vol II date / index
Sts. Cyriacus, Largus, Smaragdus, and their Companions, Martyrs, A. D. 303. St. Hormisdas.
FUNERALS IN CUMBERLAND.
To the Editor of the Every-Day Book.
The variety of funeral-rites and ceremonies, prevalent in different ages and countries, has been so great as to forbid any attempt to enumerate them; but it is consistent with the character and design of the Every-Day Book, to record the peculiar customs which have existed in different districts of our native land: for although your motto from old Herrick, does not refer to any thing of a serious kind, yet, in the number of those which you promise the world to "tell of" I perceive that such matters are sometimes related. I proceed, therefore, to detail the circumstances which preceded and attended the interment of the dead in the county of Cumberland, within the last twenty years: they are now discontinued, except, perhaps, in some of the smaller villages, or amongst the humblest class in society. Whether the customs I am about to describe, have been observed in the southern parts of England, I know not; I shall, therefore, confine myself to what has frequently passed under my own observation in my native town.
No sooner had the passing-bell intimated to the inhabitants that an acquaintance or heighbour had departed for that "bourne whence no traveller returns," than they began to contemplate a call at the "Corse-house," (for such was the denomination of the house of mourning,) within which preparations were made by the domestics to receive all who might come. To this end all the apartments were prepared for the reception of visitors with the exception of the chamber of death: one for the seclusion of the survivors of the family, and the domestic offices.
The interval between the death and the interment is at present, I believe, extended beyond what was usual at the time I refer to: it was then two days and two nights, varying accordingly as the demise took place in the early or latter part of the day.
The assemblage at the Corse-house, was most numerous during the evening; at which time many persons, who were engaged during the day in their several avocations, found leisure to be present: many of the females made their call, however, during the afternoon. The concourse of visitors rendered the house like a tavern; their noise and tumult being little restrained, and their employment being the drinking of wine or spirits with the smoking of tobacco; and if only some made use of the "stinking herb," all partook of the juice of the grape. Instances could be adduced in which moderation gave way to excess.
The conversation turned, often upon the character of the deceased, at least when generally respected; "de mortuis nil nisi bonum;" the ordinary topics of the day were discussed: perhaps the Irish people were ridiculed for their barbarism in waking their dead: and each individual as inclination prompted him, retired to make room for another, thus maintaining a pretty rapid succession of arrivals and departures, with the exception of, perhaps, one or two who embraced so favourable an opportunity for economical indulgence. "Where the carcase is there will the eagles be gathered together."
I must, however, observe in justice to the good taste of my townsmen, that many of them rather assented to the custom than approved it; but an omission to attend a corse-house, with the occupants of which you were even slightly acquainted, was considered a mark of disrespect to the memory of the dead, and the feelings of the survivors.
I happened, however, that a gentleman (a stranger to this custom,) settled in the town I refer to, and, after a short residence, a death occurred in his family: he at once resolved to deviate from a practice which he did not approve. The first visitors to his house observed that no preparations were made for their reception, and were respectfully told by a servant, that open house would not be kept on the occasion: the news soon spread, and so did the example; a native of the town soon followed it, and a custom fell into desuetude, which the warmest admirers of ancient practices could scarcely desire to perpetuate. Originating probably in the exercise of the social affections, and of that hospitality which was convenient enough in periods when population was thin and widely scattered, they degenerated from their original use, and were "more honoured in the breach than the observance." Antiquity might, perhaps, plead in their defence. The ancient Jews made great use of music in their funeral rites; before Christ exerted his power in the restoration of the ruler's daughter, who was supposed to be dead, he caused to be put forth "the minstrels and the people making a noise." Matt. c. 9, v. 23, et seq.
The ceremonies, which I am now going to describe, are still in existence; and evince no symptoms of decay. On the evening preceding the day appointed for the interment, the parish-clerk perambulates the town, carrying a deep and solemn-toned bell, by means of which he announces his approach to various places at which he is accustomed to stop, and give utterance to his mournful message. Well do I remember the deep interest with which I and my youthful associates listened to the melancholy tones of his sepulchral voice, whilst toys were disregarded, and trifling for a moment suspended! As the sounds of the "Death-bell" died away, it was proclaimed thus: "All friends and neighbours are desired to attend the funeral of ——— from ———street, to Mary's Chapel: the corpse to be taken up at — o'clock." What crowds of little urchins feeling a mixed sensation of fear and curiosity were congregated! What casements were half-opened whilst mute attention lent her willing ear to seize upon the name of the departed, and the hour of burial!
I have known a party at "a round game" hushed into silence: and a whist party thrown into a sort of reverie, and there remain till Mrs. What-d'ye-call-'em asked Mrs, What's-her-name, if clubs were trumps? or chid her partner for being guilty of a revoke on account of so common a thing as the "Death-bell."
On the following day the clerk proceeds to the Corse-house, about an hour before the procession is formed. A small table covered with a white napkin, on which are placed wines and spirits, is put at the door of the house within and around which the poeple assemble: the clerk takes his place by the table, to assist to a glass of liquor, any person who may approach it. The coffin being brought forth, the clerk takes his place in front of the procession, and is usually attended by a number of those who form the choir on Sunday, all being uncovered. A psalm is sung as the cavalcade moves slowly through the streets. The rest of the "friends and neighbours" follow the corpse to the church, where the ordinary services conclude; and thus concludes the "strange eventful history," related by, sir,
Love lies bleeding. Amaranthus procumbens.
Dedicated to St. Hormisdas.