Lifting the spirits

Posted by Kitty Perry

When I was a child in the 60s, not a lot happened on 31st October. Casting my mind back and thinking really hard, the only thing I can remember doing is bobbing for apples. Which I did once at a friend’s birthday party. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure that the party was in October.

Fast forward to the 80s. Early one autumn evening the doorbell rang. Three children were standing there wearing cone-shaped hats made from black card.

‘Hello,’ I said, wondering what on earth was going on.

‘Trick or tree-eat?’

I had no idea what they meant.

‘Er, I’ll have a treat – what treats have you got?’

They looked at each other, completely confused. And then went away looking disappointed. Almost as disappointed as me.

By the time I had children of my own I knew a lot more about the traditions of Halloween. Or rather the Halloween that had crossed the pond from the USA: fancy-dress parties, carved pumpkins, green cakes, skull-shaped sweets and half-price offers on bags of fun-size chocolate bars – for the trick-or-treaters. Or as my husband calls them, ‘The spoiled brats who come round wanting something for nothing just as I’m settling down to watch the telly.’ Or words to that effect.

Have we missed our chance to resurrect the Celtic traditions of a night when the ghosts of the dead visit the mortal world? Where are our sacred bonfires and our ghost stories? Is there any hope for a proper ‘Day of the Dead’? Or even a few days of the dead? A time for remembering our ancestors – all of them, not only the ones who died fighting in wars. Culminating in parties and firework displays – incorporation of your dead ones’ ashes would be optional.

Fancy dress? Of course, but not for animals and pets. Sorry Vampire Hedgehog and Freddy Krueger Guinea Pig. You’ll know what I mean if you’re a fan of Bored Panda.

Old traditions combined with new. And, instead of sweets and chocolate, trick-or-treaters would be given fresh locally-sourced produce like turnips and cabbage for delicious home-made soups. And apples for bobbing.

Peter Pan and the could-have-beens

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

The two-minute silence, the candle-lit vigil and the ‘lights out’ remembrance ritual have all played a part in World War One centenary commemorations this year.

The Great War’s anniversary topicality has also sparked interest in its history, whether reading, or visiting the extremely well-curated centenary exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum.

It was Stalin who stated of death: ‘one is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’. Individual stories do indeed make it easier to empathise with universal suffering and sacrifice. Shame they failed to move the Soviet sadist.

While researching the life and death of a relative killed, aged 24, in the trenches of at St Eloi on 14 March, 1915, I stumbled across the fact that George Llewelyn Davies, one of the brothers who inspired JM Barrie’s Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, fell on the same day at the same place, and also as a result of being shot in the head.

George, pictured here in his final year at Eton in 1912, was by now being fostered by Barrie, who had become his guardian on the death of George’s mother in 1910. George had lost his father in 1907, and was close to ‘Uncle Jim’, exchanging letters regularly while he was away at school.

Barrie began writing Peter Pan when George was 10. In response to Barrie’s tale about babies who died and went to live in Neverland, the boy reportedly inspired Peter Pan’s memorable line, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’.

Had George lived, he might, conceivably, have started a family around 1920. His offspring might have started families of their own around 1950, meaning this generation would be around retirement age right now. They in turn may have had children around 1980, meaning George’s great grandchildren could be 30somethings now, and producing their own bundles of joy. 

So it goes on, this awfully big adventure of life and death. One death has prevented others from themselves experiencing life and death. And we, of course, might have been ‘could-have-beens’, too, had a direct descendant died earlier. It goes without saying that if our grandparents hadn’t had our parents, neither they nor we would be around either.

This leads to a flight of fancy almost worthy of Peter Pan. For millennia, people have believed in life after death, but it’s less common for human imaginations to dwell on the possibility of there being a life of some kind before conception and life on earth? We need to live to die, but Fate ensures millions miss out on this living and dying thing.

A moment of silence or applause, or light a candle or raise a glass, to those who went before, those who are here now, those who are yet to come and those who could have been but weren’t.

Historical perceptions of a disreputable trade

The following is extracted by a PhD thesis by Sarah E Bond. It describes the social status of funeral workers in earlier times, particularly in ancient Rome where, we discover, FSOs were often employed, also, as executioners. 

According to an inscription from Puteoli dated to the first century BCE: 

“The operae (workers) who shall be provided for this undertaking are not to live on this side of the tower where the grove of Libitina stands today. They are to take their bath after the first hour of the night. They are to enter the town only for the purpose of collecting or disposing of corpses, or inflicting punishments, and on condition that whenever any of them enters or is in the town, then he is to wear a distinctive hat on his head.”

The disrepute that surrounded funeral workers in Roman society is evident within numerous other premodern societies and no doubt stemmed from the precarious position of these professionals within societies as a mediator between the living and the dead.

In Achaemenian Persia, a Zoroastrian text called the Videvdat (law against the demons) lists the sixteen lands created by the god Ahura Mazda.  The text’s instructions on how to cleanse a corpse-bearer indicate the pollution that those in contact with the dead were perceived to have contracted:

 What is to be done with a corpse bearer? He is to be taken to a dry, desolate place without vegetation and put in a walled enclosure. Since he has had prolonged exposure to pollutants, people must bring him clothing and food but stay at least 30 paces away. They then pray “May he renounce every evil thought, evil word, and evil deed!” then he will be clean.

As in Puteoli and ancient Persia, the separation of those dealing with the dead from the public is seen in numerous other cultures, as is the use of special clothing or insignia to warn others.  Yet funeral workers were not the only professional class outcast by the societies they served; they were often part of a larger, yet still marginal, community.

 In medieval Japan, there was ostracism of ‘impure’ tradesmen—tanners, floor-mat weavers, undertakers, tomb buy cialis brand online caretakers, and executioners—who populated a caste. In early modern Germany, undertakers and gravediggers were among the professions of unehrlichen Leuten (dishonorable people) who were often denied membership in journeymen guilds and who could be denied the power to serve as guardian or heir, take an oath, prosecute another in court, or even prove their innocence. The rejection of gravediggers by the journeyman guilds illustrates the struggle waged by early modern guilds to establish a clear demarcation between moral and immoral trades, much in the manner that Rome did during the Republic. The development of this “guild morality” among German cities’ journeymen associations—themselves civic symbols that marched in processions, held religious services, and established contracts with the local councils—placed gravediggers outside the civic sphere.

The marginalization of groups of funeral workers from reputable society is then common throughout history.

[In Rome] lower level workers such as lecticarii (bier carriers) and pollinctores (morticians) appear to have incurred the most disrepute from their polluting contact with the dead and to have incurred infamia. Moreover, the disrepute surrounding funeral workers can be further envisaged by examining the use of servile workers in particular as the preferred laborers that came into direct contact with the deceased and prepared them for burial. Slaves could perform various jobs within the funeral association and were used as musicians, bier-carriers, executioners, and morticians. It is likely that in Rome and other urban centers in Italy and the empire, slaves did predominate as lower-level funeral workers and executioners within many societates. Slave labor was essential to both the urban economy and the mortuary trade of many Roman cities.

The financial success of a collegium of Libitina (roughly, funeral home) depended on the number of burials that it undertook, and literary sources, such as Seneca, indicate a suspicion that funeral workers may have hoped for death. Thus there was an added stigma attached to funeral workers as profit seekers. Whereas familial burials were an act of piety, these professionals—as Valerius observed—were perceived to value quaestus rather than pietas. The contempt for profit-based services within Roman society certainly added to the disrepute of funeral professionals.

Painted, young and damned and fair

Posted by Vole

When I think back to the days after Diana’s death I remember a strange time: hot days and a sense of shared grief lying like a miasma over the whole country. I was working for a council in those days and the queue of people, waiting to sign the book of remembrance in the lobby of the library, stretching out of the doors and into the square, seemed then and seems still quite extraordinary.

Writing about royalty and royal women in the London review of Books, Hilary Mantel describes Diana’s short life and terrible death as a sort of mythic drama. Diana was, she suggests, more royal than the royals; her life an enactment of a ritual progress. She writes that Diana:

passed through trials, through ordeals at the world’s hands. For a time the public refrained from demanding her blood so she shed it herself, cutting her arms and legs. Her death still makes me shudder because although I know it was an accident, it wasn’t just an accident. It was fate showing her hand, fate with her twisted grin. Diana visited the most feminine of cities to meet her end as a woman: to move on, from the City of Light to the place beyond black. She went into the underpass to be reborn, but reborn this time without a physical body: the airy subject of a hundred thousand photographs, a flicker at the corner of the eye, a sigh on the breeze.

For a time it was hoped, and it was feared, that Diana had changed the nation. Her funeral was a pagan outpouring, a lawless fiesta of grief. We are bad at mourning our dead. We don’t make time or space for grief. The world tugs us along, back into its harsh rhythm before we are ready for it, and for the pain of loss doctors can prescribe a pill. We are at war with our nature, and nature will win; all the bottled anguish, the grief dammed up, burst the barriers of politeness and formality and restraint, and broke down the divide between private and public, so that strangers wailed in the street, people who had never met Diana lamented her with maladjusted fervour, and we all remembered our secret pain and unleashed it in one huge carnival of mass mourning… none of us who lived through it will forget that dislocating time, when the skin came off the surface of the world, and our inner vision cleared, and we saw the archetypes clear and plain, and we saw the collective psyche at work, and the gods pulling our strings. To quote Stevie Smith again:

An antique story comes to me
And fills me with anxiety,
I wonder why I fear so much
What surely has no modern touch?

is there any other modern death that has gripped us so tightly or affected us so much? The full article – well worth a read – can be found here.

A very damp day, some part Foggy, not very Cold

A guest post by Mike Rendell

We are very grateful to Mike Rendell for so generously sharing with us this fascinating account of an eighteenth century funeral. Mike Rendell is a published author who specializes in 18th Century history. He blogs on all aspects of life in the Georgian era here.  Mike is an especially fortunate family historian. He tells me “I still cannot believe how much of my ancestors’ paperwork has survived from the Georgian period, and it is good to share it.” 

I recently came across the bill submitted to my ancestor Richard Hall by the Funeral Director on the occasion of the death of his first wife Eleanor in 1780. The undertakers (that is to say, the company which undertook the arrangements….) were John Cooper & Co. 

Their bill gives some idea of what was involved in a funeral in the Georgian Era in the latter part of the 18th Century. Eleanor Hall had died in her 47th year – she got up and had breakfast as normal on 11th January 1780 at her home at One London Bridge, had a splitting headache at midday, and was dead by six in the evening. In all probability she suffered a brain haemorrhage. It must have been a terrible shock for Richard, who had married Eleanor nearly 27 years earlier, and for their three grown-up children, who all lived at the property.

Richard records her death in his diary “Oh the affliction of this Day. My Dear and Affectionate Wife was suddenly seiz’d with a pain in her head after Twelve at Noon, which issued in a Fit; no Prescription of Physician Avail’d”

Richard was devastated and made a beautiful cut-out in paper as a memorial. The memento is only just over one inch across and is extraordinarily delicate.

He would have employed the firm of John Cooper & Co to make all the arrangements for the actual funeral, which was to take place at Bunhill Burial Grounds (where many Dissenters were buried). Richard and Eleanor were both Baptists and as an additional incentive to choose Bunhill, it was where both her parents had been buried back in 1754. The expenses included opening up the family vault and constructing a tent over it so as to keep prying eyes at bay.

The invoice starts by showing the actual funeral as taking place on January 18th, exactly one week after Eleanor’s death.

To start with the actual coffin and furniture:

An inside Elm Coffin lined and ruffled with fine Crape and a mattress (£1/11/6)

A Superfine Sheet, Shroud and Pillow (£1/15/00)

An outside lead coffin with plate of Inscription (£4/10/00)

An Elm case covered with fine Black Cloth, finish’d in the best Manner with black nails and drape, Lead Plate Cherubim handles, lead plate and wrought Gripes (that is to say, grips) (£5/10/00).

Then there were the extras:

4 Men going in with Lead Coffin and Case (10/-)

7 Tickets and Delivering – 7 shillings. (These would have been official invitations to attend the funeral service, sent out to close friends and often in the form of Memento Mori like this one, shown courtesy of the University of Missouri).

Hanging the Shop and Stair-case in Mourning (in other words, draping black cloth over the entire ground floor and stairs of One London Bridge, from where the funeral procession started its sad and solemn journey)

Use of 16 double silver’d sconces and Wax Lights for ditto

2 Porters with Gowns and Staves with Silk cover & hats & gloves

The best Pall

There then follow a few items which are hard to decipher. What looks like:

A coffin lid of black feathers and man in hatband and gloves

Crape hatbands

Silk ditto

Rich three quarter Armageen (?) scarves for a Minister

12 Pairs of Men’s laced kid gloves

2 Pairs of Women’s ditto

6 Pairs of Men’s and Women’s plain and one pair Mitts

Use of 11 Gent Cloaks

A Hearse and 4 coaches with Setts of horses

Velvet Coverings and black feathers for hearse and six

10 Hearse pages with truncheons , 6 of ye bearers

10 Pairs of gloves and favours for ditto

Eight coach pages with Hatbands and gloves

Use of 5 Coachmans cloaks

10 pairs of gloves for ditto and Postillion

Paid at Bunhill for opening the Vault and for Tent

Fetch and carrying Company

Turnpike and drink for the Men

A total of £51/8/6 which you would need to multiply by perhaps seventy to give a modern-day equivalent i.e £3500 or $5250

It must have made a sombre and imposing sight as the funeral cortege wended its way north of the Hall household on its one mile journey to the graveside. As Richard noted in his diary that night, it had been “a very damp day, some part Foggy, not very Cold” You can almost see the black horses with their black plumes, attended by page boys dressed from tip to toe in black, the heavy coats of the pall bearers, the coffin lined with black velvet….