This page was created May 8, 2004

In many ways, I feel that the funerals of yesteryear were a bit more caring and a bit more family and community oriented then they are today.

In the days before the embalming process became a standard practice, the deceased was kept and shown in the home.

Although there were many varied practices, most of them were fairly common across the board. Normally either a neighbor or other family member would do the washing and dressing of the body. It was then placed on what was called a cooling board, until rigor mortis set it.

The dressing that the deceased wore normally had a standard dictate of the day. Women were most commonly buried in white. This could be something that they had previously had made especially for this event (a not uncommon practice), or it could simply be their best dress at the time. Men were most commonly dressed in just their best dress suit that they wore to church. Children were normally buried in white. If the deceased had no decent clothing, someone in the community would provide some.

The deceased was then displayed or laid in one of the rooms of the home for neighbors and friends to visit and view. This was most commonly the living room or parlor. The length of time varied with the family, however, it did take into consideration a couple of other factors.

The time of the year

During the summer or hotter months, the body could not be kept as long

Sometimes the nature of the death dictated no viewing at all

Diseases such as cholera, yellow fever and others instilled fear and necessitated immediate burials

Some other things were common practice also, such as "sitting up with the dead". This practice was normally performed by two or more neighbors who would remain with the body until the time that they took it to the church or cemetery.

Relatives who lived away from the community were informed of the death as quickly as possible- sometimes by the means of a letter edged with a black border.

In earlier times, people showed their genuine sympathy, respect and love for the family of the deceased. People traveled great distances in wagons and on horseback to attend wakes, help dig and fill the grave, make the coffin, wash and dress the body and to help the family in any way that was needed.

Neighbor women were in attendance at the home of the family of the deceased. They cooked and cleaned to relieve the family of these chores during this time. It was also considered a common practice for persons to return to the home for visiting or a "wake" of sorts; and with the above practice there was food for the visitors.

The neighbor men also performed various tasks for the family. There were no hard and fast set rules, but for the most part the men attended to the everyday chores for the family and a couple of them went to the cemetery to dig the grave itself. In many communities this was considered a position of honor to be able to do this for a family. Digging and filling the graves was considered to be a sacred act reserved for special friends or neighbors of the deceased.

Depending on the size of a community, everyone normally attended the funerals. The church bell would toll out the age of a person, this would many times let persons know just who had died by knowing the age of someone. In those days communities were closer and most persons knew exactly who was deathly ill.

The Coffin

As mentioned before, the length of time that a body laid in the home was determined by a number of factors. It was hoped that family members who had to come some distance were able to get there in time.

Materials for the coffin were made according to the economic situations of the family. The rich of course having very elaborate styling with a more expensive kind of wood. The poor or "not so rich" normally had coffins of pine or another cheaper form of wood. The most standard woods were poplar, pine, oak or chestnut.

The local carpenter was the most logical choice to make the coffin. Many of the kept lumber on hand already seasoned for this purpose. After the creation of the coffin, they would make them black with either jet oil or shoe shine. Occasionally a request was put in before death by the deceased that the coffin be of the simplest pine with no adornments and no painting. Some of these men performed this task free of charge, especially in the case of an infant. Others only charged for ornate items such as handles or a copperplate on the top.

The coffin was most commonly lined with either a broadcloth, and at other times with a white linen or satin. This was padded underneath with a white cotton material. Some were simply padded with wood shavings.

The Burial

As with much else in the earlier days, the transport to the church or cemetery was determined by the economics of the family.

If the family were rich or affluent no expense was spared in the transport using an elaborately decorated conveyance that was black with many trimmings and led by fine horses also elaborately decked out.

The average family however, used a wagon owned by the family. This was led by steers owned also by the family or by mules. The service itself was sometimes held in the home but more often in the church. On the morning appointed the coffin was placed into the wagon and taken to the church. A slow pace was used to transport them to the church. As the procession was seen to be approaching the church they would start ringing the bell slowly until the deceased had been brought into the church. The preacher was there as well as two men who would seat everyone. In those days, preachers never charged for a funeral as they do today.

Services were simple and lasted from half an hour to an hour. Then the body was viewed one last time and then taken to the grave. As friends and family were taken past the coffin to view it, the procession normally began with friends first and the family last; the family being divided into the closest being the last to view. For example, a brother would go first and a mother would go last.

In the early days as today there were pall bearers at the funeral. There were also in attendance particulars singers from the church. It is not uncommon to read a card of thanks in the local papers thanking this or that singer for attending the funeral and performing this service.

The pallbearers were normally men in the community who had known the deceased. Other times if the deceased was a young child or school aged person their friends would stand in attendance to provide this service- in some instances school teachers or principals performed this service also.

One addition not used today was what was known as "flower girls". Flowers girls were young girls or women who rode in a separate wagon to the church or graveside and moved whatever flowers there were from the home to the wagon and then into the church or to the graveside. Flower arrangements of the day were never professionally designed as they are today of course. They were gathered by the visitors from their own gardens and brought with them to the viewing or the church.

Many older persons feel that today's practice of taking a person to the funeral parlor and then just leaving them alone is a very uncaring practice. Some have been known to be most offended by a funeral director when told that they needed to leave the funeral home at night when it closed. They share the opinion that leaving the deceased alone shows a great lack of respect for them and for the family.


Debbie Jennings

Website Coordinator