit is called. Some years ago it was the custom of the poorer classes, when they were unable to afford a coffin, to make the corpse beg for it. The body was laid on a board outside the door on a Sunday with a plate to receive the coppers of the people on their way to Mass. Sometimes imposture was practised. On one occasion a woman placed a sixpence on the plate and began to take up five pennies.

“Arrah, ma’am,”: cried the supposed corpse, “be generous wance in yer life and don’t mind the change.”

Ireland is noted for its big funerals. The whole parish, and sometimes the countryside, turns out to pay the last tribute of respect. It is the rule also in rural districts for strangers who meet with a funeral to turn back and accompany it for some distance at least. “Who is it that’s dead?” they will ask, and when they are told they will add, “Well, well, may the journey thrive with him,” “God rest his soul,” or “Wisha, God be with him, whoever he is.” Burials are so well attended that they have come to convey the idea of the largest possible numbers. A man out for a day’s shooting asked a lad whether he had seen any rabbits on his way.  “Yes, sir, whole funerals of them,” was the reply. Comedy often follows closely on the heels of tragedy in all circumstances of life and death in Ireland. At any rate family pride in a large funeral softens bereavement. Condolences take that form on the way to the grave. “If your father could only sit up in his coffin, and see the grand funeral he’s havin’, wouldn’t he be mightily pleased?” “Well, oughtn’t you to be consoled and made proud by so fine a funeral?”

Vanity and ostentation are very prevalent in Ireland, and most so, perhaps, among the poorer classes. It is a point of honour to have a fine funeral. But a funeral is fine by reason of the numbers of unhired cars and unhired mourners attending it. These manifestations of neighbourly sympathy and respect give to funerals in Ireland an unostentatious dignity. There is an entire absence, even in the cities, of that hired ornate ceremonial of the great hearse and horses with plumes, and mutes in tall hats and frock coats and wreaths of flowers, that make burials so extravagantly expensive to the poor in England.

Another reason why, apart from neighbourliness, funerals are so well attended is that they afford opportunities for revisiting family graves. When the coffin is committed to earth and the prayers are said, the mourners disperse through the graveyard, and soon from all quarters are heard the wildest bursts of grief. The rain may be falling pitilessly, and the graveyard engulfed in a dense humid atmosphere. But the wet and the mud are unnoticed, discomforts accepted as a matter of course. Moved by the overpowering impulse of their revived affection and sorrow for those that are no more, the mourners fling themselves prostrate on the ground, passionately kissing the mounds and flagstones, pressing closer and closer to get as near as possible to their long-buried but still darling dead, babbling almost incoherently expressions of the fondest love. Then they sit back on their haunches, and raise the keen, swaying their body to and fro, clapping their hands in time with the rhythm of their lamentations, and weeping the bitterest tears of affliction.

It is a scene in which Irish history, life and character are epitomized: the dust of saints, the ruined abbey, the broken cross; the crowded dead; hemlock, and deadly nightshade; weeping and wailing; the love that always endures; and, casting a tender light over it all, the hope of a glorious resurrection

The Occult Review January 1917: pp. 37-43

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.