Early burial customs from the Valley

Posted on October 7, 2010 by


Just a little something I thought might be of interest… this being from a newspaper column from 1937, reflecting on the old burial customs.

We, of the younger generation, accustomed as we are to the modern funerals, with everything being done that is possible to alleviate the anguish of the family and friends of the departed, do not recall the old customs in burying. We are indebted to our good friend, J. Samuel Bradley, of this place, for the following valuable data:

The bodies now not only look life like so that the last book is almost realistic as in life. Today our dead are prepared by the kindly hands of the professional embalmers, who are not only trained in the science of the profession, but in the art of making them life-like. The funerals are now conducted by an understanding, sympathetic and trained funeral director, who relieves the family of the many cares and worried incident to these trying times, and makes the family feel as much as possible that death is not the last farewell but only a short good bye until they meet in the Eternal City. We can scarcely picture the customs of many years ago which was a strange mixture of Christian and pagan philosophy. When death visited the home neighbors were immediately called in. They washed the body and laid it out on an improvised bier which was generally made of rough boards supported by two chairs on which was placed a bed sheet. The body was then covered by another sheet. This was known as ‘laying out the corpse.’ The regulation burial clothes were white cotton shrouds, worn alike by both men and women, and if the departed one was of the sterner sex he was cleanly shaven even though he had worn a full beard in life and in those days most men wore beards, this of course made them look unnatural. It was considered ‘bad luck’ to bury until the third day. With no means of preservation except a saucer filled with salt, placed on the chest, and light applications of camphor to the face. By the time of the funeral the body was generally in a bad state of decomposition. But in spite of the repugnant and almost horrible sight the family would insist on a ‘public showing’ of their dead both at the home and at the grave. The friends impelled by morbid curiosity would clamor for a ‘last look.’ When death came to the home all pictures and mirrors were turned with their faces to the wall, and all clocks stopped until after the funeral. Door crepes were never used. The nights between the death and burial there would be no selected ‘watchers,’ but an old fashioned ‘wake,’ by the young folks of the neighborhood, who regarded the ‘wake’ as a social event and forgetting the solemnities of the occasion would often become quite noisy. It was considered a serious breech of etiquette to have a coffin made until the person had died. Every community had its coffin maker. Coffins were made to conform to the shapes of the bodies and were always a perfect fit. They were made mainly from walnut, cherry and poplar. They were stained with a preparation made from burnt lumber and apple brandy. The coffin maker on receiving an offer would send immediately to the nearest still house – numerous in those days – for the brandy, always getting about three times as much brandy as was needed for the stain, but when the next order came he would have no brandy. The coffin maker learned, as many have learned since, that ‘brandy will not keep.’ The coffins were finished with bees wax, imparting a very nice gloss. Lined with cotton flannel pasted to the boards of the coffin upholstering was then unknown. They were no selected pall bearers, and no flowers at all. The funeral sermon generally lasted about two hours, the minister speaking words of consolation would use all his oratorical powers to intensify the sad emotions of the bereaved ones, and they would make no effort to control their feelings. The dead were conveyed to their last resting place, generally in a spring wagon, drawn by old dobbin [rural slang for a horse], who with measured tread seemed to understand the sadness of the occasion. Such were the sad but weird customs of the old days, but the community spirit was much more evident than now – in this age of hurry and bustle…

Extremely rare, but some were fortunate enough to have excellent images on their headstone. It so happens that F.M. Perry (born in 1819) was well-acquainted with a popular sculptor from Luray.

In different lighting... more of a gray stone.

Posted in: Digital History