Death & Mourning in Days Gone By

Who would have thought that a talk on death and mourning could prove so interesting, entertaining and humorous.  Our speaker Judith Bangs achieved all this.  After all, she said, “Real Fun” is an anagram of “Funeral”. She also brought with her a display board with photographs, pictures, press cuttings, and cartoons.

Judith explained that her interest in the subject was kindled by her membership of the East Riding Family History Society and the work done by them recording gravestones. Reading the words of praise on epitaphs, one child wondered where all the naughty people were buried.

Folklore has it that portents of death include a picture falling off a wall, an umbrella open in the house, and a sparrow landing on a piano. To these Judith added the superstitions of a corpse leaving the house feet first so it can’t beckon others to follow and a coffin not to touch the ground on route to be buried.

Before Victorian times a law was introduced that shrouds were to be made only of sheep’s wool to support the woollen industry.  There was a fine of £5 if disobeyed with half the fine going to the poor and half to the informer.  Judith said the rich who wanted to be buried in their finery ignored the act and a family member would report the deed. Thus the family had a refund of half the fine.

It was the Victorians who raised funerals and mourning to an art form. Judith gave many examples of the complicated do’s and don’ts. It was shocking to hear that a husband should be mourned for 2 to 3 years, but a wife for only 3 months.

Being buried alive or being dig up for anatomical dissection also worried the Victorians and Judith explained some of the elaborate ways these dangers were guarded against.

Lavish funerals ended with the Victorian era, probably hastened by the many First World War deaths. It became more common though to send flowers. Judith said that a common complaint through the ages has been the high costs of funerals.

The Cremation Act of 1902 led to fewer burials.  Judith told us that the first municipal crematorium was built in Hull. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that funeral directors with Chapels of Rest became common.  Before that the dead were kept at home prior to burial.

Today traditions are changing with the hearse sometimes gives way to more unusual forms of transport such as a motorbike with sidecar. As Judith showed, there is even a gravestone that has a QR barcode in place of engraved lettering.

The Prior Garry Sunley asked Sue Reeves to give the vote of thanks.  In her thanks to Judith she said we have all learnt from her deep and thorough research of this unusual topic.