Thursday, 23 July 2009

17th Century Funeral Practices

Funeral Procession of Charles I

Undertaking as a profession was virtually unknown in Europe before the 17th century. Some European cities demanded funerals simply in the name of religion, while in others it was the name of sanitation, and many funeral customs were based on pagan rituals.

• Mourning clothes were worn as a disguise so that returning spirits would fail to recognize mourners and thus confused, overlook them.
• Pagan tribes believed that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth. They would often hold the mouth and nose of a sick person shut, hoping to retain the spirits and delay death. This may often have had the opposite effect.
• Wakes originated from the custom of keeping watch over the deceased in the hope that life would return.
• Feasting after a funeral began as offerings of food being made to appease spirits after a death.
• The ringing of bells and lighting of candles is to protect the living from returning spirits.
• The firing of a rifle volley over the deceased mirrors the tribal practice of throwing spears into the air to ward off spirits hovering over the deceased.
• Originally, holy water was sprinkled on the body to protect it from the demons.
• Floral offerings were originally intended to gain favour with the spirit of the deceased.

In the 17th Century, a passing bell was rung for the dead or dying: Nine rings for a man, six rings for a woman and three rings for a child - followed by one ring for each year of the deceased life.

A ‘searcher’, a person of ‘suitable moral standing’, was summoned to decide the cause of death. As they were not qualified in medicine, many suspicious deaths must have gone unnoticed. Details, including the cause of death, were recorded in the Bills of Mortality published for public record. Post Mortems were considered taboo. As it was believed little could be determined from them and to cut up a body was merely to satisfy the morbid interests of physicians, who were often equally suspect.

The house where the deceased lay until the funeral was draped with heavy black mourning cloths. All windows, mirrors, even bowls of water, were covered to prevent reflective surfaces from attracting the spirit of the dead and keeping him earthbound. Jewellery was hidden away and non shiny fabrics used for mourning clothes.

In 1660, King Charles II passed a law intending to promote the English wool trade that decreed all persons had to be buried in 'shifts, shrouds and winding sheets' made of woollen material, rather than linen, and free from ‘Flax, Hemp, Silk, Hair, Gold or Silver or other than what is made of Sheep’s Wool’. This Act, strengthened in 1678, remained on the statute books until 1815, although the very wealthy would prefer to pay the £5.00 for default as it was considered ill-bred to ‘bury in flannel’. Most people would buy highly taxed Irish linen instead. The shroud or winding sheet had to be made in one piece of material, tied and knotted at the head and feet, but not sewn.

Most coffins were of black painted oak, the interior covered with a thick layer of bran to soak up bodily fluids and to reduce the smell, especially in the summer. The deceased would lay in an open coffin, in a black draped room lit by candles.
Embalming was sometimes carried out, but this wasn’t common practice and mostly among the rich. In the case of Queen Mary II, who died of smallpox on Christmas Eve 1694, at the age of 32, this would have been necessary as she wasn’t interred in Westminster Abbey until March 6th 1695.

Funeral Cards to inform friends and relatives of the time and place of the funeral were sent out. Made of pasteboard with black edges, they bore illustrations of gravestones, skeletons and other gruesome images. In the 17th Century, this was not intended to be morbid or grotesque, but to remind the living that this is what mankind comes to, and that death was a serious business.

Wealthier families distributed mourning rings among friends and family, bearing the name of the deceased and the date of death engraved on them. Worn for up to a year after the death, these were usually fashioned from black enamel for the men and gold with a black band for the ladies.

On a mourning ring crafted as a memento of the Martyr King, Charles I, the inscription says, ’prepared be to follow me’.

Silk crepe scarves were handed out to the gentlemen to be worn on their hatbands for weeks after the funeral. Depending on the closeness of the deceased, some would tie these to their upper arms after a certain time had passed.

All members of a gentleman’s household, including the servants, were expected to wear full mourning for at least three months, bought at the expense of the deceased’s family. Wives could change into purple and white after six months, but some liked to wait for a year.


The funeral party walked behind a cart bearing the coffin to the burial site. Even Queen Mary's mourners walked to the Abbey, apparently an uncomfortable journey as there was snow on the ground and Westminster Abbey was unheated.

The ceremony was often carried out at night, supposedly to emphasise the seriousness of death, with the carrying of hundreds of torches. This also became an arena for the display of wealth, the larger the cortege and the more torches they had to line the walk, the richer the family.

Funeral accoutrements were very expensive and usually hired. A pall for the coffin, heavy silver candlesticks, the ornaments on the cart, even the handles on the coffin were rarely bought. Some of the torchbearers were not family at all, but security guards hired to protect these expensive items, there being a roaring trade in stolen palls and candlesticks.

If the family could afford it, the deceased had their own burial plot, even a tomb where other family members lay. In London cemeteries, space was at a premium and multiple burials were not uncommon. When the multiple plot was full, the grave would be covered and a new plot opened. Guards would be employed to ensure no one dug up a newly buried coffin to steal the deceased’s jewellery and clothes.

The tradition of returning to the deceased’s home for refreshment is an old one, although in the 17th Century this was for ‘wine and biscuits’. As with modern wakes, these sometimes deteriorated into drunken brawls when mourners imbibed too much of the free spirits on offer.

Acknowledgements to Maureen Waller and her book, 1700-Scenes of London Life