From as far back as anyone can remember we have always had one constant in life. That is that no matter what, at some point we will all face death and our bodies must be dealt with. Throughout history there have been many ways of handling the dead and it can vary depending on religion, culture and the economy.
In America we have dealt with many different traditions throughout history of putting our loved ones to their final rest. These changes have shown that as time passes so does our views on how we see priority in dealing with our dead.
In the mid eighteen hundreds it was customary to have a loved one build a cheap coffin usually made of pine. A family member would then have the body washed and dressed. The family would gather and the body would be taken in a wagon pulled by a mule to a small cemetery or family plot near the house.
They would gather to say a few words, give their goodbyes and would go back to work right after. Before embalming became a tradition in the nineteen hundreds, many sad situations arose where people were buried alive on occasion. To prevent this from happening strings were tied to the hands and feet of the body and attached to a bell atop the grave site so that if they awoke they could alert others.
By the early nineteenth century most funerals took place in the home. The living room would be arranged and laid out so that the coffin would be in a good viewing place. Visitors would be expected to stop and pay their respects to the deceased. It was tradition for black to be worn in respect to the dead and a widow would wear a white collar to distinguish her from the rest of the family.
The body would then be removed through a back door or hidden door. It was a common thought that the living entered the home from the front and so the dead would only be allowed to exit out the back. Bodies were also removed from the home feet first, this would done because it was believed that the spirit could not turn around and encourage others to follow.
Mirrors were also covered in black fabric to prevent the spirit of the deceased from having their soul trapped. This is also the time when embalming became a much used practice, though it is not required by law in every state in America.
Though the above was custom throughout our history in the United States, such burials were not always the case. Mass grave sites are a common practice in the past when there is an overwhelming amount of illness or plague. Sometimes it was done because of convenience or lack of money.
Whichever the case it in no doubt made it next to impossible for loved ones to claim their deceased family members.
Hart Island, a tiny half mile area on Long Island South in New York is one such place. It is known as the United States largest mass grave and has been closed off to the public for nearly two decades. During the civil war it was used as a mass grave site for the imprisoned confederates who passed away on the island.
Harts Island is also used to bury the city’s poor and unknown dead. Inmates from Riker’s island are paid to stack wooden boxes and build crosses made of twigs to offer the dead buried there. It is much like a potter’s field; graves are stacked upon one another and filled in with no identification markers as to who each person is. It is estimated that over one million people are buried at Hart’s Island in mass grave sites.
Any unclaimed body is sent to the island for burial and it is off limits to the public.
In New Orleans bodies are buried above ground in tombs and crypts because of sea levels. In the early seventeen hundreds French settlers who first came to the New Orleans, lay the first corner stone to what is now know as the French quarter. When the Mississippi overflows it floods the city and cemetery.
Corpses would rise to the surface and float through the streets causing sanitation problems. In the early eighteen hundreds tombs were built and bodies were placed above ground to prevent issues with flooding. Because of lack of space, tombs are made to house many corpses, up to three hundred in most cases.
After a year coffins are moved to an underground receiving vault in the chambers foundation to make room for new deceased.
In the early nineteenth century post-mortem photography became a very common practice. Many people passed away due to illness and disease, small children and infants especially had a high mortality rate in the Victorian era. Families would pose with the corpse of their loved one because it was for many, the only way they may ever have a photo of their child or of them all together as a family.
Post-mortem photographs became keepsakes that were treasured and later shared with relatives and other family members. When viewing post-mortem photographs you will notice small children posed in a crib, positioned as though sleeping and often having another family member pose with them.
Now in the twenty first century it is more known to have elaborate funerals that tailor in showing the remembrance of the person’s life while on earth. We focus on music, pick out specific outfits, coffins that cost thousands of dollars, slide shows of portraits are played and families gather to eat and reminisce on the past.
In some instances people will even throw parties in honor of the deceased. Many Americans now plan out their out funerals in advanced choosing custom made coffins that can be in some instances to the very extreme.
Cremation is also becoming much more popular and is a more cost effective way in replace of burials. Many funeral parlors now offer cremation services with ashes placed in an urn for families to either keep in their homes or spread ashes in their loved ones favorite spots.
This practice became well known and commonly used in the latter half of the nineteenth century. While some choose burial or cremation, others are choosing to decrease the hassle and dedicate their bodies to science for research. Medical students will examine and study the bodies and then dispose of the remains when studies are complete.
When considering religious practices with funeral customs it is common for Christians to place their dead when buried with their feet facing the east so that they can see the sun rise on judgment day.
Catholics have three stages for their deceased, a prayer, funeral mass and prayer for absolution. The body is then taken to the burial ground where the body is sprinkled with holy water, the tomb is blessed and a final prayer is given. All religions have their own specific traditions with how the deceased is put to rest.
No matter the situation or how much time has passed, there is no doubt that while many burials were done in ways to avoid dealing with the deceased. History has shown that we memorialize our dead and our traditions are meant to show remembrance to our loved ones and help them move on to the next stage of life after death, which ever that may be.