Friday, 27 November 2009

Scots & Death

Scots were all too familiar with death in a society where disease, ill health or accident touched most families. As soon as death intruded into a home there were rituals to be followed. Familiar customs took the bereaved family and the wider community through the days to the burial and on into the mourning period.

Mortsafes were used to protect the coffin underground for the first six weeks after burial. They were among measures taken by relatives desperate to protect their dead from the resurrectionists or bodysnatchers, who dug up fresh corpses for dissection. A demand for corpses was created by advances in the study of anatomy. Many were afraid that a dissected body would not rise to life at the last judgement. Panic reached its height immediately after the 1828-9 trials of Burke and Hare, whose supply of corpses for sale came not from grave robbing but from murder.

When someone died the body was kept in the home until burial. Most Scottish houses had only one or two rooms, and so the family lived, slept and ate beside the corpse. In the days following the death, ritual, ceremony and hospitality centred on the home. The walls and furniture were draped with white sheets, clocks were stopped and mirrors turned to the wall in readiness for friends to come and pay their respects. It was important that people knew of a death as soon as possible, so the deid-bell was rung through the community, usually by the beadle. This acted as a general invitation to both the funeral and the lykewake - a watching of the corpse held each night between death and burial. The lykewake was an occasion for paying respects, but also for drinking, dancing and music.

The church frowned on lykewakes, and condemned many Scottish burial customs as pagan superstition. The minister's involvement was often limited to the kisting, the lifting of the corpse into the coffin. Originally ministers were present to ensure the body was wrapped in Scots linen, as decreed by law in 1686, but the kisting became an opportunity for prayer and consolation. It was not until the later 19th century that graveside burial services became at all common.

The church usually supplied the mortcloth which was draped over the coffin. Each kirk session owned at least one, and used funds from its hire towards poor relief. Trade and craft guilds might also own mortcloths, and some co-operative societies were established to help with funeral expenses.

In a funeral procession heraldry was used to demonstrate the ancestry of the deceased, and so to emphasize his position in society for the successor who would inherit his land and title. Funerals became increasingly elaborate, and an act of the Scottish parliament of September 1681 limited the number of mourners, thus reducing the amount spent on mourning clothes and funeral decoration. The use of a horse-drawn hearse to carry the coffin initially indicated wealth and status, but gradually became an accepted part of many funeral processions. Funds raised through hiring out the hearse contributed to poor relief.

People displayed their loss and grief through the clothes and jewellery they wore, their behaviour and even the stationery they used. They were expected to mourn publicly not just their own family but also royalty. During the 19th century the etiquette of mourning became more complex and more widespread, particularly for women.

Public mourning began in the royal court. Queen Victoria was widowed suddenly in 1861 and wore mourning dress from that time until her death 40 years later. Her example was followed by widows everywhere, and when Victoria herself died mourning dress was widely adopted.

Ladies' magazines helped to spread information about the etiquette of mourning, but not everyone could afford mourning dress. The working classes struggled to hire or dye black clothes for the funeral itself, often just wearing Sunday best. The 'correct' use of mourning became a reflection of social status, and in an age of high mortality many women who could afford it were rarely out of black.

The dead were also remembered in special commemorative jewellery and in mourning cards. The cards were distributed by the bereaved family, acting both as a memento of the dead and as a symbol of social status. Tending the grave was an important part of mourning and those who could afford it erected gravestones to their relatives. A walk to the cemetery or graveyard was seen as a suitable Sabbath activity for many Scottish families.

Charms and amulets were made and kept as a means of protection against illness which was often fatal. Such misfortune was assumed to have supernatural as well as natural causes. Belief in supernatural forces, such as the 'evil eye' or witchcraft, was deeply rooted. Protection was sought equally for animals and humans. Certain elements and materials have been considered to possess special powers, either to protect, to heal or to bring good luck. These powers might be summoned by reciting a verbal charm, often pagan in origin but given a Christian form.

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