Thursday, 7 June 2012

Dealings with the Dead - 1856

Project Gutenburg :

Dealings with the Dead, Volume I (of 2)
A Sexton of the Old School 
Boston 1856
Tombs are obviously more liable to invasion, with and without assistance, from the undertaker and his subalterns, than graves. There may be a few exceptions, where the sexton does not cooperate. If a grave be dug, in a suitable soil, of a proper depth, which is some feet lower than the usual measure, the body will, in all probability, remain undisturbed, for ages, and until corruption and the worm shall have done their work, upon flesh and blood, and decomposition is complete. An intelligent sexton, who keeps an accurate chart of his diggings, will eschew that spot. On the other hand, every coffin is exposed to view, when a tomb is opened for a new comer. On such occasions, we have, sometimes, full employment, in driving away idlers, who gather to the spot, to gratify a sickly curiosity, or to steal whatever may be available, however “sacred to the memory,” &c. The tomb is left open, for many hours, and, not infrequently, over night, the mouth perhaps slightly closed, but not secured against intruders. During such intervals, the dead are far less protected from insult, and the espionage of idle curiosity, than the contents of an ordinary toy-shop, by day or night. Fifty years ago, curiosity led me to walk down into a vault, thus left exposed. No person was near. I lifted the lid of a coffin—the bones had nearly all crumbled to pieces—the skull remained entire—I took it out, and, covering it with my handkerchief, carried it home. I have, at this moment, a clear recollection of the horror, produced in the mind of our old family nurse, by the exhibition of the skull, and my account of the manner, in which I obtained it. “What an awful thing it would be,” the dear, good soul exclaimed, “if the resurrection should come this very night, and the poor man should find his skull gone!” My mother was informed; and I was ordered to take it back immediately: it was then dark; and when I arrived at the tomb, in company with our old negro, Hannibal, to whom the office was in no wise agreeable, the vault was closed. I deposited the skull on the tomb, and walked home in double quick time, with my head over my shoulder, the whole way. I relate this occurrence, to show how motiveless such trespasses may be.

Rev. Edward William Dowell - Dunton
© Godric Godricson
There is a morbid desire, especially in women, which is rather difficult of analysis, to descend into the damp and dreary tomb—to lift the coffin lid—and look upon the changing, softening, corrupting features of a parent or child—to gaze upon the mouldering bones; and thus to gather materials, for fearful thoughts, and painful conversations, and frightful dreams!

A lady lost her child. It died of a disease, not perfectly intelligible to the doctor, who desired a post mortem examination, which the mother declined. He urged. She peremptorily refused. The child was buried in the Granary ground. A few months after, another member of the same family was buried in the same vault. The mother, notwithstanding the remonstrances of her husband, descended, to look upon the remains of her only daughter; and, after a careful search, returned, in the condition of Rachel, who would not be comforted, because it was not. In a twofold sense, it was not. The coffin and its contents had been removed. The inference was irresistible. The distress was very great, and fresh, upon the slightest allusion, to the end of life. Cases of premature sepulture are, doubtless, extremely rare. That such, however, have sometimes occurred, no doubt has been left upon the mind, upon the opening of tombs. These are a few only of many matters, which are destined, from time to time, to be brought to light, upon the opening of tombs, and which are not likely to disturb the feelings of those whose deceased relatives and friends are committed to well-made graves. On all these occasions, ignorance is bliss.


William Case - Dunton
© Godric Godricson

Tombs, not only such as are constructed under churches, but in common cemeteries, are frequently highly offensive, on the score of emanation. They are liable to be opened, for the admission of the dead, at all times; and, of course, when the worms are riotous, and corruption is rankest, and the pungent gases are eminently dangerous, and disgusting. Even when closed, the intelligible odour, arising from the dissolving processes, which are going on within, is more than living flesh and blood can well endure. Again and again, visitors at Mount Auburn have been annoyed, by this effluvium from the tombs. By the universal adoption of well-made graves, this also may be entirely avoided.

Phillip Mallett Case  (1771-1834)
Saint Peter's Church - Dunton
Tombs beneath the plaque
© Godric Godricson
When a family becomes, or is supposed to be, extinct, or has quitted the country, their dead kindred are usually permitted to lie in peace, in their graves. It is not always thus, if they have had the misfortune to be buried in tombs. To cast forth a dead tenant, from a solitary grave, that room might be found for a new  comer, would scarcely be thought of; but the temptation to seize five or six tombs, at once, for town’s account, on the pretext, that they were the tombs of extinct families, has, once, at least, proved irresistible, and led to an outrage, so gross and revolting, in this Commonwealth, that the whole history of cemeteries in our country cannot produce a parallel. In April, 1835, the board of health, in a town of this Commonwealth, gave notice, in a single paper, that certain tombs were dilapidated; that no representative of former owners could be found; and that, if not claimed and repaired, within sixty days, those tombs would be sold, to pay expenses, &c. In fulfilment of this notice, in September following, the entire contents of five tombs were broken to pieces, and shovelled out. In one of these tombs there were thirty coffins, the greater part of which were so sound, as to be split with an axe. A portion of the silver plate, stolen by the operatives employed by the board of health, was afterwards recovered, bearing date, as recently as 1819. The board of health then advertised these tombs for sale, in two newspapers. Nothing of these brutal proceedings was known to the relatives, until the deed of barbarity was done. Now it can scarcely be credited, that, in that very town, a few miles from it, and in this city, there were then living numerous descendants, and relatives of those, whose tombs had thus been violated. Some of the dead, thus insulted, had been the greatest benefactors of that town, so much so, that a narrative of their donations has been published, in pamphlet form. Among the direct descendants were some of the oldest and most distinguished families of this city, whose feelings were severely tried by this outrage. The ashes of the dead are common property. The whole community bestirs itself in their defence. The public indignation brought those stupid and ignorant officials to confession and atonement, if not to repentance. They passed votes of regret; replaced the ashes in proper receptacles within the tombs; and put them in order, at the public charge.

Burials in tombs under the altar

© Godric Godricson
A meagre and miserable atonement, for an injury of this peculiar nature; and, though gracelessly accorded,—extorted by the stringency of public sentiment, and the fear of legal process,—yet, on the whole, the only satisfaction, for a wrong of this revolting and peculiar character. The insecurity of tombs is sufficiently apparent. An empty tomb may be attached by creditors; but, by statute of Mass., 1822, chap. 93, sec. 8, it cannot be, while in use, as a cemetery. But no law, of man or nature, can prevent the disgusting effects, and mortifying casualties, and misconstructions of power, which have arisen, and will forever continue to arise, from the miserable practice of burying the dead, in tombs.

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