A funeral procession from church to cemetery is shown in rural Webster County, Mo., in 1947.
Throughout the Ozarks, unique customs have long been a unique part of life — and death. Especially in decades past, there were many elements of burials that “had” to be adhered to, often simply because superstition dictated it must be so.
Abby Burnett has spent years studying such customs, and presents her research through her book, Gone to the Grave; Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850 — 1950. Here are her thoughts on a few elements of local burials from days gone by.
What initially got you interested in learning about local burial customs? What is the area and time frame that your research focuses on?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I got interested in local burial customs. Much of the book grew out of my love of Ozark cemeteries and the things I was finding. When I started researching the book I was working as a reporter for the Morning News of Northwest Arkansas, and I’d written several feature articles that something to do with death. (Some examples: the last legal hanging in Boone County, Ark.; tombstones with unexpected inscriptions; a museum with a funeral parlor exhibit.) I thought that I could add to the research I’d already done and collect these subjects in a book. Somewhere along the way, the subject broadened to include every aspect of how Ozark residents once buried their own dead, with a final chapter on how the funeral industry got its start in the Ozarks.
The book spans 1850 to 1950 because this allows me to incorporate information from the Civil War through World War II. It was difficult to find information prior to 1850, and after 1950 all of the customs and superstitions had pretty much been abandoned because, by then, there was a professional death-care industry.
Could you briefly describe the process after someone passed away?
There were so many parts to the process! Every one of these things had to be done quickly and simultaneously, which is why all of the neighbors were needed to help. (In general, family members did not participate, although there were some exceptions.) The body had to be washed, dressed and positioned before rigor mortis set in; the house – especially the person’s bedstead – had to be scrubbed and the laundry done; a coffin was built to the person’s measurements.
Throughout the process someone had to sit with the body, because it there was a taboo against leaving a body unattended. This usually meant sitting up all night with the body, until the coffin could be delivered the next day, in time for the burial. Other jobs included making food for the family and mourners, and in some communities the women would make a new item of clothing (especially for women and children) to be buried in, as well as making a fitted coffin liner, and even covering the exterior of the coffin with fabric.
Excerpts from Gone to the Grave
Building the coffin
“In rural communities blacksmiths were the ones who most often build coffins and wooden vaults, boxes that protected the coffin in the grave. After all, in addition to working with metal, blacksmiths also made and repaired farming implements and wagons, which had wooden components, so they had to be good carpenters.
“Oversized containers were occasionally built to accommodate multiple family members killed in a tornado, or a mother and child burial. Though extremely rare, a double casket would be made to hold two adult bodies. The best documented of these double burials was that of Easter Eubanks, who died at nine in the morning, probably from malaria (Madison County, 1937). Easter’s eighty-two-year-old husband, Sog, then lay down on his bed and began praying to die. ‘I’m going now, daughter, he announced, and died soon after of a heart attack. Local blacksmith George Harriman, assisted by three other men, made the couple’s immense double coffin — a first for him.”
Coffin sets, the hardware needed to trim a homemade coffin, were sold in general stores and funeral homes. (Photo courtesy of Abby Burnett; in the collection of the Heritage Center Museum, Berryville, Carroll County Historical Society)
Digging the grave
“Even when a death was clearly imminent, the grave was never dug in advance. To do so invited bad luck or another death in the family or, in some accounts, permitted an evil spirit to enter the grave. According to Orphea Wyatt (Newton County, born 1930), the taboo was taken seriously. ‘If you’d dug it the day before, they wouldn’t put their folks in it,’ she said of the custom, practiced by many African Americans as well.’
“This superstition was widespread and flexible. When it was absolutely necessary to dig in advance, workers could leave a token amount of loose dirt in the bottom of the grave, to be removed on the morning of burial. Graves left standing overnight were usually covered with boards, for protection. The boards, and the taboo against digging in advance, both served a purpose in the days of free-ranging livestock, when animals could easily have fallen into an open grave, been injured or killed and then been difficult to remove.”
“Ozark funerals, past and present, include the reading of the deceased’s obituary, which posed a problem for illiterate ministers. Undertaker Felix Brashears (Madison County, after 1950) solved the problem by reading aloud the obituaries with these ministers preaching sermons from portions of the Bible they had memorized. Such services routinely lasted an hour or more, with those of African Americans traditionally taking at least two hours. A lengthy funeral showed respect for the deceased.
“Mourners did not hold back from displays of emotion — on the contrary, this behavior was encouraged. (Vance) Randolph described such outpourings as ‘gabbling and hollering’ and claimed to have witnessed ‘the immediate relatives of the deceased fling themselves on the corpse with loud yells, roll groaning and kicking on the floor, and even try to leap after the coffin when it is lowered into the grave.’ Some ministers encouraged this behavior. (Bruce) Vaughan, recalling the Baptist services he attended as a child, said, ‘I remember that most country preachers did not feel that they had preached a good sermon until they had the family in hysterics. Fainting was quite common, and added to the feeling that the funeral was ‘well preached.'”
Delilah Johnson’s 1947 funeral in rural Webster County, Mo., shows the importance of flowers at funerals, even in days gone by. “Ministers liked to equate an abundance of blooms with the community’s regard for the deceased. … In towns without a florist, or where there was no money to buy flowers, women created their own arrangements.” — Gone to the Grave
How did these customs originate?
All of the customs came to the Ozarks with white settlers, most of whom came here from Tennessee. However, these settlers migrated through a number of states before arriving in the Ozarks, and could have picked up some of the customs and superstitions en route. All of the things I write about have been documented throughout the Appalachias and the South.
Especially in the past, superstition and tradition were important to many Ozarkers. How did you see those factors materialize through burial customs, and why do you think strict adherence to such things was so important to folks years ago?
Most of the superstitions have to do with doing, or not doing, a certain thing lest another family member die. For example: Don’t dig the grave in advance, or leave the cemetery until the grave is filled in, or someone will die.
Life was so uncertain in the 1800s and early 1900s, and the causes of most diseases were barely understood. In the words of one of my favorite epitaphs, “Death rides on every passing breeze/and lurks in every flower.” If you didn’t know why someone died, you had to find a reason and it was easy to attribute a death to the person having violated a particular taboo.
As recently as the 1986, when my husband and I moved to Madison County, Ark., elderly neighbors warned my husband against transplanting a cedar tree. “When it’s tall enough to shade your grave, you’ll die,” a neighbor said, and time and again I found this taboo in oral histories and folklore collections. (As I say in my preface, when the cedar was about my husband’s height he did, in fact, die. But by then he’d violated any number of other Ozark building taboos.)
It seems that, in some ways, Ozarkers were comfortable with the concept of death; it seemed to be an accepted part of the life cycle, and not necessarily feared. Based on your research, do you believe this was the case? If so, why was that?
I think that most people were conversant with death and, yes, comfortable with it because everyone had to help the family in some way. It was unheard of to go about your own business if a neighboring family had experienced a death – you were expected to be there, helping out.
Perhaps not everyone was completely at ease, but the open coffin, and taking a last look, were both part of the funeral/burial process so everyone was used to seeing bodies. Taking a last photograph was an acceptable thing to do. When former Arkansas governor Orval Faubus died in 1994, many of the older people who came to his Huntsville funeral (he had three funerals in all) took photos of him in his casket, which was perfectly acceptable behavior.
As shown in a cemetery in Walnut Shade, Mo., false crypts “do not contain a body; instead, they serve as a memento mori, reminding viewers of their own morality.” — Gone to the Grave
Given our age of extreme privacy, it’s difficult to imagine how, in the 1800s and well up into the 1900s, people had little or no privacy. When a person was dying the neighbors came in night after night to sit up with the patient (relieving the family of nighttime nursing chores), everyone knew who the doctor was visiting and why and obituaries were filled with personal information: cause of death, dying words, and whether the dying person had suffered patiently and bravely. Death was witnessed by as many family members and neighbors as could crowd into the room. Then neighbors prepared the body and sat up with it another night, if the coffin wasn’t ready. For these and many other reasons, members of the community were extremely familiar with death.
Were children shielded from death?
On the contrary — even small children sometimes had to help. I’ve collected numerous stories of very young children being taken with their parents to sit up with a dying person (although children were allowed to sleep) and even times when children had to sit with a body, which permitted the adults attended to other jobs. (My book contains one story of teenaged boys who had to lay out an adult corpse.)
Children were taken to funerals and held up so they could take a last look at the deceased. I think this is part of the explanation for why Ozarkers were comfortable with death – you’d have to be, if you were exposed to it from a young age.
When did these customs begin to disappear?
My feeling is that all of these customs had disappeared by the end of World War II, and there are many reasons for this. The large workforce necessary for a home burial had mostly disappeared (people left the Ozarks during droughts, the Depression and both World Wars); the professional funeral industry had become accepted and offered burial insurance, which meant that for very little money a family was guaranteed that everything would be taken care of, and the coffin and funeral service would be provided.
Decoration Day — a time for the refurbishment and beautification of cemeteries — is shown at Pine Grove Cemetery, in Madison County, Ark., in the 1940s. “This was the day when families placed flower on the graves, attended a special program or sermon, shared a bountiful meal, and socialized with friends and family, some of whom they saw only on this occasion. Of the many funeral customs once routinely observed, only Decoration Day is still practiced, through considerably reduced in scale.” (Photo courtesy of the Madison County Genealogical & Historical Society, Huntsville, Ark.)
It’s not unusual to find tombstones that have lengthy inscriptions on them. Why do you think that was important to some people, especially considering the expense for folks who might not have much money?
A lengthy inscription didn’t necessarily cost more, but it’s hard to determine because so few records exist. I don’t think tombstone carvers were charging by the letter, or by the word. Epitaphs – the poetry found on tombstones – were popular, and many expressed the family’s grief and their belief that they’d be reunited with their loved ones in Heaven. Such poetry was comforting to families and, after all, given the Ozarks tradition of celebrating Decoration Day, such epitaphs would be read and appreciated on a yearly basis.
In the Ozarks’ oldest cemeteries the writing on the tombstones usually faces west while the grave itself is always oriented facing east. This allows visitors to read a very lengthy inscription, even one with small lettering, without walking on the grave (a taboo). Modern markers face east, or directly above the burial. Is it any coincidence that modern stones have very little writing on them and that the typeface is large enough to be read from a distance?
Are there any elements that are still evident through modern funerals and burials?
Taking a last look at the deceased is still practiced at Ozark funerals. This usually takes place in the church or funeral home chapel. The first time I attended a funeral in Arkansas I was shocked by this – I hadn’t realized that I’d be expected to file past the casket and take a last look. Luckily the funeral was standing room only, and I was standing in the back of the chapel, which enabled me to slip out a side door. After that, though, I learned to look at the deceased without being bothered but this doesn’t come naturally to me!