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Funerals in Georgian England

The Funeral Procession
Men usually carried the coffin, although if the deceased was a virgin or unmarried, it may well have been carried by her female friends. Only men followed the coffin to church (as shown in the engraving below); female relations and friends stood and watched the procession. It is a source of some consternation to the ladies of the town in Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Cranford (published in 1851), when Miss Jessie Brown insists on following her father's coffin to the church. Miss Jenkyns reluctantly agrees to accompany her to the funeral, saying, "It is not fit for you to go alone. It would be against both propriety and humanity were I to allow it."

To avoid carrying the coffin on the shoulders for long distances, it might have been taken to church on a bier as shown below. Some were fitted on top of a wheeled carriage to save carrying them.

At better-off funerals, the coffin would be covered by the pall which hung down over the bearers. The pall was black on one side, white on the other, ie reversible and could be turned over showing the white side if the deceased was a child or a virgin. Pall-bearers were covered by the pall and held the lower hems; they wore black or white gloves to match the pall.

Funeral procession by Thomas Bewick
A funeral procession engraved by Thomas Bewick (Northumberland)

Funeral bier from Snave church
A funeral bier, possibly used for poorer funerals.
This one is in Snave church in Kent.

An Unmarried Woman

A garland fresh and fair
of lilies there was made,
In sign of her virginity
and on her coffin laid.
Six maidens all in white
did bear her to the ground.

An early18th century traveller observed:
"for a bachelor maid, or for a woman that dies in childbed, the pall is white"

A Pauper's funeral
Where winds the river through the green,
A sombre cavalcade is seen,
Bearing the coffin, sedate and slow -
Where are they should attend the show?
Four old men the coffin bear -
Mourners and weepers none are there.
Four old men, with years bent double,
Bear up the pall, and are paid for their trouble.
All are dead whom his youth had known -
The poor passes on to his grave alone!

What did the mourners wear?

Hat bands
These were narrow lengths of black crepe tied round the crown of the hat so that long ends hung down at the back.
They can be seen clearly in Bewick's engraving above.

Gloves were of varying qualities depending on the wealth of the family:
Kid or chamois gloves were usually worn by the principal mourners, even in poorer families. At the burial of Alice Stevens, a 28 year old spinster of Framfield, Sussex, in 1757, all 59 mourners wore white lamb gloves. Her father was the princpal mourner and wore chamois gloves costing 2d a pair (Thomas Turner's Diary).

These were probably a combination of Rosemary fronds and silk ribbons secured with thread, a simple and natural deodorant.

Music in the service:
Psalms 39 and 90 were prescribed in the prayer book for the burial service, although Psalm 39 was most commonly used with the text:

vs.5. Lord number out my life and days,
Which yet I have not past;
So that I may be certified
How long my life shall last.

vs.14. O spare a little, give me space,
My strength for to restore,
Before I go away from hence,
And shall be seen no more.

There are many settings of Psalm 39OV to be found in printed and ms sources of church music of the period and here are two to listen to:

1) Verse 5 - an unpublished setting by a local amateur composer, from a ms book used at St.Laurence's church, Catsfield, E.Sussex. Here is the first page.

2) Verse 14 - a published setting by Joseph Key of Nuneaton - found in a ms book which belonged to Robert Bottle and sung in St.Margaret's church, Harrietsham.

The Committal

A Hudd (or Hood) was made like a sentry box and placed at the head of the grave during the committal, to protect the clergyman and his prayer book from wind and rain.
Here are two examples from Marshland churches in Kent.

Hudd at St.George's, Ivychurch, Kent
St.George's, Ivychurch
Hudd at St.George's, Ivychurch, Kent
St.Augustine's, Brookland

Music at The Committal ?
It was not normal to sing over the grave at the committal but when the deceased was the leader or a member of the choir, some felt it appropriate and this may have been permitted depending on the incumbent.

When Henry Reed of Alfriston, Sussex, died in 1850, the newspaper reported:
The deceased and his late father had conducted the choir in our parish church about 70 yrs. His remains were interred in our church on Wednesday where the choir and some friends of the deceased sang a funeral hymn over his remains.

However, at Ditchling (also Sussex) in the same year it was not allowed:
Some dissatisfaction has been excited here by the refusal of the vicar to allow the friends and relatives of the late Thomas Cox, of this place, to sing a funeral anthem over his grave. Mr Cox was one of the oldest parishioners, and was well known AS A BASS SINGER OF SOME POWER.


Cottage and coffin, Thomas Bewick
Cottage with coffin outside

Pope's Ode - "The Dying Christian to his Soul"

The text of this very popular funeral piece, usually referred to as "Vital Spark" was not from the scriptures, but written by Alexander Pope, so that many Anglican clergy in the 18th century refused to have it sung in church. Mourners would sing it at the graveside after the committal or later at the wake.

Vital spark of heavenly flame,
Quit, O quit this mortal frame:
Trembling, hoping, ling'ring, flying,
O the pain, the bliss of dying!
Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,
And let me languish into life.

Hark! they whisper; angels say,
Sister Spirit, come away!
What is this absorbs me quite?
Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
Drowns my spirit, draws my breath?
Tell me, my soul, can this be death?

The world recedes; it disappears.
Heav'n opens on my eyes, my ears,
With sounds seraphic ring.
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?

LISTEN to the most popular setting by Edward Harwood, who started his working life as a handloom weaver in Lancashire.

Headcorn Church Singer honoured

It was a rare occasion when a member of a church choir received a tribute in the newspapers; one such was for a singer (and ringer) at Headcorn, Kent, who died on 30th December 1815.

"DIED: - Last Saturday, at Headcorn, John Furrel, in the 81st year of his age. He had been a singer in the church choir of that place for 70 years, and had also been one of the ringers nearly the same length of time. He was considered one of the finest bass singers in the County, and had never missed attending at his church, more than twice, till within a fortnight of his death. He was a poor man and died in the workhouse, but was so much respected, that between 30 and 40 of the principal inhabitants attended the funeral, at which an excellent sermon was preached by the Rev. Mr. Evans, and after the choristers had sung two funeral anthems in the church, and one over the grave, the remains of this worthy old man were committed to the silent tomb, leaving behind him a character truly worthy of imitation. After the interment, the ringers rang a dumb peal in honour of his memory, as being one of their society for near 70 years."
(The Maidstone Journal, 2nd January, 1816)

Sadly, no grave stone marks his burial place today.

The Wake

The funeral was followed by a "wake", or gathering of friends and relatives. In William Hone's The Every-day Book published in 1826-7, one such gathering is described:
The concourse of visitors rendered the house like a tavern: their noise and tumult being little restrained, and their employment being the drinking of wine or spirits with the smoking of tobacco; and if only some made use of the "stinking herb", all partook of the juice of the grape. Instances could be adduced in which moderation gave way to excess.

Gravestones and Funeral Monuments in the Georgian era

Skeletons and skulls were popular motifs in the 17th and early 18th centuries; these gave way to cherubs or angels from the mid-18th century and to plainer headstones by the 19th century.

Skulls at Wye, Kent, 1752

Coffin with skeleton at Cranbrook, Kent, 1769

There are many more excellent examples from East Anglian churchyards HERE

Cranbrook with Cherubs
Cherubs with an hour glass, Cranbrook, Kent, 1771
Boughton Aluph with Cherubs
Cherubs at Boughton Aluph, Kent, 1770


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