Scott County Historical Society
Scott County, Virginia

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Mildred McConnell's Scrapbook Articles

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Old Time Burial Customs

By DAWN SCOTT
Herald-Virginian Staff Writer

     We took the white curtains off the windows and placed them in the little casket. We washed the baby and put it in the casket. We had to use one of the curtains to wrap the body for burial.

     "You see, the curtains was all we had to wrap the baby in or line the casket with."

     This poignant recollection was told by a Scott County woman concerning the death of a neighbor child and her part in the preparation of the deceased for burial. This took place at a time when the caskets were either home made or purchased from general stores.

     It is from various accounts that this article was written. The hardships caused by death and the ritualistic burial customs of the mountain people give an insight into a way of life that once existed in our area.

     The old time burial customs, are in the most part, very different from the burial customs of today. However, we in Scott County are somewhat reluctant to give in completely to the more modern ideas.

     In many cases it is necessary to conform, but the kindness and concern for oneís neighbors and friends still exist among the people of Scott County.

     Regretfully, sympathetic feeling have diminished with the years for most; but fortunately, a large number of people in our area seem to cling to some of their old fashioned ways.

     Long ago it was left up to the family and friends of the deceased to prepare the dead for burial, also to dress and bury them.

     In most rural areas this was the accepted way to deal with death.

     As a rule the deceased were washed; dressed in their best and coins were placed over their eyes to keep them closed.

     They dressed the body as soon as possible before rigor mortis set in.

     It has been told when rigor mortis began some people have actually heard bones cracking and breaking. Sometimes the dead would actually move when their bodies began to stiffen.

     According to one lady, a cloth was placed over the face of the dead person and a solution of soda and water was poured over the cloth to keep the face of the dead from darkening. She said they also use aspirin and water.

     The coffin was either ordered or was built by a neighbor. The coffin was usually very simply constructed. Some were covered with fabric while others were made of undressed wood.

     When a death occurred in the neighborhood, a bell was rung at the church. In some communities the bell tolled one time for each year the person had lived.

     At the tolling of the church bell, the community would gather to help. The men would dig the grave and women cooked food for the deceasedís family.

     After the body was placed in the casket, the neighbors, friends and family held a ritual that was called "setting up with the dead." This most generally took place at the home of the deceased.

     Several of the neighbors would always stay with the family over night to help in any way they could.

     The burial took place in about two days. Since the bodies were not embalmed, it was necessary to inter the dead as soon as possible.

     The funeral was very simple. Sometimes it was held at the home of the deceased, but more often, the funeral took place at a church.

     There were no large wreaths of flowers sent like is the custom today, but a few flowers might be placed in the hands of a lady or possibly adorned the casket of a small child. The wreaths that were used were handmade of greenery gathered from pines and fir trees and tied to form a circle. If a death occurred when flowers were in season, the flowers were wired to cardboard to form a wreath. In many instances, flowers were fashioned from crepe paper then coated with wax.

     Children were often dressed in white for burial and adults were dressed in black. Sometimes the dead were dressed in cloth that had been table covers or curtains like the woman spoke of at the beginning of the article.

     There are many incidents recorded that give accounts of people being buried alive. Once when it was not mandatory for the dead to be embalmed, many were interred that were mistakenly buried alive.

     Periodically, people that were in comatose or had suffered sever strokes or had an epileptic seizure were mistakenly pronounced dead and buried alive.

     These unfortunate people would sometimes awaken or recover soon after burial. After being buried for a period of only a few moments they would awaken to realize that they had been buried alive.

     There are many stories that are truly horrifying. Cases have been reported in which the buried have been known to claw the tips off their fingers while trying to escape from their coffins.

     Bodies that have been exhumed for relocation or for some other reason have shown evidence of having been alive when buried. A few bodies have actually been found in which the presumed dead had turned over face down in their caskets after burial.

     Some unusual burials have also taken place in history. One plantation owner was buried standing erect in the grave. He requested to be buried in this fashion so he could "keep watch over the slaves."

     Being very superstitious at that time, the slaves worked on very hard even after their masterís death, fearing that his ghost was still over-seeing the plantation.

     Occasionally, Indians were buried astride their horses. They wished to be buried with their horses, dogs and hunting weapons in order to prepare for the "happy hunting ground."

Getting back to a more conventional type of burial, a native of Scott County recalls for us her memories of some funerals she attended as a small girl in the Hiltons area where she grew up.

     Frances Thomas Robinette: "I donít remember all the details about the first funeral I attended.

     "I do remember that they closed the dead manís eyes with fifty cent pieces. After a person had died they rang the bell at Mount Vernon Church."

     "Harem Larkey, the man who took care of the church was a good Christian man. I believe he rang the bell a hundred ties when some one in the community passed away."

     "The neighbors always left whatever they were doing and tried to find out who had died. The men left the fields and came to the church to dig the grave."

     Everyone brought food to the family of the deceased. There was always somebody that would stay with the family overnight."

     "I recollect that the coffins were covered with a velvet like material. The inside was made of satin."

     "We always sat up with the dead personís family. Would sit up all night and sing religious songs."

     "The next day, the funeral took place. The funeral was similar to the ones we have now."

     "The preacher prayed for the deceased. They had groups to sing religious songs. The grave did not have grass around it. There was just a mound of dirt."

     "We didnít have flower wreaths. But I remember my Mother (Dicey Thomas) making many a wreath from greenery from pine. She would then make crepe paper flowers to decorate the wreaths with. She was very good at it. The flowers she made looked real.

     "I believe they hauled one man up with a horse and sled to the graveyard."

     "My Father (Pat Thomas) died during a terrible snow storm. The people around Hiltons where I used to live were very kind. Miland Millard shoveled a lot of the deep snow out of the road that led to the church so they could get my fatherís body to the church yard. They also dug the grave. The ground was frozen and it was very difficult to dig."

     The little churchyard behind the Mount Vernon Church contains the graves of many well-known people. A. P. Carter and Sarah Carter are buried there.

     According to Frances, everyone didnít have tombstones, they had grave markers.

     "I believe that most of the graves there have tombstones now," recalls Frances.

     Frances said that two boys are buried in this particular graveyard that were murdered many years ago when they were young.

     "It was really pitiful," said Frances. "After they were buried the family came back to stand over the graves and pay their last respects. It was really sad."

     "I also remember one young girl from Hiltons that died in child birth. The day she died she had been picking daisies in a field." 

     There are very few people who are not fascinated or at least curious, about death and dying. It is natural to be curious about something we know little about. The old time burial customs are fascinating and they remind us of a time when there was a special dignity in "making do" with what you had.

 

 

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