Life in the past was frequently precarious, but a veritable host of popular folk funeral customs helped keep the dead and the living intimately interconnected.
Here, then, are 5 curious funeral customs often observed in Victorian – and sometimes later – England.
1. ‘Three’s a burying, four’s a death’…
…went Victorian versions of the popular magpie rhyme. Life was precarious in the pre-penicillin age, and death portents were an accordingly serious business.
Owls hooting, a dog howling outside the house where someone lay sick, a bird flying down the chimney, the clock stopping, to do the washing on Good Friday, break a mirror or to put boots on the table – all these and many more were popularly said to portend – or even cause – a death.
Some of these folk beliefs linger into the present day, albeit now as ‘bad luck’ rather then actual death. With infant and maternal mortality rates remaining high throughout the period, it’s unsurprising to find related death portent beliefs – such as the baby which failed to cry when christened being destined for an early grave ‘because it was too good for this world.’
Meanwhile cow parsley was widely known amongst Victorian children as ‘mother-die’ because, so the belief went, picking it caused one’s mother to die.
2. Wild bird feathers could ‘hold back’ a dying person
From Sussex to Dorset to Cumberland, across Victorian England the feathers of wild birds were widely reckoned to prolong the death struggle. These should therefore be removed from the mattress and pillows in order to permit the moribund person to ‘die easy.’
Pigeon-feathers were a particular culprit in this respect, and by removing them one exercised a duty of care toward the dying. If individual feathers could not easily be removed, then instead the entire pillow might be ‘drawn.’
One doctor in 1920s Norfolk had come across multiple instances of this practice, and opined that it constituted murder; indicating that the debate about so-called assisted dying is by no means new.
Of course the detaining effect of bird feathers might also be applied in the opposite direction, with the Yorkshire folklore collector Henry Fairfax-Blakeborough noting that ‘instances are on record of pigeon feathers having been placed in a small in a small bag and thrust under dying persons to hold them back until the arrival of some loved one; but the meeting having taken place, the feathers were withdrawn and death allowed to enter.’
3. Telling the bees of a death in the household
It was customary in many parts of the country formally to ‘tell the bees’ when a member of the household had died – and often of other significant family events, such as births and marriages.
If this courtesy were omitted, so the belief ran, the bees would variously die, fly away or refuse to work. It was also important to include the bees in the funeral customs which followed, by draping the hives in black and giving them a portion of every item served at the funeral tea – right down to the clay pipes.
Folklore collectors at the time were hard pressed to explain this particular custom, frequently dismissing it as a backward rural curiosity.
However it makes sense when we remember that in folklore, bees traditionally embody the souls of the dead. Thus involving them in household events was in keeping with the notion, which explains many Victorian funerary superstitions, that the dead and living were interconnected and owed one another a duty of care.
4. Touching a dead body stopped the person haunting you
Before the funeral, and in the days before the ‘chapel of rest’ had become popular, it was customary for relatives, friends and neighbours to visit the bereaved home in order to view the deceased.
An important part of this visiting ritual was for guests to touch or even kiss the body. This may have been related to the very old folk belief that a murdered corpse would bleed when touched by its murderer; certainly there was a popular belief in Victorian England that performing this touch prevented the dead person from haunting one.
‘You will never be afraid of the dead if you kiss the corpse’, as the saying went in East Yorkshire. In parts of Cumberland there was the added belief that if the body were moist and clammy to the touch, someone present in the room would die within a year.
When interviewed by historians, people required to take part in this custom as children recalled mixed feelings about it – while they often found the touching itself unpleasant, time off school and a piece of special ‘funeral cake’ were considered an especial treat.
5. You should ‘drink their sins away’
On the day of the funeral, and before the coffin was ‘lifted’ feet first out of the front door, the mourners would gather for the procession to church or chapel.
Even the poorest would try their best to have at least one bottle of port wine to hand in order to mark the moment, for sharing amongst their guests along with specially-baked ‘funeral biscuits.’
When asked why this was done, one Derbyshire farmer replied that it was to drink away the dead person’s sins, thus helping them to reach heaven quicker.
This custom has often been linked to that of ‘sin-eating’, which was also still known in the earlier part of the Victorian period; both customs may well have been survivals of the old medieval funeral mass, transposed into the private space of the home after the Reformation.
Helen Frisby is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Bristol, and also works at UWE, Bristol. Traditions of Death and Burial was published on 19 September 2019, by Bloomsbury Publishing.