A-Dressing the Dead Through Centuries
by Jeanne Adams
Hello Historical Undressers! Or should that be Undressed Historians? Either way, I'm thrilled to be here with you at History Undressed today. Thank you to Eliza for inviting me.
|Early 20th Century Funeral|
So, what happens then?
Well, most historical novelists leave that off-screen in the book. Why? I think its because the costuming, carriages and social mores are difficult enough to get right, they don't want to have to go researching how to deal with the dead too!
I, on the other hand, have a bizarre fascination with this topic. (I teach a class on body disposal, after all.) Throughout history, death rituals have been integral to society's function. From Great-Grandma's passing to Funerals of State, I've learned many morbid fact on how the business of death was handled.
|Mourning Hair Pin|
We move up in history to more civilized times (relatively, of course!) and we begin to find actual rites and statues over the graves rather than plain rocks and even...drum roll, please....laws regarding the handling of the dead. As early as the eighteenth century, people were experimenting with embalming. The wars on the Continent, with their dismaying body counts, and weather conditions precluded bringing those first-son's remains home for a proper Christian/Jewish burial. This was unpopular with parents and siblings who were fond of that younger son who went off to war and stuck his spoon in the wall, so in the 1760's some enterprising German scientists worked out ways to preserve the tissues. It wasn't perfect and it wasn't popular, but it did work. So if you see someone use it in a book in the 1700s, they ARE technically correct. But if they indicate it was all the rage, they would be INcorrect. In fact, many places there were laws about embalming being a desecration, just like autopsies!
|Crypts of Kings and Queens|
In most households, even the poorest, a shroud or pall would cover the body, scented candles would be lit at the head and foot, and flowers would be brought in as well. Lillies are associated with death and funerals because they have a strong scent and can cover the stench long illness can bring to a body, or the meat-gone-bad smell notifying all that decay may have already begun it's work. The shroud was black or dark grey and could be made of anything from dyed Belgium lace to black cotton.
On the side note, a coffin is an eight-sided "Dracula box" and was the standard burial container until around 1910 when caskets - like the modern four-sided containers now in use - came more into vogue.
Apart from dress codes, there are some other quite interesting and peculiarly morbid things of note from previous centuries. Sometimes, a lock of hair would be cut from the deceased's head and that lock would be woven into a piece of artwork, or pressed under glass and fashioned into a brooch or ring, as a memorial. These are called Memento Mori - Death Memorials - and are now quite collectible. Interesting in a gruesome kind of way, don't you think? It reached a high art form in Victorian times, with intricate beadwork, floral wreaths and framed "samplers" being made, all with hair from the various deceased members of the family!
And speaking of wakes, another interesting note is the fear many people had of being buried alive. Hence the Wake, or Death Vigil. Is Great Gramma really dead? Well, someone better sit up with her body and be absolutely sure. There'll be hell to pay in Heaven, if St. Peter tells you you buried Great Gramma before her time, right? So, there were coffins made with glass face plates, with bells on them so that if one suddenly awakened, one could ring the bell and notify one's kin that one was not yet dead. There were rappers - think a reversed door-knocker - nailed to the inside of the coffin. And even some which had latches and handles inside, so one could push one's way out should the need arise. As photography progressed in capability, a photographer would often be summoned to take a picture of the deceased in his or her coffin, as a memento. Grim, eh?
There are footnotes about the horses, the black feathers on the coaches, and I can't even get into all the antique military funerary fun in this short blog. If I did, you'd still be here reading it tomorrow!
Again, thank you for having me here today! Now...ask away!