Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Death and Burial - Part 1

By way of something different, an extract today from Gypsies of Britain by Brian Vesey-Fitgerald (1900-1981) was a naturalist and writer of books on wildlife, cats, and dogs, but also was interested in the countryside in general, gypsies, fairgrounds and boxing.

His book on gypsies is especially interesting because it is based on both research and first hand knowledge, and also was written in 1944, reflecting a good deal of the pre-war culture. After the war, the nomadic existence of the travelling Romanies would come under increasing pressure from the State, and also become confused in the public perception with the "New Age" travellers of the 1960s who took to the roads seeking a counter-culture lifestyle, which is a confusion which persists to this day.

Robert Kilroy-Silk, a critic of travelling communities, notably took part in a television show for Channel 4 in which he stayed for a while with a Romany family. Having done precious little homework, he was taken aback to be given separate washing facilities, because he was not counted as "clean" - cleanliness being not just a matter of hygiene, to the Romanies, but also a matter of cultic significance - ritual cleanliness.

This section is on death and burial, as it was then. The gradual and unconscious assimilation of British Romany families to cultural norms means that some of the aspects of burial which Vesey-Fitgerald describes are of a fading tradition, parts of which, even then were dying out. Today under pressures of bureaucratic control and registration by local authorities, it is most unlikely there would be unrecorded burials in in wayside places and unhallowed ground, and where a wooden vardo could be burnt pretty much to ashes, the modern camper vans which have taken their place cannot.

Today there is far more control over where nomadic peoples can pitch their homes, and the welcome arrival of extra labourers for harvest, or skilled artisans who could make and mend farm and home tools has largely gone, often replaced with suspicion and hostility. That is not to say there may not have been some hostility, especially over poaching which undoubtedly took place, but that was of a different kind to that which we see today, and seems to be more to do with a clash of cultural life choices, in which nomads are demonised as spongers, thieves, vagabonds, and troublemakers - what might be called the Daily Mail perception.

But in the pre-war era, there was a far looser lifestyle for the nomad, and this is reflected here.

from Brian Vesey-Fitgerald's "Gypsies of Britain" (1944)

ON April 17th, 1926, there was buried at Crediton, Devonshire, Mrs. Caroline Penfold (the name should be Pinfold, but has been corrupted), a Gypsy. After the burial the living-waggon in which she died, together with all her personal belongings that could be burned, were reduced to ashes, all her crockery was smashed and buried, and all her jewellery, with the exception of one heavy gold ring, was also buried.

Though the burning of the belongings of the deceased is the best known and most characteristic of all English Gypsy funeral rites (and I shall return to the funeral of Caroline Penfold, which was remarkable in many ways) it is by no means the only one. There are, as is to be expected, a considerable number of customs connected with the death and burial of English Gypsies. Moreover, though not all of them are observed now, and though there is a consider- able variation as between family and family, many more of them are still observed than is the case with other customs and taboos, and as they are from their very nature more noticeable and so more easily recorded than the customs and taboos connected with birth, marriage, uncleanness and so forth, we have a considerable amount of material concerning them. There are very few published accounts of Gypsy weddings, for example, but there are quite a number of accounts, in books and newspapers, of Gypsy funerals. For, curiously enough, though few Gypsies in the past took the trouble to get married in church, or indeed thought it necessary, the vast majority insisted on a Christian burial.

There are, of course, many stories of Gypsy burials in unsanctified ground. For example, there is supposed to be a Gypsy burial ground at Strethall in Essex, which in times past was used by the Shaws, East Anglian Grays and Dymocks, which last is not a Gypsy name. This story has been investigated by Thompson and others, and they have found nothing to support it. The Shaws profess no knowledge of it (and Gypsies do not mind admitting past burials in unsanctified ground) and nobody in the parish at the time enquiries were made could recall it. All the same there were mounds in that field, and skeletons were dug up.

Some people at some time were buried there, but that is no proof that they were Gypsies. Again, there are places in Buckinghamshire where Gypsies are supposed to be buried. At Quainton, near Fenny Stratford, at Mursley and in Towersey Field. There is a possibility that those at Quainton and Mursley are genuine; there seems to be no evidence to support the others. These are only a few examples. It would be possible, I imagine, to duplicate them for almost every county in England. But, as Lias Boswell said to Thompson, " there's no compass to the lies gorgios make up about Romanickals." Naturally there is very little evidence of unofficial burial, and such as there is is indirect. It seems to have been confined within recorded time at least) mainly to the Herons, the East Anglian Smiths, the northern Youngs and to some of the families connected with them by marriage. It is best substantiated for the Herons.

Remarkably few records of the interments of Herons occur in the old parish registers, only one between the years 1650 and 1830-that being of " Mrs. Hearn a Gypsey Queene " at Stanbridge, Bedfordshire, in 1631. And, as Thompson points out, she may not have belonged to the family by birth nor have adhered to it after her marriage : " Whilst ' his majesty''s failure to provide a shroud or winding sheet of woollen cloth, in consequence of which he was distrained upon, ' but no distress to be found,' may imply that he possessed little experience of ordinary burials as to be ignorant of a law relating to them already twelve years old." The very fact that interments of Herons do not appear in parish registers, coupled with the tradition of unsanctified burial current in the family, is proof enough of such burial and additional weight is lent to this when we find in the same period of 180 years no fewer than eight records of Herons marrying in church.

While in conversation with Thompson modern Gypsies of Heron blood have been very definite about it. Kadilia Brown, a Heron in the male line would not hear of Christian sepulchre among her ancestors. " ' Bury in churchyards ! she exclaimed. ' Not they ! They was too a.-trash (frightened) to go nigh them. No : they'd just dig a grave thersel's) and bury the poor things there where they died, on some bit o' common, or down an owld lane.' " Her cousins, Katie Smith and Adelaide Lee, were equally sure about it. " It was kept secret, they declared, sometimes from relatives, even, until after the body had been disposed of, as quickly as might be, in a ditch, or on some little frequented heath ; and again fear, this time of strangers handling the corpse, was given as the motive." Then Genti Gray, a granddaughter in the female line of" No Name " Heron, assured him that several of her mother's kin were buried " up there on the Mussel," meaning Mousehold Heath near Norwich. In fact, it may be taken as certain that Herons, Grays, Youngs and Smiths did bury their dead in unsanctified ground.

Why they did is another matter. I cannot accept the reason that they were frightened to go near churchyards, since they were not frightened of going to church to get married. Nor can I accept the idea that they were afraid of the gorgios handling the body, since it is the common Gypsy practice to get them to lay out the body, and, in fact, Gypsies show a strong disinclination to handle the dead at all. It seems to me much more probable that it was the ancient custom to bury the dead where they died, by the roadside or on some unfrequented heath, and that the custom took longer to die in the notoriously die-hard Heron family. Personally, I think that the occasional preference expressed even to-day by Gypsies (and expressed much more frequently a few years ago) that they should be buried as close to the hedgerow of a churchyard as possible, and the desire still quite frequently expressed that a thorn bush should be planted on the grave, is also a relic of wayside burial.

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