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Traditions of Death and Burial

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February 2021

To cheer us and inspire us on a freezing February evening during Lockdown the Thornbury History and Archaeology Society hosted a Zoom meeting on the Traditions of Death and Burial, presented by Dr. Helen Frisby. I use the word ‘inspire’ in all seriousness since it is a fact that the undertaking profession, as an exemplar of customer service, has had not one person complain about their burial in its 300 odd years of history.

The funeral undertaker undertakes to provide the care, attention and due ceremony expected, but before the profession started during the Restoration this was the responsibility of the family, with the assistance of the local village carpenter. Most people died at home and it was the family’s job to gather around the deathbed and protect the person at a time when they were most vulnerable to the attentions of the devil. Salt may be scattered around to ward off evil spirits. Mirrors and reflective surfaces would be covered so that they did not entrap the fleeing soul. Doors and windows would be opened to allow the soul to escape.

At the time of death all the clocks would be stopped and family photos would be turned face down. It was important to observe the customary rituals to protect the soul on its journey and to prevent bad luck from occurring again. For instance, the sight of your reflection in a mirror could portend that you are next. A common country ritual was to ‘tell the bees’ of the death. If you didn’t, then all sorts of bad luck could ensue. People were super-sensitive to superstitions at this time of heightened emotion and potential danger to the soul of the deceased.

Preparation for death could start quite early in life. It was common for women to make their own shrouds, or laying-out sheets, as part of their wedding trousseau. Bearing in mind the mortality rate from childbirth this was expedient. It was also important to have a good set of clothes set aside so that you could look your best when family, friends and neighbours called to pay their last respects. Some clothes may have been specially made for the event, for example death socks. If I were given a pair for Christmas I would consider it in dubious taste.

The funeral service would often be held at the family home. The coffin would then be carried out feet first so that the deceased could not look back and call someone after them. The ensuing procession to the burial is one of the oldest rituals, going back into the mists of time. In Victorian times the procession became very elaborate and costly, with professional funeral attendants adding a certain mournful glamour. Oliver Twist made a very respectable attendant for child funerals, of which there were many in those days.

After the funeral it was important that family and guests were well fed and ‘watered’, perhaps with specially made funeral biscuits, bread or cake. Again, the customary rituals had to be observed, as it was very easy to annoy your neighbours, even when you were dead. Close family members would need to wear mourning clothes for long periods, and would often wear rings, pendants and lockets of jet or gold, incorporating the hair of the deceased.

Thanks to Helen for raising our spirits.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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