Monday, July 4, 2016

Weird Burials, article in Chamber's Journal 1877

Weird Burials, article in Chamber's Journal 1877

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In all times and countries there have been queer notions about burial. We here offer to our readers a few instances of this kind of eccentricity.

Mr Wilkinson, one of the founders of the iron manufacture in Great Britain, loved iron so well that he resolved to carry it to the grave with him. He had himself buried in his garden in an iron coffin, over which was an iron tomb of twenty tons' weight. In order to make all right and secure, he caused the coffin and tomb to be constructed while he was yet alive; he delighted to shew them to his friends and visitors—possibly more to his pleasure than theirs. But there were sundry little tribulations to encounter. When he died, it was found that the coffin was too small; he was temporarily laid in the ground while a new one was made; when buried, it was decided that the coffin was too near the surface, and it was therefore transferred to a cavity dug in a rock; lastly, when the estate was sold many years afterwards, the family directed the coffin to be transferred to the churchyard. Thus Mr Wilkinson had the exceptional honour of being buried three or four times over. Mr Smiles tells us that, in 1862, a man was living who had assisted at all these interments. Mr Wilkinson was quite pleased to make presents of iron coffins to any friends who wished to possess such mementos of death and iron. In a granite county such as Cornwall, it is not surprising to read that the Rev. John Pomeroy, of St Kew, was buried in a granite coffin which he had caused to be made.

Some persons have had a singular taste for providing their coffins long beforehand, and keeping them as objects pleasant to look at, or morally profitable as reminders of the fate of all, or useful for everyday purposes until the last and solemn use supervenes. A slater in Fifeshire, about forty years ago, made his own coffin, decorated it with shells, and displayed it among other fancy shell-work in a room he called his grotto. Another North Briton, a cartwright, made his own coffin, and used it for a long time to hold his working tools; it was filled with sliding shelves, and the lid turned upon hinges. It is said that many instances are met with in Scotland of working men constructing their own coffins 'in leisure hours.' Alderman Jones of Gloucester, about the close of the seventeenth century, had his coffin and his monument constructed beforehand; not liking the shape of the nose carved on his effigy on the latter, he had a new one cut—just in time, for he died immediately after it was finished. One John Wheatley of Nottingham bought a coffin, and filled it with clove cordial; but he brought himself into bad repute by getting drunk too frequently, for his coffin became to him a sort of dram-shop. A young navy surgeon, who accompanied the Duke of Clarence (afterwards King William IV.) when he first went to sea as a royal middy, rose in after-life to an important position at Portsmouth; he had a favourite boat converted into a coffin, with the stern-piece fixed at its head, and kept it under his bed for many years. A married couple in Prussia provided themselves with coffins beforehand, and kept them in a stable, where they were utilised as cupboards for the reception of various kinds of food; but the final appropriation of the coffins was marked by a singular contre-temps. The man died; the widow packed the contents of both coffins into one; while the body was deposited in the other. By some mishap, the coffin full of eatables was lowered into the grave. Next day the widow opening the lid of the (supposed) cupboard, was scared at finding the dead body of her husband. Of course the interment had to be done all over again, with an interchange of coffins.

The custom of being buried in an erect position has been frequently carried out. Ben Jonson was buried upright in Westminster Abbey, a circumstance which gave occasion for the following lines in the Ingoldsby Legends:

Even rare Ben Jonson, that famous wight,
I am told is interred there bolt upright,
In just such a posture, beneath his bust,
As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.

Military heroes have in more cases than one been buried by their men in upright positions on the battle-field, sometimes lance or spear in hand. One such was found at the Curragh of Kildare; on opening an earthen tumulus, the skeleton of an old Irish chieftain was seen upright, with a barbed spear in or near one hand.

It is of course quite easy to bury in an upright posture, by setting up the coffin on end; but where, as in many recorded instances, the body is placed in sitting posture, coffins were of necessity inadmissible. When the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa opened the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle, he found the body of the great man seated on a kind of throne, as if alive, clad in imperial robes, bearing his sceptre in one hand and a copy of the Bible on his knees. At Shoreditch churchyard, some years ago, a tomb could be seen from the high-road, placed there by a quack doctor named Dr John Gardiner. Or rather it was a high head-stone, with an inscription denoting that the inclosed spot was his 'last and best bedroom;' he had the tomb and the inscription prepared some years before his death, and was (so rumour stated) buried in a sitting posture; but on this last point the evidence is not clear.

Some folks have been buried with a mere apology for a coffin. Such was the fate of Mrs Fisher Dilke, during the time of the Commonwealth. Her husband, Mr Dilke, did not seem to regard her remains as deserving of a very high expenditure. He caused a coffin to be made from boards which lined his barn. He bargained with a sexton to make a grave in the churchyard for one groat; two groats cheaper than if it had been in the church. He invited eight neighbours to act as bearers, for whom he provided three twopenny cakes and a bottle of claret. He read a chapter of Job to them while all was being got ready; then the cakes and wine were partaken of, and the body carried to the churchyard; they put her in the grave, each threw in a spadeful of earth; and the bereaved husband and his neighbours retraced their steps. Another instance of an apology for coffins was that near Horsham, in an old mansion which had been a nunnery; when, on one occasion, the kitchen floor was taken up, there were found twelve skeletons all in a row, each between two planks; they were supposed to have been nuns.

And some folks have been buried without any coffin at all. A military officer, some half-century or so ago, directed by his will that his body should be opened by medical men, bound round with cere-cloth, and interred without a coffin in a particular part of his park. Acorns were to be sown on the spot, the most promising plant from which was to be allowed to grow there, 'in order,' as he said, 'that his remains might be useful in nourishing a sturdy British oak.' He left a legacy to his gardener to weed and water the plant. A goodly-sized oak-tree now marks the spot. This reminds one of the strange burial, or rather absence of burial, in the case of Jeremy Bentham, the celebrated jurist and philosopher. In accordance with his will, a head of wax was affixed to his skeleton (after dissection); the figure was stuffed to the proper size, and clad in Bentham's own garments; he was placed seated in his own arm-chair, with his own walking-stick in one hand. A wag made a very whimsical anagram out of this, by simply transposing two letters in Jeremy Bentham's name—'Jeer my bent ham.'

Miscellaneous instances crowd upon us of burial without coffins. There is a parish in the Isle of Thanet the register of which contains entries of eightpence for burying in a coffin, and sixpence without a coffin; and in the register of an adjoining parish (more than two centuries back), eightpence 'in a coffined grave,' and sixpence 'in a sheet.' About a century ago, in Dorset, a gentleman directed that his uncoffined remains should be buried ten feet deep in a particular field lying near his house, and the field to be then thoroughly ploughed over, as if to obliterate him as completely as could well be the case. The family of the St Clairs of Rosslyn were for many generations (the men at anyrate) buried without coffins. The latest of such burials took place towards the close of the seventeenth century. When the vault was next opened, the body of Sir William St Clair was seen lying in his armour with a red velvet cap on his head; nothing was decayed but a part of the white fur-edging to the cap. In some parts of Ireland it was at one time customary to carry the body to the grave-side in a coffin, upon which the body was taken out and reverently deposited in the earth. There was one Augustinian abbey graveyard in particular, near Enniscorthy, in which certain families were generally buried in this fashion, the graves being scrupulously prepared with boards, earth, sods, and grass. It is said that the Superior of the first Cistercian abbey founded in England since the Reformation lies buried in this fashion in the chapter-house of the abbey in one of the midland counties. Mr Thomas Cooke, a merchant who had well befriended Morden College, Blackheath, directed that his body should be buried in a winding-sheet, minus coffin, in the college grounds.

And as some people have been buried without coffins, so have there been instances of coffins buried without people. Fraud, more or less, may be suspected in such cases. About a dozen years ago the death of a foreigner was entered in the register of an Essex parish on the faith of a medical certificate, apparently authentic; a coffin was bought; and a grave ordered to be dug in a Roman Catholic graveyard. The funeral, or a funeral, took place, all in decent order. A few weeks afterwards a claim was put in by the widow for a hundred thousand francs, due from an insurance office. The (alleged) deceased was known to have been a fugitive fraudulent bankrupt. The aid of the detective police being obtained, the grave and coffin were opened, and—no corpse was there. The rascal had made out the certificate of his own death, ordered his own grave and coffin, and followed his own coffin to its last home as chief mourner!

With or without coffins, many persons have been buried in spots other than churchyards or graveyards; such, for instance, as in their own gardens, farms, parks, or plantations. There is a family residence in Northamptonshire marked by the singularity of having a coffin placed as it were a table in a summer-house. Sir William Temple, before his death in 1700, ordered his heart to be inclosed in a silver casket, and buried under a sun-dial in his own garden at Moor Park, opposite a particular window. Where the body was interred we have no record. William Liberty, a brickmaker in Herts, was buried in a tomb constructed by himself at the side of a lonely footpath across a field; and room was afterwards found in the same tomb for his widow. Sir James Tillie, of Pentillie Castle, Cornwall, was at his own desire laid under a tower in a summer-house in a favourite part of his park. Baskerville the printer was buried under a windmill near his garden; a dancing-master in a plantation near Macclesfield; a barrister beneath a tower which he had built at Leith Hill, Surrey; a Yorkshire squire in his own shrubbery, 'because he had passed some of the happiest hours of his life there;' a shepherd of the Chiltern Hills on the chalky slopes of the hills themselves, with an inscription cut in the grassy covering. The wish of a captain in Cromwell's army to bury his favourite charger in the churchyard of Houghton-le-Spring, was frustrated; whereupon he had it buried in his own orchard, and left orders that he himself was to be buried by the side of the horse. The editor of a Newcastle journal was buried in his own garden; and a Northumbrian gentleman under a tomb in his own orchard. K├Ârner, the German soldier-poet who fell at Gadebusch, was buried on the spot under an old oak; and many military men have found a similar resting-place.

Many queer stories are extant, resting, however, on tolerably good authority, of bodies being left unburied, or in some way or other kept above-ground, in the hope of cunningly defeating some law or other. The old stage-coachmen on the Great North Road, when driving through Stevenage, were wont to point to a barn in which the body of a former owner, Mr Trigg, was kept; it was inclosed in lead, and placed upon a beam of the roof. The gossips of the neighbourhood had two theories to explain this. One was to the effect that Trigg had expressed a desire that his body should be kept there 'until the day of judgment;' the other, that he believed he would return to life again thirty years after his death, and left his property subject to this contingency. He died in 1721. After the thirty years his representatives 'gave him three days' grace,' then buried him, and finally disposed of his property. Just about a century ago, a legacy of twenty-five pounds a year was left to a woman 'so long as she remained above-ground.' Her husband, on her death, put a crafty interpretation on these words; he rented a small room in a neighbour's house, and kept the body there in a coffin during the long period of nineteen years, receiving the annuity because the woman was still 'above-ground.' A gentleman, rather earlier in the same century, left orders that, when dead, he should be placed in a coffin perched up on end in a cellar. He had bequeathed all his property to charitable uses, and had a notion that his relatives would try to defy the will unless his body were kept unburied; that is, not actually interred in the ground.

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