“Tell my wife not to wear those hideous black things.”: 1887

After funeral services in the Episcopalian Church, in Eighty-second street, crowded with friends (among whom was the usual group of half a dozen ladies, who looked like pyramids of black crape…we had rather a long journey to the grave-yard on the further end of Staten Island, called the Moravian Cemetery, where the remains of Mr. Newman were to be buried.

[The narrator attends a séance on the same day and sees ghost of Mr. Newman.]

“Do you see me?” he asked in a whisper which all could hear. “Yes, William. It is indeed you. You know see that I was right in regard to this.” “Do you see me well?” and he advanced so as to bring his face under stronger light. “Yes, in all my experience I have never seen a materialized face more distinctly.” He held out his hand, and his warm, natural grasp pressed mine as I have pressed his in its icy coldness just about twelve hours before. “Have you any message for me to take?” I asked. “Tell her I still live. Tell her I LIVE”—(the capitals representing the strength of the emphasis thrown on the word)….”Tell my wife not to wear those hideous black things. Tell her to wear this. [shows white handkerchief.] And again: “Tell her not to look for me in the grave.” And again: “Tell her not to weep for me—tell her not to weep for me.”—the voice dying out as the form slowly disappeared.

That he was William H. Newman, not exactly as I was familiar with him in life, but as I had seen  him beautiful in death six hours before, and through the preceding two days, with his parted white hair, his mustache and his white beard clipped to a rounded point, I positively affirm. Neither the medium nor any one present knew of my relations with him, nor my object in going to the séance. Of Spiritualism he knew nothing until he became himself a spirit. He had occasionally expressed the wish to accompany me to some good séance but the idea had never come to a practical head. He shared my own opinions about the common practice of black crape mourning, and, as a spirit certainly gave emphatic practical expression to them.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 February 1887: p. 13

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 Dead Heads of Annecy

Reliquary of the supposed skull of Mary Magdalene at the Basilica in Saint-Maximin

CUT OFF

Heads of Their Dead.

Strange Custom Prevailing in a French Town.

Grewsome Sights That Horrify Strangers

Heads Stored in the Churches

[New York Recorder.]

Some very quaint curiosities of medieval antiquity belong to the traditions and customs of the monastic orders in different countries of Europe. The Capuchins, a branch of the decaying Franciscan Order, came into existence as late as 1525, and derived their title from the Italian name of a large cowl attached to the frock of rough frieze at the back of the neck. They never amassed great wealth or lived in such ease and luxury as some other friars had done; and the traveler in Italy at the present day will find them not unpopular in rural districts. Visitors to Rome are often tempted—it is a matter of taste—to inspect a ghastly display at the Church of the Capuchini. The mummies of deceased priors and the skulls of a multitude of defunct brethren of that community are ranged along the walls. It may have been only the fantastic whim of a gloomy-minded superior at a particular date which established this dismal fashion of commemorating the dead by so questionable a decoration, but the same kind of exhibition is presented in Sicily, at the Capuchins’ Convent of Monreale, a few miles from Palermo. There is a city in the heart of a civilized country where every year the heads of many persons are cut off and placed in little boxes. It seems like a barbarous custom, even though the people have long been dead when they are decapitated. But the people of that city, even though they

HAVE BURIAL RITES

So different from any in the world, see nothing out of the way in it, and in doing as they do believe that they show a deeper and more lasting love for the departed than those who simply bury their dead, erect a tombstone, and then in many instances forget all about them.

The ghastly custom has been in vogue for more than a hundred years in the town of Annecy, which is in the Department of Haute Savoie, in the south of France. It is one of the most picturesque cities of Lower France and nestled at the foot of the Lake of Annecy, within a short distance of Geneva. The surrounding country is made up of scenery of the most marvelous beauty, while the lake, which is nine miles long and only two in breadth, is never ruffled by storms and presents always a mirror-like surface. Thousands of tourists every year visit the town to sail upon the celebrated lake, 1,400 feet above the level of the sea.

But of the many who visit the place and who look with great interest at the church in which the relics of St. Francis de Sales are preserved, at the old castle which was formerly the residence of the Counts of Geneva, and at the nearby iron mines, there are few who know anything of those heads which have been accumulating these many years. For the people have been held up to public scorn before now, and they do not care to talk with strangers about their custom, which is usually misunderstood.

These people bury their dead in the ordinary way, but after the lapse of a few years, when the bodies are reduced to dust, the bones are dug up with ceremonies similar to those under which they are buried. All relatives and friends

ATTEND THE DISINTERMENT

And are present when the skull is separated from the other bones. These second ceremonies at the grave over, the cortege moves on, preceded by a priest with the skull, to the church in which the skull is finally placed.

In the early days this receptacle was merely a wooden box, roughly made, punctured with many holes. But as the years have gone by and the custom has grown, many changes have been made in the original idea. Just as in the ordinary burial there are caskets for the rich and for the poor, so, also in Annecy there are the skull receptacles to suit any extravagance or to satisfy the ideas and devotion of mourning widows, of disconsolate parents or of poetic lovers.

In the structure, quite close to the church, which has been erected for the purpose, there are now piled coffins without number of every shape, size and character. Some that have been the work of years are of oak, massive and fantastically carved. Others are made of pure silver and sparkle with rare gems. Some thought of wood, are bound with precious metals, which form a scroll work of unique design and exquisite workmanship. There are others, too, that are made to represent shrines, and some are counterfeit presentments of famous churches of the world, showing tall spires, Gothic archways, windows of stained glass, pillars and passages, all with the greatest regard to perfection of detail.

As a general thing the receptacles are made but for one skull, but some that are intended for an entire family have little compartments, each bearing an engraved plate, where the skulls of the family members will be placed after death. Very often a bereaved husband will have a coffer designed for the skull for a loved wife, with the necessary space left for the reception of a second skull, so that in death as in life they may be near each other.

In each of these boxes there are curious apertures, made in the shape of a heart. Sometimes they appear in the front of a miniature cathedral window, sometimes rudely cut in the side of a wooden box; but they are always there and are supposed to give light and air, though the contents of the coffers have long ceased to require either. Through these openings the grinning skulls can be seen perfectly well, a gray and senseless mass within the shrine. Upon each box there is the inscription which tells whose head it is which lies within, and sometimes tells of the life and death of the owner, his joys and his sorrows. Sometimes, where people are too poor to buy even the plainest sort of a coffer—and it is not considered a disgrace in this respect to be poor—a skull stands in ostentatious humility upon the coffer of some dead neighbor, with nothing but a label stuck upon it to tell whose it is. There are many other skulls standing quite alone and uncovered, from which the covering has

DROPPED AWAY WITH AGE

But these unprotected skulls are looked after just as carefully, and are regarded just as reverently, as those that are inclosed in the richest casket that can be made.

It is a strange sight to see those who mourn their dead, sitting in the dark chamber and holding the skull box in their hand, or kneeling beside it to pray, now and again pressing their lips to the little holes in the side of the coffers.

Just how the curious custom of burial which is used nowhere else in the world except in this little city came to be employed even tradition tells in a confused sort of way. There are some who say that the churchyard, when the town was smaller than it is to-day, became crowded and that the people, desiring all their dead to be interred in one place, decided upon this idea. By others it is said that there was a learned man who once dwelt there who convinced people that the brain, being the seat of reason and the abode of deepest feeling, if there was any thought or consciousness left after death, it must be connected with the head, so the decision was arrived at to have the skulls always where they could be seen.

It is not often that strangers are permitted to look upon these relics of the dead even if they know of their existence, but when they are, the sight is so unusual as to horrify them. But to the good priests who accompanies the visitor it is different. For this priest explains about these silent neighbors to whom he is accustomed that there is less harm in empty skulls than in the living heads and scheming brains of those by whom we are surrounded in life.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 14 March, 1896: p. 11

A number of skulls were reported to have been sent by the local museum to the Exhibition of Anthropological Sciences at the Universal Exhibition of Paris, a collection of objects contributed by “anthropologists of all nations.” However, there is no way of knowing if they were actually skulls from the church.

I’m reminded of the charnel houses in Germany and Austria like this one at Hallstatt, where denuded skulls are displayed, painted with the names and dates of former owners. Some are also painted with fanciful floral wreaths or with snakes writhing from empty eye sockets.

The article above is a unique and curious report of a long-forgotten custom with what seems to be an  origin story muddled either by the locals or the journalist. But before we lose our heads over it, I must tell you that this is (to the best of my knowledge) a single source story. I can find nothing in the guidebooks or histories and if this story was copied by any other newspapers in the same format, I’ve not found them.

Initially I wondered if it was a misapprehension of a relic storehouse. Yet most relic chambers were swept away by the French Revolution and the article is clear that bodies were still being dug up and the skulls encased in the church.

Are the skulls still on display? Or [shudder] is the custom still followed? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Here is a fascinating post about a very similar custom in Brittany.

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.

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 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. 

Mourning for a Departed Queen: 1901

ROYAL MOURNING.

In their deep, sincere sense of personal lose, and In their desire to pay every outward mark of reverence for the memory of their beloved Queen, the whole nation (the “Daily Graphic ” of January 26 writes) had anticipated the Earl Marshal’s intimation that all persons were expected to put themselves into deep mourning. No Sovereign, we may be certain, was ever more sincerely mourned than Queen Victoria, though there have been Royal deaths which have occasioned more violent outward demonstrations of grief. We have become a more self-restrained people than of yore. Formerly the news of a Queen’s death and a Royal funeral were marked with loud weeping, groans, and even shrieks. When Quean Elizabeth was carried to her tomb the city of Westminster was thronged with crowds, not only in the streets and windows, but on the leads and gutters. The waxen effigy of the Queen was, according to old custom, laid on her coffin, and at the sight of it there was a burst of lamentation loud and continuous. So late as the death of the luckless Queen Caroline of Brunswick the women of her household upon hearing that she was really dead uttered piercing shrieks in the corridor adjoining the death chamber. The quietude of the last sad scene of our great Queen’s life, and the mournful silence with which her people received the dreaded intelligence of their loss, contrast very favourably with the demonstrative exhibitions of former days, and symbolise a deeper sense of affliction and affection.

The period of public mourning has not at present been prescribed, and there is no fear that it will be deemed too long, as were sundry general mournings ordered by other Sovereigns. In 1768, for instance, the city of London sent a formal remonstrance to George III, on the lengthy Court mourning, which materially affected trade, and to this the King replied that he was pleased to order that in future the mourning should be shorter.

The mourning ordered for ladies and gentlemen of the Court has not very materially altered during the past 200 years, but it should be remembered that violet, and not black, was Royal mourning down to the reign of James II. Napoleon III. was the last European ruler to adopt this fashion. The commands issued for general mourning at the death of the Georges requested the people to put themselves “into the deepest mourning, Norwich cloaks excepted.” On the death of William IV. a change was made from ” deepest ” to “decent mourning,” and this was the expression used for the mourning tor the late Prince Consort; now the older form has been reverted to.

With the exception that the antiquated “bombasin” [bombazine] has been superseded by the term “woollen material,” ladies at Court have now received practically the same orders for their first Court mourning as heretofore. The details have not been so minutely given in the latest order, but the black gowns trimmed with crape, relieved only by plain muslin or lawn, the chamois—or, as we now term it, suede–shoes and gloves, and the crape fans are still de rigueur. The “crape hoods” of yore have their modern equivalent in the crape toque or bonnets. The long crape veils, reaching to the foot, used to be part of the orthodox mourning for the Ladies In Waiting, and were worn by them at the Duchess of Kent’s funeral. “Black paper fans” are mentioned in the Court mourning ordered for the Duke of Brunswick in 1816, and another quaint reading comes in the order for the change of Court mourning for Princess Charlotte, when ladies “in undress ” were permitted to wear “grey or white lustring, tabbies, or damask.”

The history of Court mourning in various countries is very interesting and curious. Perhaps the most senseless of all customs was that which doomed French Royal widows to remain immured in a room draped with black and splashed over with white dots, symbolising tears. To attempt even to look out of a window during the 40 or 50 day of this enforced mourning was regarded as a grave breach of decorum, and one can only hope that the poor widows were provided with some form of entertainment to relieve the monotony of the dreary period. A distinctly precious contribution to Court mourning was the pure white attire donned by Henry VIII. for Anne Boleyn after he had beheaded her.

The heaviest Court mourning is suspended for a coronation or Royal marriage or christening, although her late Majesty never left off her mourning at either Royal christenings or weddings.  This was, however, an exception to the rules prevailing in most countries, and all will recollect with what startling rapidity the weeds worn for the late Czar of Russia were thrown aside for magnificent raiment when his successor was married to Princess Alix soon after the prolonged burial of his father. At the ceremony the recently widowed Empress of Russia sacrificed her own inclinations in accordance with the custom of her adopted country, and in spite of her bereavement wore the gorgeous Court robe and superb jewels distinctive of the Russian Imperial Court–a splendour which she has ever since discarded for mourning.

Turning to our own country, it is surprising to learn that for one of the least appreciated of Queens–Catherine of Braganza–an entire year of Court mourning was observed, as has been ordered for our late Queen. Very stormy indeed were the scenes caused by a difference of opinion on the proper mourning to be worn for Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth took upon herself to provide black cloth for cloaks for Sir Arthur Melville and M. Bourgoine, and also for the dresses of the ladies. These gowns were accepted, but when the masterful young Queen further occupied herself with sending a milliner to make “orthodox mourning headdresses” for the ladies instead of those they had provided, the said ladies flatly refused to don any but their own, and carried their point, following their mistress to her tomb in Peterborough Cathedral attired in their own style. A pretty item in the mourning worn by the ladies of her Court for Queen Anne was a heart shaped locket, containing a “lock of the late Queen’s fine silky hair.”

Happily simpler tastes now prevail, and as far as the general public are concerned their mourning will be only such as is dictated by their deep and sincere love for the departed Queen.

The Sydney Morning Herald [Sydney, New South Wales, Australia] 10 April 1901: p. 10

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.

A Lady Undertaker: 1912

http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=87791203&PIpi=120206539

 WOMAN HANGS SIGN AS AN UNDERTAKER

Miss Eleanor Girodat Opens St. Francis’ Mortuary on Bridge Street.

FIRST ONE IN ENTIRE STATE

She Quotes Bible as Answer to Questions About Her Strange Profession

In the person of Miss Eleanor Girodat, 736 Bridge street, Grand Rapids has the distinction of having, in so far as is known, the only woman undertaker in the state of Michigan. There are many women engaged in various branches of mortuary work. Many of them hold embalmer’s licenses from the state board of health, but it remained for Miss Girodat to attain the unique distinction of opening a business of her own to care for the bodies of dead women and children.

“St. Francis’ Mortuary,” is the name carried on the sign above the door of the modest yet cleanly and even cheery establishment recently opened by Miss Girodat. Upon entering one is greeted with a smile from a cheery little woman, quite the reverse of the type usually associated with the so-called grewsome business in which she is engaged.

“Many people have asked me why I do it,” said Miss Girodat. “For my own part, I see nothing strange or unusual in a woman entering this business. I have read in my bible of how after the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came and took the body from the tree. The story states that Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ‘that other Mary’ brought spices for the preparation of the body for burial. So, you see, it was an ancient custom to have the women prepare the bodies of their own loved ones for burial, the last earthly office.

“There is another side to the question, too. Not many people would care to have a man nurse their women and children during sickness. After death, it seems, it is another matter. Many people I am sure would rather have a woman care for their dead.”

Miss Girodat has had several years of experience in her work. She is a graduate of the Barnes School of Anatomy, Sanitary Science and Embalming of Chicago, having received her diploma from that institution in June, 1906. Immediately after graduation she took the state examination and received her license as an embalmer.

She worked for some years as an employe of various Grand Rapids undertakers, but decided to enter into business for herself. She has arranged to have two women assistants.   A man will be employed, however, to attend to the public end of the work, such as conducting funeral services at the houses and at churches, as the case may be.

Grand Rapids [MI] Press 5 September 1912: p. 12

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is shocking to think that, even in 1912, a man would be needed to attend to the public portion of the work. We have previously read of Mrs Elizabeth Thorn’s heroic grave-digging expoits at Gettysburg. Here are two more female sextons:

A Queer Job

A Girl Becomes a Sexton and Digs Graves

Evansville, Ind., March 11 Miss Josie Smith, the 17-year-old daughter of a Civil War veteran who has been the sexton of a cemetery, has succeeded her father in the capacity of sexton, and is believed to be the only grave digger of her sex in the country. Her father, who is 87 years old, has become too feeble to do the work. Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 12 March 1904: p. 5

By the death of Mrs Elizabeth Geese at Lewis, England loses its only woman grave digger. On the death of her husband in 1879 she was appointed to carry on his duties at the Lewes Cemetery. She was 76 years of age. Patriot [Harrisburg, PA] 29 August 1904: p. 6

And this jocular comment about another woman undertaker. Mrs Daffodil suggests that the winsome lady would have been delighted to embalm the author.

A Boston woman is a licensed undertaker. One of the nicest things to have about, from the cradle to the grave, is a winsome, kindly-disposed woman. The man is a churl who wouldn’t gladly let a pretty lady undertaker embalm him. Marlborough Express 18 May 1894: p. 2

Our friends in the Colonies were also progressive in this field:

There is in Sydney [Australia] a lady undertaker. She dresses not in funereal hues, but in most cheerful tints. Observer, 24 January 1891: p. 4

The work begun by the early mortuary tradeswomen continues to-day with Australia’s high-profile “White Ladies” and the delightful Caitlin Doughty of “Ask a Mortician” and The Order of the Good Death.

More on funeral professionals–both ladies and gentlemen–may be found in The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Chris Woodyard, a look at the “popular culture” of Victorian death and mourning.

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

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

The Corpse Was Loose: 1875

After “A Respectable Funeral,” cartoon by John Leech

Shuckers Wouldn’t Take The Coffin

Over in Wilmington, the other day, a man named William D. Shuckers died. It seems that there was another man in the city bearing precisely the same name, and when the death was announced, a good many of his friends thought he was dead, and they resolved to go to the funeral.

On the day of the funeral the living Shukers also thought he would go, partly for the purpose of ascertaining how it felt to participate in the obsequies of a man named Wm. D. Shuckers. He took up a position in the vestibule, and just as the mourners were about to come out, a friend of his, named Jones, saw him. The first impulse of Jones was to rush through the kitchen, and climb suddenly over the back fence, but he controlled himself, and after poking Shuckers in the ribs with his umbrella to determine positively that he was not a ghost he remarked:

“Shuckers, what on earth are you doing here? Why ain’t you in your coffin?”

“Coffin!” exclaimed Shuckers; “whad’d you mean? What do I want with a coffin?”

“Mr. Shuckers, you know you are dead. Why they got up this gorgeous funeral for you, all these carriages and pall-bearers and things, and the clergy-man’s just been paying you splendid compliments that any dead man might be proud of.”
“But I tell you I am not dead. I’m as much alive as you are.”

“There is no use your arguing the point, Shuckers; the occasion is too solemn for controversy. But if you have any consideration for the feelings of your bereaved family, who are weeping like mad up stairs, and for the undertaker who is waiting inside there with the screw-driver, you will go and get into your coffin and behave. It’s indecent to carry on so at your own funeral.”

“Jones, my boy,” said Shuckers, “you have mistaken—“

“No, I’m not mistaken. You’re dead—technically dead—anyhow. It has been announced in all the papers, your relations have gone into mourning, the Board of Trade has passed resolutions of regret, the sepulcher has been dug up there in the cemetery, and the undertaker has gone to considerable expense to inter you comfortably. Now, go and lie down, won’t you?”
“Hang the undertaker!” said Shuckers. “No, I’ll not go and lie down. I’ll see you in Kansas first.”

“Now, see here, Shuckers, I came here to attend your funeral, and I’m not going to be baffled by any unseemly conduct on the part of the corpse. Oh! You needn’t look at me. Either you get back into that coffin, so’s the lid can be screwed on, and the procession can move on, or I’ll put you in there by force. If inanimate remains like you can go scooting ‘round in this incendiary manner, we’d soon have the cemeteries unloading, and the unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.”

Then Jones called the undertaker, who knocked Shuckers down with a cane, and held him until he explained, and until the scared undertaker recovered his equanimity, which left him at the bare suggestion that the corpse was loose. Then the funeral moved on to the cemetery, and Jones went home, while Shuckers proceeded to an alderman’s office to swear out a warrant against the undertaker for assault and battery. He intends to change his name to Duykinch.

North Star [Danville VT] 9 April 1875: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Unseemly conduct on the part of a corpse, indeed! The newspapers were full of stories of persons reviving on the very brink of their own graves as well as dire mistakes being made over the identification of corpses and the startling return of people thought dead. Such reports were a kind of precursor to to-day’s popular “Zombie” and “Walking Dead” entertainments. It is no wonder the undertaker was shaken: a loose corpse would have cast aspersions on his professional abilities as an embalmer.

There is a barbed pleasantry about the American political process in that remark about “unnumbered dead crowding out and wanting to vote.” Voters’ rolls were often compiled by taking a stroll through a cemetery with paper and pencil and the votes of the dead were enlisted to put a favoured candidate in office. Naturally, such things never happen in England….

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 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.

Regulars and Fainters: 1882

REGULAR MOURNERS.

A Peculiar Characteristic of Philadelphia Funerals.

Persons Who Endeavor to Gain Rides to Cemeteries, Although Unacquainted with the Family– Fainters and  Flower-Pot Carriers.

[From the Philadelphia Press.]

“Madame, yon must get out of this carriage—it is intended only for the friends and relatives of the family. I never permit ‘regulars’ to attend funerals when I am in charge.”

The speaker was a well-known up-town undertaker, who stood beside a carriage in Kensington .yesterday and spoke to some one inside the vehicle. A streamer of black crape fluttering from the door-bell of a neat three-story dwelling near by and a long line of carriages, preceded by a hearse, told that a funeral was in progress. The first, second and third carriages had been filled with the near relatives of the deceased, and as the fourth vehicle drove up a woman, dressed in shabby black and with her face closely veiled, came down the steps of the house of mourning, and opening the carriage door herself, got in and sank back into the farthest corner. The action, quick as it was, did not escape the eye of the solemn-faced man standing on the steps of the dwelling. Quietly advancing to the curbstone, and in a voice just loud enough to be heard by the person for whom it was intended, he spoke. Without a word the unwelcome occupant alighted, drew her rusty black shawl more closely about her shoulders and walked slowly up the street. “That is an annoyance peculiar to Philadelphia,” said the undertaker to a Press reporter, who happened to be a witness of the episode, “and is probably more of an institution in Kensington than any other section of the city. The American custom of exposing the dead to the gaze of the general public, which has been in vogue for more than half century, has naturally led to abuses, of which this is one bf the most marked. I refer to the attendance of persons at funerals who have no possible interest in the deceased, nor connected by the most remote tie of blood or marriage. Not only do they mingle their tears with those of the mourners, but they actually force themselves into the carriages and ride to the cemetery, there to witness the final scene with apparently as much emotion as the nearest and dearest relatives.

“REGULARS” AND “FAINTERS.”

“There are very few funerals taking place north of Girard avenue and east of Fourth street,” continued the speaker, as he closed the door of another cab, “where you will not find what we term ‘regulars.’ They are an evil tolerated simply because the solemnity of the occasion prevents such measures being taken as would prevent a repetition of the annoyance. The ‘fainter,’ to use another trade phrase, is a similar nuisance, but not seen as frequently as her more ubiquitous sister. The ‘fainter’ swoons suddenly while looking at the corpse, and is only revived by copious draughts of brandy. She usually picks out a soft chair to fall upon, and is quite expert at assuming a graceful position. The precise object of the ‘fainter’ I have never thoroughly understood. Whether to gain sympathy, or whisky, or to display an attitude, is a question. Of the two characters, however, the regular is the most familiar and the most audacious. At an ordinarily large funeral, say of twenty or more carriages, she is seen most frequently.  The body is laid out In the parlor as a general thing, sometimes a day before the funeral, and is there viewed by the relatives and friends. The neighbors usually testify their esteem for the deceased by calling at the house, although they may not be acquainted with the family. In many cases this visit is expected, and it is looked upon as slight if It is not made. English people, however, show a decided aversion to having any one gaze on their dead, except those very near to them, but custom is so arbitrary that the residents of any neighborhood, and specially in this section of the city, would feel insulted if they were not allowed to take the last look. As I said before, one of the outgrowths of this custom is the regular funeral-goer. She reads, besides her weekly story paper of sensational trash, the marriages and deaths in the Ledger. She notes carefully all the funerals that are to take place within a reasonable distance of her home, and appears to have an especial weakness for interments at the Palmer-street burying-ground. If two funerals occur in the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the “regular” is delighted, and makes a strenuous effort to attend both. She dresses herself early in the morning, and, provided with a large handkerchief, she repairs to the house of death. The first thing the “regular” does is to make a mental estimate as to whether the crape on the door belongs to the undertaker or to the family; to speculate as to whether the coffin handles are solid silver or plated, to take an inventory of the furniture, the carpets and the probable cost of the coffin.

MAKING AN INVENTORY

“She examines the quality of the shroud and passes judgment on the profusion or poverty of the floral offerings. Then she makes a critical survey of the mourning worn by the grief-stricken relatives, and is usually able to tell whether it is owned or borrowed, and it the latter, it becomes almost a duty to find out who the owner is, and how often the crape has done duty on similar occasions. With an experienced ‘regular’ this is an easy matter, and these points once settled to her satisfaction, she opens! the flood-gates of her every-day grief. She looks on the face of the dead and weeps. She snivels and sobs, and says, ‘How natural! How very natural! Poor, dear man; he just looks as if he were asleep,’ and then usually turning to some one near, she offers consolation by remarking that ‘it is the prettiest corpse ever I see’d in my life. So peaceful and life-like.’ It makes not a bit of difference, whether the dead man or woman is wasted to skin and bone from a lingering disease or not, to the ‘regular,’ the corpse is always ‘so natural.’ She sways to and fro, and exhibits all the symptoms of grief, and sobs audibly as the clergyman pronounces a eulogy on the noble qualities of the deceased, who might have been in life a grinding skinflint or consummate rogue. As the coffin lid is fastened on, the ‘regular’ dries her tears and prepares to execute a flank movement on the undertaker. Her plan is usually to get into a carriage the minute it stops in front of the door, as that woman did a moment ago. Rather than have a disturbance, many undertakers permit this, and the ‘regular’ accomplishes her principal object, which is to get a ride to the cemetery. She has a melancholy mania for getting as close to the grave as possible and crying loud enough to attract general attention. Then she goes home in the street cars, and hurries off to another funeral, where the same programme is repeated. Very often we encounter another class of ‘regulars’ who strive only to get a ride to a graveyard where their own people are buried. These worthies always betray themselves by carrying a flower-pot, which they vainly try to conceal in their shawls. The pot contains flowers to be planted on the graves of their own dead.”

FLOWER-POT REGULARS.

“The flower-pot regulars make a regular picnic out of the occasion. They take their sewing and lunch. An old tombstone forms a table if the weather is fine, and seated on the grass, the cronies gossip and sew to their heart’s content. On a clear day in the springtime, I have seen no less than twenty of these scandal-mongers waiting at the Palmer Street Ground for a funeral to enter, which they follow like carrion crows in search of horse meat.”

The suggestive, but rather inelegant, simile was interrupted by a young man who called the undertaker’s attention to a woman ascending the steps, and crowding her way between the persons coming out of the house. She was prevented from going any further by the undertaker whispering something in her ear.

“That woman,” said be, resuming his position at the curbstone, “has been going to funerals for twenty years, to my certain knowledge. If she fails to get a ride, she is content to watch the house while the family is absent. She takes occasion to go all over the house and examine everything. I don’t think the woman is dishonest. She is a genuine female Paul Pry, umbrella and all. Now, then, you know all about the Kensington regulars,” concluded the voluble undertaker, as he slammed to the door of the last carriage and mounted the box with the driver, “and I only hope that I may be called upon some day to bury the whole tribe in one grave.”

St. Louis [MO] Globe-Democrat 17 February 1882: p. 11

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.