Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Death and Burial - Part 2

Another an extract today from Gypsies of Britain by Brian Vesey-Fitgerald (1900-1981). 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.

This piece continues where the earlier one left off, focusing on the practice of wayside burials, which would not, of course, have been in any official Government records, but which certainly do seem to have happened. The fact that they were reported to Vesey-Fitgerald as "hurried and secretive affairs", but the places are well known suggests that the Romany people did not want the authorities to be looking for the burial sites.

The customs that followed under official guidelines seem to have varied, in whether the coffin was open to mourners as in a chapel of rest, or viewing the body was restricted to very close clan only, although that seems to have been rare. On the whole, members of the clan could view the deceased before burial, and it is interesting to note the opening of the coffin on the grass before burial in one recorded instance.

The Buckland family mentioned here are probably the same line as those mentioned in "Travellers & Fairkeepers from The Cotswolds & Vale of White Horse to Regions Beyond" by Jim Hayward. The book mentions that the Bucklands were a widespread name

because of their large numbers and because they married into and influenced the lives of so many other travelling families - as well as a great many of the non-travelling inhabitants of the areas they worked.

Their 'travelling' descendants of today are just the tip of a great hidden mountain of 'settled' descendants who live what are considered to be more conventional lives - being totally unaware of the past rich culture of their ancestry, and the interest it aroused from the mid nineteenth century into the early part of the twentieth century amongst a certain group of enthusiasts describing themselves as 'Romany Rais' or 'Gypsiologists'.

The counties through which the young Thames with its contributories, then the Vale of the White Horse and the Cotswolds run - Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Warwickshire - were most certainly strongholds for the Bucklands and their kith and kin during these times.

He also mentions "Urania Buckland, a presumed matriarch of the Bunces", but it is not clear whether this is the Urania Buckland mentioned by Vesey-Fitgerald. What is certain is that it shows the name "Urania" was in use among the Romany peoples.

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

Naturally we have no record of any ceremony or other custom connected with these burials by the wayside. The impression given by the descendants of the Heron family who discussed the matter with Thompson is that they were hurried and secretive affairs.  But I find this hard to believe in -view of the fact that there are to-day so many customs observed, most of which have nothing to do with Christian burial and which must have their roots deep in the past, and also because, in one case at least (I have an idea that Blackwater in Hampshire might be another), the burial place is so well known. If these wayside burials were hurried hole-in-corner affairs scattered up and down the country one would hardly expect them to be remembered.

But Mousehold Heath is remembered.  More than one Heron lies buried there " in a hollow screened by gorse, on that part of the heath farthest from the barracks," as Fred Gray told Thompson. The very fact that more than one lies buried in the same spot (and Genti Gray said " several ") indicates a return to the place for the particular business of burial, and that in itself indicates some sort of ceremony, some customs attached to the actual act of interment.  But if we have no knowledge of what occurred at these wayside burials, nor yet of what occurred before them, we have a considerable amount of material connected with Christian burial.

It appears to be the custom in many families for the body to lie awhile " in state " so that it may be viewed by relatives and friends.  There are several records of this for the Boswell family, who did not apparently mind the gorgios viewing their dead.  In each instance the coffin was left open until it was nearly time for the procession to start for the graveyard, as is often done at gorgio funerals, so that mourners from a distance might see the body. 

When Urania Buckland died at Reading in 1912 a similar proceeding was adopted, and when Thomas Pinfold died in Cornwall in the same year the coffin was taken out of the van an hour before the time fixed for the interment and laid on the grass with the lid off for friends to view the body.  Many other examples could be given of this practice, and Thompson also mentions that the body of a Gypsy woman who died at Littlebury in Essex about 1830 is said to have been laid on trestles by the encampment whilst awaiting burial, a procedure that appears to be unique.

Against these examples Thompson lists some in which a sight of the body has been refused even to relations. When Lawrence Boswell's eldest son, Moses, died at. Etwall, near Derby, in 1855, his widow, Trenit Heron, excluded visitors from the ' death tent,' and even refused to allow relations to view the body.

The East Anglian Smiths and Browns, the latter being Herons under an assumed name, secreted their dead in the same manner, according to Katie Smith, a granddaughter of 'Jasper Petulengro ' and her cousin, Kadilia Brown ; and similar behaviour has been noticed recently by O'Connor Boswell's family (who are descended from Major in the male line) and a succession of gorgios in the female) among relics of the Ambrose Smith-John Chilcott ' clan ' settled at Green Lane, Birkenhead. 

The colony there consists of Lurni and Lenda Young, daughters of Trenit Heron's brother, Taiso, and of Shuri Chilcott, together with their children and grandchildren, who bear the names Boswell, Smith and Robinson, and one of the Robinsons is married to a son of O'Connor's.  Yet, despite this connecting link, the latter's wife, Angelina Finney, declares that she and her family have twice been denied a sight of their dead.  ' And we're not the only ones,' she said) ' for ther's some as is more nearer to 'em nor what we are bin served the same, though they've gone a-purpose to take a last look.' "

The fact that Angelina Finney complains, and evidently feels bitter about it, is sufficient to show that it is not the usual custom.  I have not personally come across a single instance of refusal.  At Caroline Penfold's funeral, where things were carried through with a most punctilious regard for custom, and at Helen Shevin's funeral (and Helen had the true black blood of the Ingrams in her veins) the body was exposed to view.

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