Death and Burial Customs and Superstitions


Among the many pagan beliefs and observances which were adhered to during many centuries of Christian creed and worship, and some of which have survived among the less enlightened even to the present day, a large place is held by those connected with death and burial. In Scotland, many trivial things were regarded as omens of death. In the northern Highlands, an itching of the nose was believed to prognosticate the death of a neighbour. In the southern parts, a humming in the ear was held to prelude the death of a relative. The crowing of a cock at an unusual hour was regarded as a token of the death of some person in the parish. In the Lowlands, the howling of a strange dog was accepted as a warning of the approaching death of some inmate of the house near which the melancholy wail was raised. The “death candle,” as the phosphoric light sometimes seen flickering over burial-grounds was called, was similarly regarded in the Hebrides.

In some parts of the Highlands it is still believed that the last moments of a dying person are prolonged by the door of the death-chamber being closed. It is usual, therefore, for it to be left ajar, so that there may be room for the departing spirit to take its flight, and yet the intrusion of any evil thing be prevented. When a death occurred, the clock was stopped, and its face covered, as were all the mirrors in the house. A bell was laid under the head of the corpse, and a vessel containing earth and salt placed upon the breast.

From the moment of death until the departure of the funeral procession to the place of burial, the corpse was watched night and day by parties of friends and neighbours, who relieved each other. Silence was observed, but this did not prevent the consumption of much ale and whisky. Among the poorer classes the interment took place soon after death, in order to lessen the cost of watching, but the well-to-do deferred the funeral for at least a week, and sometimes a fortnight, in order that the hospitality of the house might be more extensively offered and enjoyed. Among these a feast was given on the evening preceding the funeral.

There were many superstitious beliefs and customs connected with funerals. As in England, the proverb was accepted that “happy is the corpse that the rain falls on.” If the funeral party, on the way to the burial-ground, walked in a straggling manner, it was regarded as an omen that another death would soon occur under the same roof. In the Hebrides, if one of the party stumbled and fell, the incident was held to indicate that he would be the next to die.

In the last century, there was a lamentable amount of ale and whisky drinking before and after funerals. The company began to assemble two hours before the time appointed for the corpse to be carried from the house. If the deceased was a farmer, each of the guests was offered a glass of whisky at the gate of the farm-yard, and another on crossing the threshold. On entering the guest-room, a portion of shortbread and another glass of whisky were handed to him, a reverential silence being observed for a time, after which conversation was carried on in whispers. When all the guests were assembled, the minister commenced a religious service, which lasted about three-quarters of an hour. This was followed by the handing round of oatcake, cheese, and whisky, and afterwards shortbread and more whisky. Then the coffin was carried out, and followed to the grave by all those who were sufficiently sober to walk straight.

Religious ceremonies at burials have never found favour in the Church of Scotland. They were discouraged both by the First Book of Discipline and the Westminster Directory, the compilers of the former saying, “for avoiding all inconveniences, we judge it best that neither singing nor reading be at the burial,... yea, without all kind of ceremony heretofore used, other than that the dead be committed to the grave with such gravity and sobriety as those that be present may seem to fear the judgment of God, and to hate sin, which is the cause of death.” The Westminster Directory deals with the matter in much the same way, the Assembly maintaining that the burial of the dead is not a part of the work of the ministry, as baptisms and marriages are.

It appears to have been customary in the early centuries of the Church in Scotland, to bury the dead uncoffined; and this custom prevailed among the poor for some time after the Reformation. It lingered in rural districts longer than in towns, and in some later than in others; but the Kirk Session records of some parishes refer to the provision of coffins for the interment of persons who were practically paupers in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. As to the mode of burial before the use of coffins became general, the General Assembly ordained, in 1563, “that a bier should be made in every country parish, to carry the dead corpse of the poor to the burial-place, and that those of the villages or houses next adjacent to the house where the dead corpse lieth, or a certain number out of every house, shall convey the dead corpse to the burial-place, and bury it six feet under the earth.”

The biers appear to have been of more than one kind. Some of them were mere rails upon which the corpse was laid, covered only with a pall, called in Scotland a mort-cloth. Others were wooden boxes, with the lid on one side furnished with a hinge, so that the corpse could be taken out, and lowered into the grave by ropes. In some parts of the Highlands, a long basket, made of twisted rushes, was used, and called the “death hamper.” There were three pairs of loop handles, through which short iron bars were passed for convenience of carriage; and on the grave being reached, it was lowered by ropes, so arranged that it could be turned over and recovered for future use.

Before the Reformation, it was the custom to bury unbaptised children apart from members of the Church, the north side of the churchyard being reserved for that purpose. This was afterwards regarded as contrary to the true principles of Protestantism, and in 1641 the Synod of Fife ordained that “all these who superstitiously carries the dead about the kirk before burial, also these who bury unbaptised bairns apart, be taken notice of and censured.” Suicides and excommunicated persons were also, at one time, buried apart, and at night. In 1582, the Kirk Session of Perth refused to allow the corpse of a man who had committed suicide by drowning to be “brought through the town in daylight, neither yet to be buried among the faithful,... but in the little Inch within the water.”

With regard to interment within the churches, the Scottish Reformers seem to have been in advance of those south of the Border. The Brownists were as much in advance of the former, for in 1590 one of the leaders of that denomination wrote:—“Where learned you to bury in hallowed churches and churchyards, as though you had no fields to bury in? Methinks the churchyards, of all other places, should be not the convenientest for burial; it was a thing never used till Popery began, and it is neither comely nor wholesome.” Interment in churches was, on sanitary grounds, even more objectionable than in the grounds adjacent to them, and in 1576 the General Assembly prohibited the practice, and ordered that those who contravened the ordinance should be suspended from the privileges of the Church.

Long after that time, however, burials in churches continued to take place, owing to the value attached by families of rank above that of the commonalty to the privilege of having their relatives buried apart. In 1643, the Assembly again prohibited all persons, “of whatsoever quality, to bury any deceased person within the body of the kirk, where the people meet for hearing of the Word.” But the ordinance was disregarded by all who thought themselves powerful enough to do so, and as ministers had very little to do with a matter which had been declared to be unministerial, they usually found their will sufficient to serve their purpose. In 1695, the Kirk Session of Kilmarnock recorded a minute that, the north aisle being then filled with pews, “they shall, when required, cause lift six pews, on each end, next to the north wall of the aisle, so oft as any of the families of Rowallan, Craufordland, and Grange, shall have occasion to bury their dead;... and, after burial, the said pews shall be set up again in their places, at the expense of the session.” Kirk Sessions seem to have felt themselves powerless to enforce their ordinances in the face of a long existing custom and a fancied right of the gentry to burial within the church; and in one instance, which occurred in a Highland parish in 1727, the Kirk Session petitioned the Presbytery to “put a stop to such a bad practice.”

The custom of ringing a bell at funerals, which was a common one before the Reformation, was continued afterwards. There is an entry in the records of Glasgow, for 1577, of the sale of “the auld bell that yed throw the toun of auld at the burial of the dead.” In 1621, the Kirk Session of Dumbarton ordained that “the beadle, John Tome, and his successors, shall ring the mort-bell before all persons deceased within town, for such prices as the minister and session shall set down.” It may be that the custom, like the ringing of church bells, originated in the superstition that the sound of bells scared away evil spirits; for an edict of the Town Council of Aberdeen, passed in 1643, includes the tolling and ringing of bells among the “superstitious rites used at funerals,” which it prohibits.

Towards the close of the seventeenth century, it seems to have been usual for the church bell to be tolled at funerals, and that without any charge being made, for, in 1696, the Kirk Session of Mauchline made a minute that they “thought it reasonable that whoever desired the tolling of the bell at the funeral of their relations, should pay some small quantity of money to the kirk treasurer, to be disposed of for the poor’s use.” Similar ordinances were passed about the same time by the Kirk Sessions of other parishes in Ayrshire. It was decided, however, in the Civil Court, in 1730, that the money arising from fees for the ringing of bells and burials within the church did not properly belong to the fund for the relief of the poor, but might be used for the maintenance of the fabric of the church. The poor, however, do not appear to have lost much by this decision, for during the year ended October, 1732, the “big” bell at Kilmarnock was tolled for funerals only seven times. It may be explained that there were two bells in many churches, the larger one to be tolled at the funerals of the rich, and the smaller at those of the poor. In the register of burials at Inverness, the words “big bells” are added to the entries of the funerals of “persons of quality.”

The burials register of the parish of Tough, in Aberdeenshire, record that, in 1784, forty-two of the parishioners joined in the purchase of a new bell for the church, stipulating that, when deaths occurred in their families, “the bell be rung once before the day of interment, that is, when the officer gets the first notice of a contributor’s death, and then upon the day of interment, from morning until the coffin be laid in the ground, in the manner that bells ought to be rung at funerals, and that by no other person than the officer allenarlie.”

Palls were, from a very early period, regarded as essential parts of the funeral paraphernalia. In 1598, the Kirk Session of Glasgow ordered a black cloth to be bought “to be laid on the corpses of the poor,” and, for at least two hundred years afterwards, it was the custom for the “mort-cloth” to be taken to the house where a corpse awaited burial, and laid over it. The reason for this may be found in the early custom of burial without a coffin, and in the case of those who desired to show some regard for appearances, in the proclamation of Council in 1684, that coffins should not be covered with silk or decorated with fringes or metal-work. The mort-cloths kept “to be laid on the corpses of the poor” were probably of coarse black woollen cloth; but those used at the funerals of well-to-do people were, as a rule, of richer and more handsome material. In the sessional records of the parish of Mauchline for 1672 there is an entry of the payment of a sum of no less than £10, 12s. 4d. as completing the price of a new mort-cloth, which implies that some portion of the total cost had been paid previously. Another new mort-cloth provided for the same parish in the last quarter of the eighteenth century is described as having been made of Genoa velvet, conformably fringed.

The preaching of funeral sermons received little favour in Scotland during the early period of the Reformed Church. “We have,” says Baillie, writing from London during the sitting of the Westminster Assembly, “with much difficulty, passed a proposition for abolishing their ceremonies at burials, but our difference about funeral sermons seems irreconcilable. As it has been here and everywhere preached, it is nothing but an abuse of preaching, to serve the humours only of rich people for a reward. Our Church has expressly discharged them, on many good reasons; it’s here a good part of the minister’s livelihood, therefore they will not quit it. After three days’ debate, we cannot yet find a way of agreeance.”

It was in consequence of this inability to agree on the subject that the Scottish commissioners at Westminster declined to hear the sermon preached on the occasion of the funeral of Pym. Baillie wrote:—“On Wednesday, Mr Pym was carried from his house to Westminster on the shoulders, as the fashion is, of the chief men of the Lower House, all the House going in procession before him, and before them the Assembly of Divines. Marshall had a most eloquent and pertinent funeral sermon—which we would not hear, for funeral sermons we must have away, with the rest.”

The earliest registers of deaths are those of Aberdeen, which commence in 1560; Perth, beginning in 1561, and the Canongate, Edinburgh, in 1565. The register of burials in the last-named parish commences in 1612, and that of Greyfriars in 1658. Those of rural parishes generally commence in the last century, and they are, as a rule, more or less imperfect. It appears from the Edinburgh registers, in which the deaths are summarised annually, that the mortality has greatly diminished during the last hundred and fifty years. In the first four decades of the last century, nearly two-thirds of the deaths were those of children, and the deaths of adult females were double those of adult males. The dawn of a better state of things appears in 1741, when the deaths of 276 men, 401 women, and 942 children, were registered, which, if we accept the generally received statement that the population of the city was then fifty thousand, gives an annual average death-rate of 34 per thousand. The average mortality of the ten years ending with 1878, as shown by the report of the Registrar General, was 24 per thousand; and that of the week ending October 8, 1898, was 20 per thousand; which was precisely that of the thirty-three largest towns of the southern portion of the island.

Contemporary events in other places were not unfrequently recorded in the local registers of deaths in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, in the Aberdeen register, we have the murder of Lord Darnley very circumstantially recorded as follows, though under a wrong date:—“The ninth [10th] day of February, the year of God 1566, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, King of Scotland, who married Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, daughter to King James the Fifth, was cruelly murdered under night, in Edinburgh, in the Cowgate, at the Kirk of Field, by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and other his assisters, whose deed God revenge. So be it.”[13] The ascription of the crime to Bothwell does not appear in the Canongate register, which merely records the fact of Darnley being blown up with gunpowder.

The assassination of the Earl of Murray is recorded in several parish registers. The session clerk of Aberdeen recorded it, with much particularity, as follows:—“The twenty-third day of January, the year of God 1569, James, Earl of Murray, Lord Abernethy, Regent to the King and realm of Scotland, was cruelly murdered and shot in the town of Linlithgow, by a false traitor, James Hamilton of Bodywallhaucht, by the conspiracy and treason of his own servant, William Kircaldy, and John Hamilton, bloody Bishop of St. Andrew’s, whose deed we pray God to revenge. So be it.” With equal circumstantiality the same clerk made an entry in the register of the murder of Coligny, and the horrible massacre of the Protestants of Paris, on St. Bartholomew’s day, 1572, which event he prays God to revenge.

Some of the entries in the church registers of Edinburgh are of considerable historical interest. In that of St. Giles is chronicled the removal of the remains of the Marquis of Montrose from the Abbey Church of Holyrood to St. Giles’s Church, where they were honoured with a magnificent and pompous funeral. The entry in the register of burials records the final interment as follows:—“11 May 1661.—The Rt. Hon. James, Marquis of Montrose, Earl of Kincardine, Lord Grahame and Mugdok, His Majesty’s late commissioner and Captain General for the kingdom of Scotland, and knt. of most hon. order of the Garter, was conveyed from the kirk of Holyrood House with great honour and solemnity to St. Giles’s kirk and buried.” The corpse had been, in the first instance, interred at the Burgh Muir, so that this was the third removal.

The register of the Greyfriars’ Church, Edinburgh, contains the following record of another and more generally interesting translation:—“Robert Garvock, Patrick Forman, James Stewart, David Fernie, Alexander Russell, was executed in the Gallowlee, for owning the truth, upon the 10 day of October 1681 years, and their heads fixed upon Bristo Port, taken down and buried privately in Louristone Yards, now accidentally dug up upon the 15 day of October 1726, and buried decently upon the 19 day of the said month in the Greyfriars’ churchyard, close to the Martyrs’ Tomb.”

The grandeur of the final interment of the remains of the Marquis of Montrose, followed later by the costly obsequies of Lord Roslin, induced the Scottish Parliament, in 1681, to pass an Act which, besides restricting the number of persons who might attend the funeral of a person of rank to one hundred, prohibited “the using or carrying of any branches, banners, and other honours at church, except only the eight branches to be upon the pall, or upon the coffin where there is no pall.” The Act seems, however, to have had little effect in diminishing the excessive costliness of funerals among all classes above the very poorest. The funeral of Sir William Hamilton, who died in 1707, was attended with a display and an amount of hospitality which cost a sum equal to two years of his salary as a judge. The funeral of Lachlan Macintosh, chief of the Highland clan of that name, in 1736, cost (including the customary festivities) a sum which involved his successors in pecuniary embarrassments for a century afterwards. The funerals of Highland chiefs were attended by all the clan, sometimes numbering thousands of persons, and the procession to the place of burial extending to more than a mile in length; the coronach—a hymn of lamentation, an example of which may be found in Scott’s “Lady of the Lake”—being chanted by hundreds of voices, accompanied by the bagpipes.