“Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
Romeo and Juliet. Act 3, scene 1. William Shakespear.
The only thing we all have in common, it is said, is death.
The rites and rituals surrounding the dead and dying are as diverse as the human race it’s self.
The Irish have their wakes.
The Catholic their last rites.
The Ancient Greeks their penny for the Ferry Man, and I like to think this is echoed by the Victorian’s placing pennies on the eye lids of the deceased.
More interestingly there is a lot of information to be gleaned from the folklore of the British Isles on the subject of death – enough, I expect to fill a book! So for now, Dear Reader, I shall be writing of the more interesting little titbits I come across, as this is subject I love to ramble on about!
My earliest memories outside of the family farm, are of visiting the graves of my maternal Great-Grandparents with my own Grandmother. There it began, amongst the head stones and curb stones, the fascination with not only graveyards, but my own ancestors and the folklore of which I write now.
Needless to say, within my own family, if someone had died recently, all the curtains in the house would be closed against the day – perhaps to veil the grieving from the eye’s of passer by’s, or, more likely to inform the neighbours or unexpected visitors. How long they remained closed, I cannot say.
Also within my own family, was the foretelling of a death, if a bird suddenly entered the house, be it a Robin or a Starling, it was known that ‘someone was on their way’, and true to form, news of a recent death would reach our ears within a few days!
Mirrors where given the same treatment as when a thunderstorm was about; they would be covered, or if small enough turned over, face down. This can only come from the ‘superstition’ of mirrors holding images… as ‘we’ know, mirrors are magical objects – more so with age, even more so if silvered… as I can attest to, when as a bride looking into my Grandmothers mirror, which had been her Mother’s as well, I caught a glimpse of many Brides behind me going back many generations.
Windows and doors were opened to let out the dead – the soul had to fly free, not hang around to scare the living – this has regional variations with some opening the window when death was near to other places leaving the back door ajar over night!
Then there was sin-eating.
Whether this took place in my own family at any time I cannot say, but it is a Shropshire tradition, as shown in ‘Precious Bane’ (by the Shropshire author Mary Webb) when the son is too tight with his money to pay the local sin-eater, to ‘eat’ his fathers sins… no good befalls the family after this.
The Last Sin-Eater, Richard Munslow, who died in 1906, is buried in, in Ratlinghope, Shropshire, down by Church Stretton, where, incidentally the Regency Coven ended up. Sin eating was a very interesting custom. The rite would take place with the ‘eater’ taking on the sins of the dead person, in a rite which took place over or on the body; bread, beer and salt would be consumed after resting on the chest of the dead person – the symbolic rite is also described in one of Fiona MacLeods works, offered here for you, the copyright having now run out.
The story is an interesting description of such a rite, but the poor unfortunate sin-eater has not the whit to throw off the sins he’s taken on.
There is also the tradition of guarding the graveyard; it’s said that either the first, or the last person buried in a graveyard is the spirit who appears to others, sometimes as a black dog or a Lady in White.
I know of several such head stones, both interestingly in municipal cemetery’s opened in the Victorian era, when the Church yards were over following and disease was rife; one of the solutions was to bury the dead six foot under! Before this, burials were in shallow graves in reused areas. Only the rich could afford head stones that would last the passage of time. Only the rich could afford to be buried on the sunny side of the Church, or, within the Church it’s self – the more rich and important they were, the closer to the altar they went; in the crypt of course! The poor paupers were buried around the colder northside, were most of the plague pits are to be found, most with out a marker of any kind. To the East, went the folk who had a little money, who could afford a marker, but made of wood, which would eventually decay – the South had the best stone monuments and the West would have a good amount too – all good Christian burials are facing East, ready for the resurrection.
The amount of burials on the warmer aspects of a Church yard is usually evident by the retaining wall – usually quite high to keep in all those bones! Municipal cemeteries did away with the need to reuse graves, so are quite flat in comparison.
Now back to the two grave stones that mark the first burial in Ellesmere and Oswestry, dated the 8 Aug 1865 and December 26th 1862. Then there is the first grave in the cemetery in Chester, which I have also spoken of – I cannot but help notice the dates of these burials as being close to certain festivals we modern day folk celebrate. I speculate if this is coincidence or not…
I also recall the ‘hoo-har’, when a closed Church yard in a small isolated village close to my home town on the Welsh Marches was re-opened for the burial of the Vicar’s wife. The locals were up in arms about it! Again, I speculate as to the real reason why…