Friday, December 31, 2010

Mississippi Funeral Traditions and Superstitions of the 1800's

Traditions in Mississippi and the South are sometimes bound in superstition. The moment that a person dies, a whole series of customs shift into gear to speed the departed’s trip to the hereafter, and to insure the well-being of those left behind. A century ago, these rituals were commonplace. Today, they are still being practiced in some areas.
Take, for instance, the practice of embalming. Preserving the body was not widely practiced before the Civil War. But the necessity of shipping battle dead long distances called for a cheap way to preserve the body during transit. Formaldehyde became the elixir of choice. Afterwards, funeral parlors began using the techniques learned during the war to preserve every client that crossed the threshold. Wealthy Mississippians of the 1800's had elaborate funeral traditions and were more than likely more apt to be able to afford embalming. It has been reported that during and just following the civil war, that the average cost for an embalming was $100.dollars or more, not exactly, small change in the 1800's. In the Victorian era, many did not fear death as much as they feared not being mourned properly.

But in the South, especially in the mountains, undertakers were as scarce as brass handles on a homemade coffin and the lack of embalming caused some bizarre problems.

There is more than one record of a body suddenly sitting up in the middle of the funeral service. The cause of this unnerving spectacle, of course, was rigor mortis or the stiffening of the muscles after death.

Scottish immigrants had their own cure for rigor mortis, a process they called “saining”. The oldest woman in the family burned a candle and waved it over the body three times. Then she scooped three handfuls of salt from a poke, placed it in a wooden bowl and placed the bowl upon the deceased’s chest. Another solution, especially useful if rigor mortis had already set in, was to pour warm water on the joints and rub like crazy. This counteracted the stiffness but when rigor mortis set back in -- and it usually did -- the body would tend to rise anyway.

The body was dressed in its Sunday best and laid out for viewing -- usually in the parlor. Coins were placed over the eyes to keep them shut and some who still held to their old world traditions and superstitions, also believed that the coins would pay the Ferrymaster as the soul journeyed across the River Styx. Then a cloth was tied around the jaw to keep it from flopping open and the arms were folded across the chest. Another towel, soaked in a strong soda solution, took care of discoloration. Spices or cedar chips, placed around the body, helped ward off any unpleasant odors, especially in summer.

Coffins were made by the local cabinet or furniture maker, who might also rent out a hearse for extra income. The coffin designs could be as simple as a simple pine box, to a more stylish hard wood, that had been stained and lined with padding and lace or satin fabrics, to being as elaborate as a hand crafted brass coffin lined in velvet, it really depended on how wealthy you were.

Photo on left of 1800 era Pine Coffin on original 1800 Coffin Cart, on display at the Old Tishamingo County Courthouse Museum, Iuka, MS. taken by Angela L Burke 2010.

However, before the funeral could take place, black mourning cloth fabric, known as crepe, was draped throughout the house, especially over the mirrors.

Folk stories claim that a person looking into the mirror after a death in the house, would see the face of the next person to die, and if a mirror in your house was to fall and break by itself, it meant that someone in the home would die soon. Mirrors should be covered or turned to face the wall. Some believed that the spirit of the deceased could enter the mirror and be trapped. Others believed that if the spirit of the deceased had entered the mirror, the next person to look into the mirror would be the next to die or the spirit of the deceased could enter the person gazing into the mirror. Clocks were stopped at the time of death. This served a practical purpose as well, so that everyone knew the time the person died. Restarting the clock after burial was symbolic of beginning another period in the families life.

It was considered very bad manners to refuse an invitation to a funeral. Stylish invitations or Funeral Cards were distributed to family and friends. Recipients of a funeral card were expected to attend the funeral or risk offending family members. On the other hand, those who did not receive an invitation would have been insulted, whether it was intentional or not."

A close family friend or relative would be asked to host the ceremony and greet visitors. Coffins were often set up in the parlor for visitors to view the deceased and pay their last respects.While the body was still in the house, certain precautions were taken to insure the welfare of the living. For instance, the body was always laid out on the first floor of the house, never on the second. If a step squeaked while the body was still under the roof, it was believed that there would be a death in the family within a year. Some people believed that the soul remained with the body 24 hours after death others believed that the soul remained for 3 days. Members of the family, or friends of the deceased, often chose to “sit up” with the body. This kept the soul company and prevented it from being whisked away by the devil.

Immediate family members would have very little contact with the mourners. Widows in particular wore heavy crepe face veils to provide some privacy during the service and so that others could not see her cry. However one superstition suggests that spirits of the departed would hover around those they loved. If a passerby looked directly on the mourner's face, that spirit might attach itself to that person. So, the veil was a protection for the wearer as well as a protection for others." It was also believed that a Widow should wear black in order to confuse the spirits of the afterlife and to prevent their deceased husband from coming back to haunt or pester them. Black was believed to make her less noticable by the spirits of the afterlife.

Kissing or touching the corpse was a superstition that prevented the living from dreaming about the deceased. It was also known as the time of acceptance that a remaining relative or person would never see their departed one again. Photo on left of couple in traditional 1800's funeral clothes.

When the body was taken from the house, it had to be carried out feet first, because if it was carried out head first, it could look back and beckon others to follow it into death. It is was also believed that since we come into the world head first, we should go out of it feet first. Pall bearers wore gloves when touching or handling the casket to prevent the deceased person's spirit from entering through their hands.

There is an unwritten rule against interupting a funeral procession. It was and still is in some parts believed that anyone who interferes with the deceased going to the grave, will attract the wrath of evil spirits or be haunted by the spirit of the departed. It was also considered bad luck if a bride and groom encounter a funeral procession. The ringing of bells after a death was done for two purposes. 1) to frighten away evil spirits that might come to claim the deceased soul. 2) to toll the age of the deceased and announce a death in the community.

Digging the grave was a solemn task reserved for family and friends. They dug the grave and filled it up after the funeral. Graves always faced the east toward the rising sun, the symbol of resurrection. When a person died dictated when the grave was dug. If a person died at night or early in the morning, for example, the grave was dug after noon on the following day. It was considered, bad luck to leave a freshly excavated grave open all night.                    1800's Funeral Photo

While the family went to the burial service at the cemetery, the host would remove the mourning crepe fabrics from the house and return the home to it's pre-funeral condition. It was considered unlucky for the family to return to the home from the cemetery and find the house still draped in black. The family friend would then host a light luncheon at the house after the funeral service.

Society placed strict rules of ettiquette on the mourners. The mourning period for a female widow was a year and a day. During this time the widow wore solid black mourning clothes or widow's weeds, Formal black mourning clothes -- even items of underwear and accessories like gloves and handkerchiefs had to be black. The widow was required to limit her social appearances and engagements. Those who could not afford to buy black mourning clothes would either have all their wardrobe died black or they would die their clothes themselves in a large black kettle over an open fire outside in the yard. If the crape was caught in the rain, the black dye would run and ruin anything near it. This limited the woman from venturing far from home. Collar and cuffs were black and after a year lace could be added. All fabric should have a luster or shine. Jewelry was not allowed for the first few months, after that only black jewelry was allowed, including earrings, broaches, bracelets and rings. For a specific period of time a widow (not widower) would not leave her house and did not see any visitors. When a period of time (what others felt was respectable) had lapsed, the widow would send out black edged cards to notify her family and friends that she was ready to receive visitors. Anyone in mourning was not allowed to attend social functions. Full and half mourning was based on the relationship to the person who died and the end of the deep or heavy mourning period. Half mourning included colored clothing of lilac, lavender, violet, mauve, and gray.

"The Civil War resulted in approximately 600,000 casualties. In the state of Alabama alone, there were over 80,000 widows -- 80,000 women dressed for mourning.

During the Victorian era, there were requirements for mourning the dead. The proper time to mourn was: Spouse: 1-2 and a half years Parent: 6-12 months Grandparents: 6 months Sibling: 6-8 months Children under 10 yrs: 3-6 months Children over 10 yrs: 6-12 months Infants: at least 6 weeks Aunts and Uncles: 3-6 months Cousins and Aunts and Uncles related by marriage 6 weeks-3 months Distant relatives or friends: 3 or more weeks

Widower men were expected to mourn for three months, dressing conservatively and wearing a black crepe mourning hatband.

It was commonly believed that if a woman and child die during child birth, they should be buried together in the same grave, otherwise the mother will never rest because she does not know what has become of her baby, and will forever be searching for her child.

A few other superstitions related to death include:

Never cry on a dead person because if the tears fall on them, it makes it harder for the spirit to leave this world.

If for some reason you find yourself needing to bury a body, bury them at a crossroads and their spirit won’t be able to leave.

Midnight has always been considered the best time to contact a ghost and
on the anniversary of the day they died.

You must hold your breath while going past a cemetery or you will breathe in the spirit of someone who has recently died.

Make sure windows and doors are open after a person dies to ensure their spirit a speedy journey to the other side.

If you see a funeral procession go by and for some reason count the cars, you’ve just counted the number of weeks you have left to live.

If you take too long to bury the dead, they will find someone to take with them.

The cry of an owl symbolizes death. Where it builds a nest, ghosts will haunt for as long as the bird stays.

The crowing of a rooster signals wandering ghosts that it is time for them to disappear until nightfall

Another curious and widespread concern in the nineteenth century was the fear of being buried alive. "This was a superstition that so permeated society that even Mary Lincoln, a relatively well-to-do, well-educated woman, shared in her final instructions her fear of this. She wrote,

'I desire that my body shall remain for two days with the lid not screwed down.''

"Because of this fear," Estes said, "they developed a coffin alarm. This was a bell attached to the headstone with a chain that led down into the coffin to a ring that went around the finger of the deceased. So, if you were to wake up and find yourself accidentally buried, you could pull on the chain and ring the bell in the cemetery yard.

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might be the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.

The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as "snapshot" photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century.

The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.

The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject's eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.
Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.
A variation of the memorial portrait involves photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased.


Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartello Carmack
Scottish Lore & Folklore by Ronald MacDonald Douglas 1982


  1. Congratulations! Your blog is fantastic, extraordinary. Great posts, great images!


  2. Me and my friend read this article for school and we got and A thanks to your article its amazing

  3. Thank you both :) Brianna, I am very pleased to know that something I posted was used in a classroom, I am tickled that you got an A :) Learning about History is one of my favorite subjects and I am very pleased that your teacher liked it!

  4. Love your site! What was used to prop the deceased's eyes open for post mortem photos?

  5. What did they do with the dead in the winter when the ground was to frozen to dig. Today we put the in a morgue or freezer and bury them in the spring when the snow and ice melts and the land is soft enough to dig.

    1. Interesting facts... Thanks so much! Helped me a with my project. :)

  6. In Mississippi the ground rarely freezes very deep, but I have researched that in winter months bodies were sometimes kept for spring burials in cold cellars and basements. and in the case of mild freezing where there was no place for cold storage, large wood fires were built over the burial plot and burned to thaw the ground for digging.