Thursday, November 3, 2011

FF: Dearly Departed: Global Funeral Customs of the 19th Century

Irish members of the U.S. Cavalry staging a 'mock wake' in the mid-late 19th century (Collectibles Corner)

Dearly beloved, we gather here to take heed and to read this blog post. Remember this blog as it was, when I had free time coming out my eye sockets and I didn't have to seek employment to keep myself rolling in microcurry and peanut butter. Amen....

It's Halloween, my lovelies, my favorite holiday. In keeping with this month's folkways theme, we'll be discussing that most final of topics: Death. Since I can't find a lot of reliable primary sources about trips to the afterlife for some reason, we'll have to deal with the aspect of death that impacts us living- the funeral. Specifically, funerary and mourning practices of the 19th century and you'll see that the Age of Steam was one interesting time to die and be the bereaved. If you find that this article starts depressing or creeping you out (which is why the tone will be quite light) then I recommend detoxing with this tumblr: Oh Yeah Adorable Puppies. Feel better? Splendid! TO THE GRAVEYARDS WITH US!

"The Funeral Procession of Keopuolani" wife of King Kamehameha in 1823 (Hawaiian Time Machine)

Death's been going on for some time now. It's been around for literally hundreds of years.

All right, I'm kidding- death is a bit of a heavy topic. As forbidden as a political debate at the dinner table and unpredictable as your first time (will it be on prom night? Will it be after the tea party? YOU DON'T KNOW), it's perceived as many different ways as people on earth. Which is why funeral habits are so damned fascinating. In the modern, Western world in particular, we don't like to discuss death or funerals unless we happen upon one. We're fairly removed from the funeral process, too- something inherited by the Victorians and the Edwardians, when the shift to morticians and funeral parlors happened. So when we see things like Tibetan sky funerals or old-fashioned wakes, they can be a little unnerving because we've been taken out of the funerary loop. So, first of all we have-

Preparing the Body:
So you've got this body. Maybe it was one of the many diseases roving around the 19th century like cholera, smallpox, or polio. Maybe it was childbirth or a casualty of war. Perhaps they were trying out a new invention and tested it themselves by jumping off the first deck of the Eiffel Tower.... Either way, your dear friend is dearly departed and left their body behind, time to prepare them for eternity.

An 1811 French engraving of a funeral in Tahiti.

First of all make sure they're actually dead and not just passed out. Best way to do this is to follow in the footsteps of the Victorians and the Maori and have a wake. Irish Catholics in particular were (and still are) renowned for laying their dead out and having a party celebrating their life...usually with said dead person laid out not two feet away. The Victorians were a great deal more morose about this, as in most things, and a wake (period rather than event) would typically last 3-4 days so kin coming in from out of town could be notified. It also insured that the person was in fact, dead.

In the West, the 19th century was a time of funerary revolution, thanks to (wait for it....) SCIENCE! Thanks to constant warfare, particularly the American Civil War and the Crimean, embalming science jumped ahead by massive leaps. Families back home wanted to have funerals for their men lost in battle, so methods of keeping the body composed despite cross-continental shipping was in high demand. The man of science to meet this demand was the mortician, who before the late 19th century was a pretty obscure character because most people opted to wash and lay out the body themselves in their own homes. Home funerals, and even home-embalming would remain popular until the 1920s.

An Edwardian home embalming kit. You can actually buy this one (used) for $500. (Pandora's Parlor)
Roma (gypsies, to those who aren't familiar) of prior generations were fairly squeamish about handling dead bodies because of their strict hygeinic code, which is why they preferred to multitask and bathe and dress a person as they were dying to avoid this contamination. If this wasn't possible, then they brought in a non-Roma (gaujo) to perform the service. Since bodies were under threat by malevolent forces, it wasn't uncommon for their nostrils and ears to be plugged up with beeswax, or even pearls to prevent errant spirits from getting in. This is similar to Orthodox Judaism, where a delegation of people called the chevra kadisha are designated to wash and dress the dead in shrouds because corpses are considered (ditto) unclean. There is a strict division in the sexes, just as in life, so there are female members as well as male.

Once your body's washed, time to primp. Hindus in India anoint their dead with perfume and surround them with flowers, dressed in their finest clothes. But what did other cultures wear for the hereafter? Prior to the 19th century, the usual fashion for a corpse in most Abrahamic religions was a simple shroud of cloth... but starting in the Age of Steam, people wanted the dead to appear more like they did in life- so the creepy shrouds gave way to the deceased's favorite clothes. In fact, in some Southeast Asian cultures it's traditional to buy an entirely new suit. Might as well go out in style.

Photograph of a Chinese funeral procession taken from John Stoddard's 1901 lecture.

The Funeral:
It's oft said that funerals are not for the dead, but for the living. They give a wonderful opportunity to remember the deceased, say goodbye, and appeal to a higher authority to protect or look favorably upon the person (and their living associates!).

 Some cultures included a grand party in their funeral tradition. In the Mindanao region of the Philippines, funerals are joyous social occasions where songs and gambling are encouraged (in fact it helps pay for it!). According to 19th century accounts, the Ainu would counteract the grim mood of the death of a friend by getting gloriously wasted to get back into the attitude of normal life. Across the Pacific, the Tlingit prescribed memorial potlatch parties as a required part of any proper funerary cycle. The Maori have a tradition called Po Whakangahau where friends and family perform songs, tell jokes, dance, and try their best to cheer up the bereaved the night before burial- god knows they'd need it.

But alas, not all cultures were as festive. In Orthodox Judaism, the way to show grief at a funeral is to tear your clothing. Funerals are closed-casket affairs and quite solemn- in fact during the first few stages of mourning the bereaved isn't even allowed to listen to music! The Irish, while capable of pretty lively wakes, were also renowned for their keening at funerals. Keening consisted of praising the dead, prayer, and good old-fashioned wailing, typically by a chorus of women (being a professional keener was actually a viable job in 16th-19th century Ireland) set to a doleful tune.

Engravings of handprints left by real women who went to commit suttee in Jodhpur (George Mason University)

Since it's a bit of an elephant in the room (and because I'd be mad to talk about global funerary customs without making mention of it) why don't we discuss suttee, or sati, a bit? To the uninitiated, in India suttee was supposedly the greatest act of devotion that a wife could show her husband: namely, jumping onto his funeral pyre along with him. This has been wildly sensationalized over the years given the concept. First of all, suttee was not common (if you want proof, I have a variety of sources that will happily back it up) since while devoted, jumping onto a bonfire wasn't terribly tantilizing. (Think about it, would you?) Secondly, it was voluntary.... most of the time. Third, the British were not the first people to try to stop it. Mughal rulers like Akhbar the Great tried to quash it centuries before, and various sects of Hinduism prior to him absolutely hated it. But still, it continued long enough into the 19th century that the British enacted the Suttee Regulation Act of 1829 to end it outright.

In some societies, gifts were doled out to the funeral attendees. A Chinese custom would offer a sweet and a red string in an envelope. The string was tied around the latch of the front door to ward off evil spirits that might have followed them home. Starting in 1835, Thai people started giving out "nectrological literature" made with their newly-imported printing press. These little books recited Buddhist sutras, poems about the deceased, fond stories of their lives, and even favorite recipes! Many a Thai cook have gleaned prized dishes from funeral books....

A Native American burial platform- Edward Curtis, 1908 (old pictures) I like to call it the hammock of eternity.

Body Disposal
So you've prepared your dead associate, had a nice funeral.... but what do you do with them? Well thankfully, you have options! If you were very close, perhaps you'll opt for a traditional West African burial and have your loved one interred under your kitchen floor, where they'll bring you good luck for decades to come! The Chickasaw did a similar custom- except under the couch or bed where the person died, in a sitting position no less (I know a few gamers who would probably want to go out like this). No? Well a traditional Chinese burial has a body underground for 7 years. After that period the bones are exhumed and placed in an urn so that it can be close to the family. The family pays homage to their dead ancestors, the living are given protection and good luck; win-win!

Since burial was an inconvenience, semi-nomadic pre-Contact Woodlands tribes of North America would stow the dead in shallow, rush covered graves until they could be retrieved as much as 7 months later for proper burial. Many horse cultures of the Great Plains (and some of the Northwest Coast) built scaffolds upon which they would put the dead, dressed in their best. Pre-contact Hawaiians would stow their dead in sea caves around the islands, particularly those of high status. Australian Aborigines would nestle their dead in hollowed out tree trunks- like a treefort of eternity!

But sometimes burial seems impersonal (even in a treefort of eternity), which is why many indigenous tribes such as the Wari and Yanomami of South America and the Berawan of Borneo would have their deceased relatives for dinner. Literally. Carrying your loved one inside of you was considered an act of great honor and love... needless to say endocannibalism spooked the Europeans, so few cultures carried the tradition on after contact and colonization.

An 1867 illustration of a Japanese cremation by JMW Silver (wikicommons)

In the East, cremation tended to (and still does) be the way to dispose of the body. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto all prefer the technique- though variations have popped up. In Tibet, sky funerals occasionally still happen- where the body is ritualistically divvied up into bite-sized morsels and eaten up by vultures. To Tibetan Buddhists it's a sacred honor, though it made Edwardian explorers' stomachs turn. In a similar vein, Zoroastrians of prior centuries (and millennia) would construct "Towers of Silence"- a fairly badass-sounding name for a structure where bodies were laid out for scavengers to consume.

In the 19th century, Westernized countries like the United States were going through a burial revolution. In 1855, the first "lawn" cemetery was opened up- a brand new concept that did away with overgrown churchyards or unevenly plotted burial grounds. While this seems pretty inconsequential, it shaped how Americans (in particular) mourned. With open-lawn cemeteries there are fewer statuary, tall gates, family vaults and are (most importantly) away from churches. This was intended to make visiting a cemetery a pleasant experience for the grieving Victorian that was free of grim symbols or iconography that would remind them of death. Lawn cemeteries are also a hell of a lot cheaper and easier to maintain. (Personally, Miss Kagashi, being an old fashioned sort of goth, prefers the statuary cemeteries with creepy-looking angels and weepy willows; so much more atmospheric.)

Pere Lachaise in Paris was established in 1804 and is a sterling example of a statuary cemetery that was gradually phased out by the late part of the century.

Perhaps one of the oddest (and most whimsical) "burials" of the 19th century was of British utilitarian philosopher and academic Jeremy Bentham. When he died in 1832, Mr. Bentham would have none of that wasteful casket nonsense! Instead he allowed his body to be dissected as part of an anatomy lecture, then embalmed and stuffed... then in 1850 he was put on display at University College, London. Where he is to this day! Occasionally Mr. Bentham is wheeled out to university board meetings, where he is marked "Present, but not Voting." I daresay he would have approved...

I plan on paying the old boy a visit someday!

Some cultures regarded death with very little fuss and encouraged people to move on. In traditional Hinduism, the mourning period is a mere 13 days after cremation. Japanese Zen Buddhists will mourn for 49 days, unless the deceased was the victim of a crime- in which they would cease when the trial was completed.

In many Native American cultures, cutting the hair was a symbol of grief and would be one of the few times in an individual's life when they would willingly do it. If hair wasn't enough, fingers were sometimes lopped off as an expression of loss. Records point (get it? Because it's a finger...) to the Yankton Sioux doing this from time to time. Certain tribes in the Southwest preferred wailing as a form of mourning- whether this was dreadful enough to wake the dead is sadly undocumented.

The Victorians though- oh boy- they take the cake. Combine a revolution in mortuary science, the grief of one queen (oh Vicky...), and a society infatuated with class-based norms and you have a miasma of funerary crazy. First of all, mourning depended on the degree of relation to the deceased; brothers mourned less than wives, mothers mourned more than children. A cousin might only be in mourning for a few months, but a wife would do so for two and a half years. During that time you were expected to have a wardrobe for the different phases: full/deep mourning (a year and a day- typically reserved for spouses and maybe parents), full mourning, and half mourning. I'd go into the full details of mourning clothing, but it's fairly ridiculous and specific, so I'll save it for a different post...

Four ladies in mourning in the 1870s/80s. I really can't help but laugh at this photo...

Wealthier families were expected to not only purchase new mourning attire every time, but also buy new, dark furniture. Entire mail-order companies and emporiums sprang up to cater to the demand. Mourning was big business and meant paying big money. In fact in the original The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Dorothy frets over staying in Oz longer because her Aunt and Uncle can't afford to go into mourning.

But wait. It gets weirder. You've got a slough of memento mori with the Victorians. In addition to their habit of coffin-side photography (it was a new and expensive technology in those days, so often it was the only time when a family could scrape the money and time together to get a portrait made),  they also collected the hair of the dead. These tresses were woven, plaited, and stitched together into art pieces, jewelry, embroidery on clothing, or even wreathes. Judging by the volume of some of these hair memorials, there had to be bald corpses going into the graves.

1880s advert for a tailor specializing in mourning clothes.

When we look at death, we appreciate life all the more- particularly in how varied and wild it can be. Some of these traditions are bygone, some are happening as we speak; all give us an idea of how people came to terms with being bereaved. So what would it have been like in a Steampunk world? Would super scientific morticians spread their new techniques all over the globe? Would there be airborne "burials at sea" on dirigibles? Or would we be like dear Jeremy Bentham and put ourselves up for display- perhaps even turned into automatons to tell the living about ourselves as a way of being remembered? Or perhaps everyone gets shot out of a supercannon to a massive booze-up.... either way, remember that for every way there is to live in style, there's another to be dead in style.

Congratulations, you (and I) have made it to the end of a long, somewhat heavy article. Here's a corgi.

Helpful Links
-A full essay of funeral and mourning habits of Roma peoples from the Patrin Web Journal.
-Still looking for more tidbits on shuffling off this mortal coil? Check out the fairly-well documented Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.
-"The Irish Funeral Cry" a Dublin news article from 1833 describing the tradition of keening at funerals.
-The Civil War Lady has a great article on mourning during the American Civil War in the 1860s.

Hey Look! A Bibliography:
Suttee or Sati: Victim or Victor? by Julia Leslie, taken from Institutions and Ideologies: a SOAS South Asia Reader, 1993.
Wine of the Corpse: Endocannibalism and the Great Feast of the Dead in Borneo by Peter Metcalf, taken from Representations, 1987. 


  1. What an intriguing article! And very cute surprise at the end. ^.^

  2. Roma used to burn the Vardo's (Wagons) and in later years sell items rather than burn them to get rid of them. The idea being that personal effects would attract the spirit of the person.

    Now Tinceards or tinkers or Irish Travelers when they pass on there is a wake but in the case of my grandfather his wife saw to the distribution of personal effects and things sold for a proper burial and funeral mass.

  3. Great post! I actually attended West African memorial services some time ago. Many of my friends lost family members in Ghana and Nigeria, unfortunately they couldn't attend the funerals at home. So memorials were organised, everyone was dressed up, women in the traditional West African tie dyed dress and turbans, men in the Kente robes and hats. Some stage during the evening, the oldest male would pour liquid, usually gin, into a bowl, a libation. All the while he would be calling to the ancestor spirits, to welcome the family member and to honour the ones who came before. It was amazing and so life affirming!
    And the corgi is adorable, yours? :)

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