Photo Credit: Herr Olson
During this month of swirling dead leaves and the zombie-like stalks of once-lush corn, the days shorten in anticipation of All Hallow’s Eve, an ancient festival of the dead.
The perfect month to research archaic burial practices, right? That’s right where I am in my book, Aroon. And boy, did I find some strange customs.
Ghosts and ghouls reflect the age-old fear of disturbing the dead lest they unleash their supernatural powers upon us. Many practices through the years stem from this fear which, have no doubt, is still found in many people today. I’ve recently moved next door to a cemetery and have been looked at suspiciously by more than one person.
Medieval churches throughout Europe were charged with caring for the dead, and before the services of CSI: Miami, it was the duty of the clergy to determine whether or not the death resulted from foul play. Before Christianity took hold, burials were not to take place inside the limits of the town. It wasn’t until the year 752 that the pope authorized the establishment of a churchyard where the deceased were buried in consecrated ground.
Photo by: Dean Ayers
In the thirteenth century, cemeteries were ordered to be securely enclosed, so that animals could not graze there. But that did not stop them from becoming a playground on festivals and holidays. Many medieval people felt that the dead were still with them on some level and would enjoy the party, so to speak.
And party they did. Rough games, dancing, and drinking led to the inevitable brawl which too often resulted in the deaths of a participant or two. As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of damage to the gravestones as well.
According to Bertram S. Puckle (really?) in his 1926 book, Funeral Customs, “the poor Vicar of Codrington, in 1862, found people playing cards on the communion table, and when they chose the churchwardens, they used to sit in the sanctuary smoking and drinking.” Ah, remember when.
Puckle wrote that as far back as the Iron Age, people were buried with their feet facing east, perhaps as a custom of sun-worshippers. Later, Christians have been buried facing the same way since from that direction, they surmised, will come the final summons to Judgment.
Another interesting custom was that people were buried to the west, east, and south of the church itself, but rarely to the north. The only graves found there were of murderers and other criminals. This is because structure of the church, like its deceased members, also faced east. Therefore, the north or left side of the altar is the Gospel side, which calls on sinners to repent. Was anybody listening?
It could get right crowded. Photo by: Bogdan Mugulski
Sometimes a person was interred face down. If it was a first-born child, this would prevent further children from being born in the family. A very ghoulish form of birth control.
Witches were often buried this way in an effort to keep their spirits from causing trouble. During a serious cholera epidemic in Hungary, they determined the cause to be a particular witch’s curses. Her body was quickly exhumed and she was re-buried face down. Oddly enough, that did not curtail the spread of the disease. They dug her up again and turned her clothing inside out. Even that didn’t work! Once again, she was brought up from the grave, this time to cut out her heart and divide it into four pieces, each of which was burned at a corner of the village. I’m assuming that did the trick.
At times, criminals and other sinners were forbidden from the consecrated burial grounds of the righteous, so they were planted at a crossroads. Apparently, this was an effort to confuse the vengeful spirit (who was hopefully directionally-challenged) and prevent him from returning home to torment family members. His heart was anchored with the ever-popular wooden stake to keep him firmly in the grave.
As a final effort to keep this pissed-off ghost off kilter, the funeral procession would arrive at the burial site from one direction, only to return home a different way. That ghost would have to be one smart cookie to have found his way back after all those safeguards.
This is one of my favorite old traditions. It was believed that a “newcomer” to the cemetery was to act as watchman until an even more recently deceased person showed up to take his place. In some parts of Ireland, a pipe and tobacco were left so the person could have a smoke during his watch. Always hospitable, those Irish.
Nobody wanted this post, so if two new occupants arrived at the cemetery simultaneously, the funeral processions would rush to get their guy into the ground first. This led to harsh words, which developed into the inevitable free-for-all, the corpse set aside until the matter was resolved. No occasion is too solemn for a good fight.
Also in Ireland, if you were plagued with warts, you need only grab a handful of dirt from under your right foot and throw it on the funeral procession. Voila! No more warts. But you might get a mighty beat-down from the mourners.
In Brittany, France, it was believed that once dead, you must eat as much dirt as the bread you had wasted during your lifetime. That’s one way to get the kiddies to eat their crust.
“Eat yer grub.”
*Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems