I’m revisiting a post I wrote in 2013. I’ve learned a bit since then…
WARNING: Some of this stuff is kinda gruesome.
Throughout this month of curling, brown leaves that crunch underfoot and zombie-like stalks of once-lush corn, the days shorten in anticipation of All Hallow’s Eve, an ancient festival of the dead.
Ghosts and ghouls reflect the age-old dread of the deceased lest they unleash their supernatural powers upon us. Many practices over the years stem from this fear which–have no doubt–still exists today.
Living next door to a cemetery has resulted in suspicious looks by more than one person. When I told my cardiologist I take my walks there, his eyebrows rose. “I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone,” he said.
My research of 18th-century lifeways has opened my eyes to many unusual funeral customs. As late as the 1700s, clergy were charged with caring for the dead, which included spotting foul play. For Colonial backwoods people, it was known that if a murderer touched the body of his victim as it lay in its box, the killer’s hand would bleed. Mourners took turns placing their hands on the corpse to prove their innocence. Quicker and more efficient than an autopsy, for sure.
In Europe, until the year 752, burials were not to take place inside the town limits. It was then the pope finally authorized the churchyard as consecrated ground for interment. People were buried to the west, east, and south of the church itself, but rarely to the north. Only murderers and other criminals were placed there—if they could be laid within the grounds at all.
During times when a consecrated burial was forbidden to convicts and your hardcore sinners, they were planted at a crossroads. Apparently, this would confuse a vengeful spirit (who was hopefully directionally challenged) and prevent him from returning home to torment family members. His heart was anchored with the ever-popular wooden stake to keep him firmly in the grave.
Then, just to be sure the spiteful ghost was kept off-kilter, the funeral procession arrived at the burial site from one direction, only to return home a different way. That specter would have to be one smart cookie to find his way back after all those safeguards.
In the 13th century, graveyards were ordered to be securely enclosed so animals couldn’t graze there. But that didn’t stop them from becoming playgrounds during holidays. Many medieval people felt that the dead were still with them on some level and would enjoy the festivities, so to speak.
And party they did. Rough games, dancing, and drinking led to the inevitable brawl which too often resulted in the deaths of a participant or two. (Cause for another party?) As you can imagine, there was a fair amount of damage to the gravestones as well.
Here’s my favorite custom. It was believed that a “newcomer” to the cemetery was to act as watchman until someone more recently deceased showed up to take his place. In some parts of Ireland, a pipe and tobacco were left so the person could have a smoke during his watch. Always hospitable, those Irish.
Nobody wanted this job, so if two new occupants arrived at the cemetery simultaneously, the funeral processions would rush to get their guy into the ground first. This led to harsh words, which degenerated into the inevitable free-for-all, the corpses set aside until the matter was resolved.
If you were a multi-tasker plagued with warts, you need only grab a handful of dirt from under your right foot to throw on the funeral procession. Voila! No more warts. But it likely led to one helluva beat-down from the mourners.
Could this be what they meant by a “fight to the finish?”
Happy Spooky Season!
*Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems