River Wissey Lovell Fuller


May 2011

Richard tells us about their recent activities

The one certain thing in life is that we all eventually die and at our meeting in March we welcomed back Anne Barnes with a talk on Funeral Customs.

Starting with the 14th century it was essential to have what was known as a good death. Feathers were thought to prevent a person passing on and any bedding or pillows would have been removed. Door and windows would be left open for the spirit to move on without hinder.

Bee keepers always reported a passing to their hives. Bodies would be wrapped in a simple shroud and carried on a bier which is rather like a stretcher and would be carried on the shoulders of mourners, other examples had wheels. Coffins did not see regular use until the 17th. Century and then often only the well off could afford the cost. Bodies were always buried in consecrated ground and the deceased must have been baptised.

Non believers and suicides would be interned in non consecrated areas. Suicides were often buried at crossroads.

A charnel-house was a house or vault where dead bodies or bones are piled. Much used during the plague period of 1345- 49.

The rich and priests had the option of being buried inside the church with grand memorials and the tomb covered with a brass plate usually full length with etched or engraved decoration. It had long been thought these brasses were made to individual instructions but recent research has revealed that they could be obtained "off the shelf". The practice died out after the 1650 as religion became less ceremonial and simpler. Ale and bread were passed by mourners across the body to eat and drink the sins of the deceased. This practiced continued in some areas right up to 1910.

Persons of title or members of Royalty who were transported to a place of burial would have crosses of wood or stone erected at stopping points on their journey, Charing Cross is a typical example.

On the death of a young unmarried woman the funeral would entail the use of white shrouds and the body clothed in white carried by children.

By the 1650s Puritan and Quaker influences has reduced the funeral to a very simple event with prayers for the departed being more important than pomp and ceremony.

Lynch Gates provided a resting place for mourners carrying the deceased.

In the early 19th century death returned to a more social event with very strict etiquette according to ones social standing. Dressing in black, the use of crepe and mourning jewellery were the standard for the rich which included Royalty, titled persons, Military and the Church. This all came to a peak at the time Prince Albert died of typhoid in 1862. Queen Victoria went into a long period of mourning, so long in fact it was considered un-natural by many of her subjects.

Special rooms were for the purpose of placing the body, a large table had been used to place the body on prior to burial since the 17th century returned particularly in Ireland and were known as "wakes tables". The body was not to be left alone at any time and persons of title or fame were laid out "in state" so that members of the public could come and pay their respects. This would happen even in the most humble of homes from the 1780s.The Victorians made an industry out of death with the manufacture of special jewellery, Whitby Jet was a favourite and worn by Queen Victoria, lockets held a lock of hair, envelopes and writing paper had black edges and you sealed your envelope with black sealing wax in preference to the usual red. Everlasting flowers started to appear in the 1870s which were made of coloured wax and were sealed in glass domes. They were finally banned in public cemeteries because of the danger of the glass but they were in use in some church yards up to 1915.

Large memorials and epitaphs were erected in the municipal cemeteries that were in use after about 1840.Many of these are now unkempt and vandalised although some are beautifully kept mainly because they are still in use.

Medical re-search and the workings of the human body were still in an early state of development, what was required was the body itself which Surgeons and Doctors could examine in detail. Few, if any ,relatives of a deceased person were willing to provide a corpse for such a purpose which resulted in what became known as body snatching. Physicians were prepared to pay for any bodies brought to them with no questions asked. It became a lucrative business for some and relatives sought ways to prevent their loved ones being removed from their burial place. Double coffins, weighted, chained and iron bars were employed to foil the snatchers. Watching the grave was another way relatives and neighbours prevented the removal. After a while the body will have started to decompose and would be useless.

The problem was eventually solved when unclaimed and pauper dead were provided for this purpose.

Cremation would have been the answer but it was not employed in the UK at that time and the Cremation Act was not passed until 1907.

Undertakers came about when the formality of a funeral and burial was too much for a family and the organising was placed with someone to "undertake" or to hire out.

These people were local carpenters, wheelwrights or builders who would provide the service for a fee. This gave rise to one saving for ones burial and the introduction of Funeral Plans.

To conclude it has to be mentioned that during the 18th and 19th centuries many working class people have no known burial place. For every person who could afford a memorial there will be 10 who had nothing. Paupers in small towns and villages would be provided for but it was very basic and placed in an unmarked grave. Mass graves are a rarity after the late 16th century and they came about because of war or plague.

Those from the 20th century are well documented usually as result war or civil unrest.

For those who are researching family members the church has a burial record which will go back centuries and the National Records provided details of most births, marriages and deaths since 1838.

On the 21st March Ruth organised another trip to North Farm, Bottisham to see the workshops of Fairhaven and White the stonemasons who did the work on the windows of St. Andrews. It enable those members who were unable to go on the first trip to view the work they do there.

With a skilled and young workforce the firm provides a vital service to the preservation of our beautiful old churches and buildings. Working demonstrations of stone cutting, shaping and carving provided visitors with an insight into how the stonemasons have developed their skills during the last 100 years. Modern tools have taken on much of the rough shaping to cut down on time and keep costs reasonable.

Diamond toothed saws and electric powered tools are all employed to this end.

One chap has been making moulds from existing carvings for over 40 years. These are used as a template for new carvings. All the staff were informative and helpful.

Many members went on to Angelsey Abbey to have lunch and view the gardens.


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