Beliefs and customs surrounding death are well documented at all periods and most social levels. Historical and literary writings amply describe those of the educated classes, while folklorists recorded any beliefs or practices among the 'folk' which were not part of official religion, or which struck them as differing from middle-class norms in an archaic or picturesque way. There is almost invariably a section on death and *fimerals in books on regional folklore, where the customs described vary very little; quotations illustrating the 'superstitious' beliefs can be conveniently found in Opie and Tatem (1989) under the relevant headwords.
   Formerly, it was widely believed (and to some extent still is) that *dreams and *omens provide forewarnings of death, for oneself or another; there was a great variety of the latter, mostly drawn from the behaviour of animals and birds, or from simple household occurrences such as a picture falling, sudden creaking or rapping sounds, and so on. For the bereaved, such events hold great emotional significance, which may, paradoxically, be comforting; they suggest that death is part of a destined plan, not a mere accident. Also, until fairly recent times, there was a strong religious emphasis on the value of a 'good death', i.e. one fully prepared for, as opposed to a swift and sudden one; in this context, forewarnings were a blessing.
   It was believed that certain things would ease, and others hinder, the process of dying. In many parishes, a church *bell was rung as death drew near, the purpose of this 'Passing Bell' being to remind people to pray for the dying; in earlier times, it would also have been thought to drive away demons. An ebbing *tide and a waning *moon hastened death, but a pillow stuffed with *feathers of pigeons or wild birds made it painfully slow, and should be removed. If the *bed stood across the floorboards, rather than parallel to them, this too prolonged the agony, and it should be shifted. There are several references in folklore collections to relatives helping someone who was dying 'hard' by jerking the pillow away, lifting him out of bed and on to the floor, or even throttling him with tape, but some seem suspect, since they all end with the same words: 'He went off like a lamb'. A more detailed account comes from the Fens, and refers to the late 19th century; the village nurse would speed death by laying the dying man's head on a special black pillow, making him unconscious with opium and gin, and then jerking the pillow away (Porter, 1958: 119).
   As soon as death occurred, doors and windows must be opened, to give the soul free passage; in Warwickshire the main door of the house remained ajar, night and day, until the funeral, because the deceased's spirit is still nearby, and must be able to enter or leave at will (N&Q 170 (1936), 231). Some people also put out the *fire and stopped the *clocks, presumably to mark the transition from time to eternity. A common custom of the 19th century was to turn *mirrors and pictures to the wall, or cover them with cloth; this was usually said to be for fear that someone looking into them should see the ghost, or the corpse, reflected there.
   Until well into the 20th century, people normally died at home, where the corpse spent the interval between death and the *funeral. The laying-out, which was done by hired women (often midwives), involved washing the body, closing its eyelids and weighting them with pennies until they stiffened, holding the mouth shut by a bandage beneath the chin, and tying the feet together. The washing was symbolic as well as practical; in 1980 a Suffolk woman explained, 'the washing is so that you're spotless to meet the Lamb of God' (Richardson, 1987: 19). The body would then be dressed in a shroud and white stockings, or stitched into a winding-sheet; in both cases, the face remained visible until just before burial. Sprigs of *rosemary, *yew, *box, or *rue were often tucked into the shroud; flowers might also be displayed in wealthier households. A more curious custom was to lay a pewter dish of *salt on the breast of the corpse, or beneath the bed where it lay; occasionally, a piece of turf might be used instead (Leather, 1912: 120; Burne, 1883: 299).
   This was said to prevent the corpse swelling.
   From medieval times to the early 18th century, it was usually considered essential, as a mark of respect, that the body should never be left alone in the room, even for a few moments, or be left in the dark; after that period, the custom gradually weakened among the upper classes, but country people and urban poor still often observed it. It was called 'watching' the dead, and required only one or two people to sit quietly near the corpse; it is not the same as the lively social *wake, which is rare in English tradition. On the other hand, 'viewing' the dead was common - indeed, almost obligatory - for both adults and children until the 1920s and 1930s; those who had known the deceased came to offer condolences to the family, and spend a few moments looking at the body, usually also touching or kissing it; this would ease grief, and ensure that one would not dream of, or be haunted by, the dead person.
   The effect, however, was not always soothing. A contributor to N&Q in 1914 remembered being taken 'as a frightened child' to view a body in a Derbyshire village. It was laid out with its feet on a Bible, a sprig of box in its folded hands, and a plate of salt on a green turf on its breast:
   Round the chin was a white cloth tied in a knot on the top of its head, and the 'laying-out woman' was in the act of laying two penny-pieces on the eyelids; but she could not make them keep in position. This frightened me most of all, for the right eye seemed to be glaring at me; and the woman said to the rest in the room, 'He's lowkin' fer th'next un.' (N&Q 11s:11 (1914), 296-7)
   See also *burial, irregular, *funerals, *sin-eating, * wakes2.
   There is an excellent summary of this subject in Richardson, 1987: 3-29. See also Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 126-31; Puckle, 1926; Clare Gittings, Death, Burial and the Individual (1984); Litten, 1991: 143-52.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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