Traditions and customs for funerals vary from culture to culture and from time to time. In early America, many communities had unique practices in honoring and burying their dead. A look at 1800s funeral customs will provide some understanding of traditions today, while giving a unique perspective on the lives and times of America's ancestors.
1800s Funeral Customs
There were several customs for funerals back in the 1800s that are much different than those today. Here are some examples of the differences.
Funerals in Deceased's Home
Funerals were held in the home of the deceased. They were open to the public rather than just for friends and family. The body would usually be displayed in the front parlor, but sometimes in the loved one's bedroom. As news of the death spread, people would stop by the home to pay their respects. If a funeral was held at a funeral parlor, it usually meant the person did not have enough family or friends to take care of the services.
Sitting With the Deceased
The loved ones of the deceased with sit with him or her during the day. Close friends would come over and sit with the body throughout the night. The belief was that someone had to be with the body, as a way to show continued respect and a way to ward off evil spirits.
Tradition has it that black crepe was attached to the wreaths, door, and porches as an announcement to neighbors and friends that the family was in mourning. Neighbors and others would respond with help, food, and condolences.
Small Flower Displays
The use of large displays of flowers at a funeral were rare. A wreath or small flower was sometimes hung on the front door of the home or the business were the individual worked. Often the body of a deceased woman was buried with a single flower in her hand.
Coffins were not used by early settlers. Instead a sheet often consisting of wool or linen dipped in wax, a blanket, or a quilt was used to wrap the body. The covering was usually supplied by women friends or family. The first coffins came in the later 1800s and were often carved-out hollow tree sections.
Understanding Some Unique Phrases and Practices
Some of the words and phrases that are heard and used today had their origins in the nineteenth century. Here are a few examples which heighten understanding.
Laying Out the Dead
Until the mid-1800s, most families cared for their own dead. They prepared, dressed, and displayed the loved one within their own homes. Many communities had a group of women who came in to help "laying out the dead." Proper families made sure they had a front room filled with their finest possessions, best furniture, portraits, and usually a piano. It was in this room that the body was displayed and the funeral service was often held. The caskets was made by hand, or purchased from the general store.
The formal room often had a false door that led directly to the outside of the home with no steps from outside with which to enter. This door was known as "death's door" for it was used to remove the casket and transport the body. It was considered improper to remove a body through the regular door where the living would enter.
The Civil War dramatically changed many of the practices for caring for the dead. Since so many were dying away from home on the battlefield, the families would want to retrieve the body and bring it home for a proper burial. In order to do so, the practice of embalming began to take place, allowing the shipment of the body over a long distance. Dr. Auguste Renouard, a physician in the United States, was one of the early leaders in the field.
During this time period, the family graveyard began giving way to the idea of local cemeteries. Many churches led the efforts in this regard, explaining the cemeteries next to churches today. The United States government established a number of military cemeteries to bury soldiers whose bodies were too damaged for recognition or shipment.
It was during this period of time that the Undertaker came into being. This individual would "undertake" the duty of preparing the body for funeral for the family. This quickly became an accepted practice as a way for families to take care of the dead.
In the 1800s, it was not always as easy to know if a person was really dead. During the days following a person's death, the body was closely observed for three days to make sure the person didn't wake from a deep sleep or illness before the funeral or burial. The term "wake" used today signifies the time period before burial to make sure the person was not going to wake up.
During the time when funeral homes hosted the wake and the funeral service, the family parlor became known as the "living room" because they were no longer used for displaying the dead.
Saved by the Bell
The expression "saved by the bell" is a common phrase that comes from these times. The deceased would be buried with a rope in their hand that was attached to a rope outside the grave. If the person in the coffin was found to be alive, he or she could ring the bell for help.
Widely Held 1800s Funeral Superstitions
During the days of the 1800s, many people believed significant superstitions concerning death, dying and the funeral process. Some examples of these kinds of widely-held opinions include the following.
All of the clocks in the house were to be stopped when the loved one died. It was believed that not stopping the clock would lead to bad luck.
Mirrors in the house were either covered or removed from the home during the wake and funeral. It was believed that if someone saw the reflection of the deceased in a mirror they also would die. Some believed that the soul of the loved one would get trapped inside the mirror and not be able to pass on to the other side.
If a body was removed from the home and taken to an undertaker for embalming, they were always removed feet first. The fear was that the dead might look back into the home and lure those present to join them in death.
Family photographs were turned face-down to prevent any close relatives or friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead. The belief was that dead would see someone they knew in the picture and would inhabit their body.
Changing Times and Traditions
Times and traditions around the world have changed since the 1800s funeral customs. Regardless of the time or the custom, the funeral answered the questions of what to do with the body; what type of ceremony would be used to honor and acknowledge the death, and how will this person be remembered.