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 section deals with customs specifically related to the dead body before burial, and there are four distinct features:
- Fasting while the dead lie unburied (except for young children)
- Watching over the body - a continuous vigil for the dead
- Candles or lanterns lit over the dead until burial
- Dread of the returning ghost
The "corpse-candle" is also something which we find in that most rural of writers, T.F. Powys, in one of his Fables, but the other practices are quite different. This is a society in which death has not been sanitised, and brushed out of the way, and in contrast to the wake, there is the fasting beforehand.
I know that when, for whatever reason, there is a gap between a death and the burial, to allow relatives to travel to the funeral, there is a sense of a hiatus, a time when nothing is happening, a kind of emotional limbo for those who are mourning. Life goes on with its normal pattern, and yet the funeral - the ceremonial occasion for grief - is waiting ahead. By having ritual such as fasting and a vigil, the Romany peoples marked out that time, that hiatus, as different, and perhaps filling the time with these rituals meant that there was not the emotional limbo and disconnect that occurs in our society today.
DEATH AND BURIAL, Part 3
from Brian Vesey-Fitgerald's "Gypsies of Britain" (1944)
Most bereaved Gypsies fast while their dead lie unburied. In one family of Boswells there is a definite taboo against the eating of " red " meat at such a time and this taboo remained in force until the camping place had been deserted. This family also abstained from preparing meals of any sort, and normally declined any cooked food offered them. The East Anglian Smiths and Browns, according to Thompson, neither cooked nor ate cooked food, contenting themselves as a rule with bread and water, and Bui Boswell and his many daughters neither ate nor smoked, and drank only water, whilst his wife, Savaina Lovell, was awaiting burial. The same practice has been recorded for Herons and Grays and Smiths, Lees and Lovells and Loveridges, Bucklands and Burtons, Stanleys and Coopers. I have known it in Ayres, Lees, Deightons, Pinfolds-indeed I have not yet come across any family in which this custom of fasting until the time of burial is not observed.
Normally fasting ends with the return of the mourners from the grave-side, and then sometimes a special meal is served. Thompson records that this happened after the burial of Thomas Pinfold in 1912, when " tables placed on the moor were laden with provisions and wine." This must be a very rare occurrence indeed-and is obviously an imitation of a common gorgio custom-for Thompson gives only the one occasion. I have not myself ever come across it.
Children are not expected to share the fast, so far as I know, in any family, and Thompson bears this out. All the same, while an Ayres was awaiting burial a year or so ago his grandchildren, aged fourteen, twelve and eleven, fasted as rigorously as their parents.
Frequently while the body is awaiting burial it is watched over by relatives. This " vigil " is a very old established custom among Gypsies. Thompson was told by aged members of the Derby gypsery that Vashti Carlin's body (Vashti was a Boswell who married a gorgio, persuading him to travel) was watched continually by two kinswomen from the time of death until burial and that her body was illuminated the while by candles at her head and feet. Vashti was buried on April 10th, 1839. Thompson then records similar vigils for Mary Buckland in 1909, when her two surviving sisters sat by the corpse without sleep until it was removed for burial, and for the wife of Oni Lee some ten years earlier, when her sister and a daughter performed the same feat. Giving examples of vigils during which the watchers were changed, he instances the death of Abraham Buckland at Gowley near Oxford in 1923, and quotes from Frank Cuttriss's account in Romany Life of a New Forest vigil. Cuttriss says : "The coffin was placed in a tent a short distance from the rest of the camp, by its side stood a tiny clock . . . the little chamber being lit by a lantern suspended from one of the tent rods. Two were keeping watch until midnight when they would arouse two others to take their places until dawn." Cuttriss does not give the name of the dead person, but I am pretty sure he was writing of the death of Sarah Churen in 1912.
His reference to a lantern is interesting, because the usual illumination is by candles, or more commonly I think by one candle at the head, and I know that a lantern was used at the death of Sarah Churen. As a rule these illuminations continue day and night, but in some cases, as at the death of Abraham Buckland, they are lit only at night, which is a departure from normal Christian practice. Another interesting point in Guttriss's account is the mention of the tent at a little distance from the rest of the camp. The erection of a death-tent is not usual among English Gypsies, As a general rule the body is left where death occurred, in the van or tent, and removed only when the procession to the grave is due to start. The laying of Thomas Pinfold's coffin on the grass, so that people might view the body, is an exception to this, and Thompson records an instance in 1811 when a tent was erected over the coffin of a Boswell who died in Birmingham, an instance which he regards as altogether exceptional. Cuttriss's example was not, however, exceptional for New Forest Gypsies, nor did he regard it as such.
I have not heard of a case recently, but it was certainly the common practice among the poorer New Forest Gypsies until quite recently and, a little further back, among those of purer blood. As soon as death had taken place the body was removed from the tent, or van, carried to a little distance from the camp, laid upon a board or folded blankets, and an old tent or a rough, but rainproof, makeshift put up over it. After the burial (and a light was kept burning until the burial was over) this tent and its contents were burnt. There were, I think, two reasons for this departure from the normal practice : a desire to remove the dead body from the camp as some precaution against the return of the spirit (all Gypsies are mortally afraid of ghosts : but more of that later) and common or garden thrift, the desire not to destroy more than absolutely necessary.
The keeping of formal vigils is not confined to Gypsies, of course. I have known it to occur among Hampshire peasantry; in fact, it occurred as recently as 1940 near Winchester, when, by the way, a single candle was kept alight at the head of the corpse. It occurs among Irish tinkers, according to James Arigho, who maintains that the " wake " has never been a tinker custom. It occurs among the northern potters who have a faint Gypsy strain in them. These northern potters do not feast and drink in the presence of the dead as was once the custom among north-country or Scottish Gypsies, according to Simson, and Thompson records that there was no feasting at the death of George Miller, a potter, in 1909, although there was no fasting.
Scottish Gypsies had very different customs from those in use among English Gypsies, and while they may well have infected the Gypsies of the north country I find it hard to believe in view of the contacts the latter undoubtedly had with strict English families. The feasting among north-country Gypsies must, I think, have been among tinkers strayed over the border. Vigils also are kept among the Welsh Gypsies, and Thompson quotes from a letter written to him by a Mr. Alfred Jones from Llanelly in 1912: " Gypsies about here do not go to bed until after the funeral. They sit in company round the fire, and now and then fall back dozing, but at least three must keep awake. If there were only two, one of them might drop off to sleep, and that would leave one by himself. Afraid of the ghost, they said ; that is why they sit in company and lie around the fire." The keeping of vigils is, nowadays, less common and seems to be commonest among south-country Gypsies and particularly amongst those in the New Forest.
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