Mrs Daffodil has been persuaded (well, “badgered” might be the mot juste) to offer a guest post by that Relentlessly Informative person over at Haunted Ohio, who has found what she feels is an interesting tit-bit about an unusual mourning custom from the United States. Without further ado, Mrs Daffodil introduces Chris Woodyard, author of The Victorian Book of the Dead.
While working on a monograph on shrouds, I ran across this piece on memorializing the dead at the dinner table. It comes from Pennsylvania, a state particularly rich in interesting folklore and funereal practices. The resourceful Mrs Daffodil uncovered articles about that state’s “death drawer” custom, which also was reported in 1900.
What can we say about a custom that cherishes the tableware of the deceased as domestic relics and a family’s belief in an ongoing presence of the beloved dead? Is it an expression of “complicated grief,” where the bereaved cannot let go of their sorrow, or a literal way to continue a connection with those lost?
IN MEMORY OF THEIR DEAD
“Oh, yes, I always keep our dead mother’s plate at her place at the table,” said the daughter of a rich eastern Pennsylvania farmer. “We will also keep her knife, fork, spoon, cup and saucer, and her napkin. I don’t know why we do it, only that it is the custom hereabouts among the large landowners. Whenever any grown person dies in the family, especially an unmarried daughter or the mother, her plate at the table is never taken away, save once a month, when it is washed. No one ever sits at that place no matter what the crowd is, no one uses anything belonging to mother. We hold the place sacred.
“Down at the farm of one of our neighbors they never remove the plate of their eldest daughter, who died 20 yrs. Ago. All the table article she used to use, are still there. An no one has ever occupied her narrow bed in her room. Her things are just as she left them, even to the chinaware on her bureau. Her dresses are faded and moth-eaten, and considerable had to be taken away, but a good many of her things are still as she left them.
“There is not so much regard shown for the boys. But when the head of the house dies his vacant chair at the table is never occupied. No one would dare to take that seat. At one large farm they kept his picture in a frame on his chair until one day the glass cracked and the frame split from some unknown cause. To this day they have an idea that the old farmer’s spirit came back and gave that picture a crack, because he didn’t like to see it there. Next they looked for the plate to be knocked off the table, but as that didn’t happen they take it for granted that the farmer thinks that’s all right. Over on another farm, where their oldest son died ten years ago, his room is closed forever, and kept just as he left it, with his gun, boots, clothes, and fishing rods in the corner. They still call it John’s room, and it will so continue until the farm passes into new hands. Not long ago the sale of a farm was nearly blocked when the owner wanted to stipulate in the deed that a certain room was not to be occupied until after the death of the seller.
“We know an aged lady who still pays for two seats in their church. Her husband died 11 years ago. She pays for his seat, and she occupies hers, never his, and no one else ever sits in that seat. Where a child over seven years of age dies, the plate is kept at the table a short time only. Where the child is 15, the plate is kept longer. Where the son or daughter dies, aged 21 or more, then the plate is never removed. I know one place where three grown daughters died within a year of diphtheria. Their plates in a row, are never removed, but fresh flowers are frequently placed near them. Their parents and brothers and sisters have long since ceased their weeping, and the table is no more sad, but everything is merry and happy, and they frequently chat with the dead people just as if they were present. It does no harm, even if it is foolish, as some people say.
“Three years ago an old farmer died five miles from here. He left seven grown children, two sons, and five daughters, all unmarried, and living at home. There is a rule in the family, and it has been so ever since the old gentleman died, that once a week each child shall spend a half hour in the old man’s big rocking chair, and think of him, commune with him, pray for him, ask his advice as to the farm management. They believe that he wants it to be thoroughly understood that he is still the master of that big farm. I guess he is, too, for the children are running the place on the co-operative plan, and they are getting along all right, apparently.
“People have to be very careful of the plates, cups and saucers of the dead. It is considered very bad luck if any piece is broken.”
Boston [MA] Daily Advertiser 13 July 1900: p. 5
This is very reminiscent of the ancient custom of equipping the dead with grave goods, brought to such perfection by the Egyptians, the Vikings, and the nomads of the Siberian steppes. It also reminds me of the French family who stipulated that the bedroom of their son, killed in the Great War, should be kept as a shrine by the house’s owners “for 500 years” or the stories that Queen Victoria kept Prince Albert’s room as a shrine, commanding that hot water for shaving be brought daily and that the dead man’s clothes should be laid out for him. I haven’t been able to find any contemporary reports that the Queen really did issue orders to this effect, but she was acutely aware of the power of domestic relics, collecting locks of hair, casts of beloved relatives’ hands, and jewellery made from baby teeth. She also directed that a large number of sentimental objects be placed in her own coffin such as a dressing gown of Prince Albert’s and John Brown’s mother’s wedding ring.
In the article on “death drawers,” found by Mrs Daffodil, we find the following passage about a lady who also wanted to take it with her, although on a much more modest scale:
One most unusual request was that a plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork and spoon should be placed in an old woman’s coffin. She had used them for 70 years, and did not wish anyone else to use them when she was gone.
The Sun [New York, NY] 18 February 1900: p. 27
It appears that the custom of setting a place for the dead was not uncommon even outside Pennsylvania.
There is a woman in Atchison who sets a place at the table every day for her husband, who died over a year ago. In his plate she never fails to place a little bouquet of flowers. She believes the dead know what is going on on earth.
The St. Joseph [MO] Herald 19 January 1891: p. 4
At this historical distance, it is hard to know if some diners with the dead were merely trying to cope with their grief or had been driven mad by misfortune.
Sets Table for Dead Wife;
Police Take Him Away
Frank J. Nagle, forty-seven years old, a plate printer, of 457 I street southwest, is in Washington Asylum Hospital today for observation as to his mental condition. The police say he had his table spread for his wife, several months dead, and his two little children, who are in St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum. Nagle recently lost his job at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and this, with his other misfortunes, is believed by his friends to have resulted in temporary mental derangement.
The Washington [DC] Times 16 February 1914: p. 12
This gentleman seemed to have a more balanced attitude, perhaps as a result of his Spiritualist faith. Or perhaps his wealth kept him from being sent to the asylum “for observation.”
SET TABLE FOR THE DEAD.
Menasha Man Had Places for Deceased Members of Family.
Menasha, Wis., Dec. 28. After a final consultation with the spirits death closed the life of Joseph A. Sanford, a wealthy retired lumber dealer of this city. Mr. Sanford was 84 years of age, and had been a resident of Menasha for more than sixty years. He was connected with the Menasha Wooden Ware Company, now the largest plant of its kind in the world, during its infancy; and later attained extensive lumber interests. During the last ten years Mr. Sanford had not partaken of a meal or retired at night without first having the table set for the deceased members of his family. At the retiring hour a fresh baked cake was placed on the table for the spirit members and these were consulted in all matters of importance concerning Mr. Sanford’s life before any action was decided upon.
The Indianapolis [IN] Star 29 December 1907: p. 11
I wish I knew the ending of this story of an unfortunate mother trying to cling to hope.
SHE AWAITS MISSING SON.
Winsted, Conn, December 12. Mrs. Martin Doyle, Sr., of Harwinton, has set a place at the table each meal time for her absent son, Michael, ever since he disappeared on April 3, 1904. After having partaken of supper that evening he walked out and has not since been heard of, although everything possible has been done by his relatives to find him.
In the interval Mrs. Doyle has lost her husband, her home has been destroyed by fire, and her other son, Martin, has become insane and is now in an asylum, leaving her alone.
The Montgomery [AL] Times 12 December 1907: p. 6
In 1883 Engineer John M. Miller, of Ohio, died in a train wreck. Articles commemorating his life mentioned that he believed that the ghosts of a fellow trainman and of his little daughter came aboard his engine to keep him company. Poignantly, he had a place set at his table for the child.
A few years ago Miller lost by death a bright little girl, to whom he was greatly attached, and ever afterward she, too, would nightly and daily get on his engine at a certain place on the road, and ride and talk with him until his train neared Dayton, and then disappear. As in the former case, her seat was kept for her in the cab, and no one allowed to occupy it.
At his home a chair was always set up to the table, the crib in which the child had been rocked drawn near, and a plate and food placed on the table, just as when the little girl lived and prattled. It is even said that the father would look at the chair and talk to its supposed occupant just as he used to do during its lifetime, and what seems strange now is that the wife and mother, an intelligent and highly respected lady, entertained and does now, the same superstitious views in regard to the child, and had the utmost faith in all that her husband ever told her about the ghostly visitations on the road.
Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 12 February 1883: p. 3
In The Ghost Wore Black, I wrote about the young woman who “married” the ghost of her dead fiancé. She, too, would set the table and chat over dinner with the shade of the dear departed. Is such a thing morbid or “foolish;” does it do harm to the grieving?
There is something both sad and yet convivial about dining with the dead. Many cultures practice it; the Hungry Ghost festival, and Dia de los Muertos, for example, bring the living and the dead together once more through food. And we eat together after funerals, reminding ourselves over the funeral baked casseroles that life goes on, that we still live and hunger, until we too can join the Buffet Invisible.
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can only imagine what Cook would say to such a proceeding… The custom gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase “coffin plate.”
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.