Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Death and Burial, Part 4

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.

After the last post, I received a lot of rather angry and fierce words from one single Romany (who lives in Jersey) on Facebook which suggested made two assertions: (1) that I should not be writing or posting anything about Romany culture anyway as I was not a Romany, and I would not like it if she wrote about Jersey history; (2) that I was posting information that was not accurate.

Taking the first point, I have to say that I find this nonsensical. Much good work done on Jersey history has been done by archeologists and historians who came from outside Jersey, and it would be, I think, totally absurd to say they couldn't write about Jersey history, language and customs because they came from outside the Island. To name a few names - Doug Ford, Tony Scott-Warren, Charles Cruickshank, Paul Sanders, Freddie Cohen, Mark Patton, Colin Platt, David Frazer, Warwick Rodwell - all of these are outsiders, not Jersey born, even if some of them have settled to live in the Island. That argument simply does not stand up.

On the other second matter, I have written to various Romany peoples in the USA and UK, and they have told me that probably the best Romany historian who is himself a Romany, is Professor Ian Hancock. I have in fact a copy of Hancock's book "We Are the Romani People" at home. He is the director of the Program of Romani Studies and the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at The University of Texas at Austin, where he has been a professor of English, linguistics and Asian studies since 1972. He has also has published more than 300 books and articles concerning the Romani people and language. These works analyze the Romani people not only through Romani linguistics but also through culture, history, anthropology, and genetics.

He is clearly of the opinion that misinformation is best stopped by putting out correct information, and has "Gypsies of Britian" on his suggested reading list.

I also contacted another Romany, who had no problems with me asking questions, or posting material, as long as it was accurate. On "Gypsies of Britain", they told me that "several well respected elders refer to it often. Ian also has it listed in suggesting reading. I tend to trust everything Ian has to say because his research is thorough and he tends to seek out and expose misinformation very quickly."

Another correspondent wrote saying that her daughter in law in the U.K. participated in the Romany burial rituals in Worcester, as her brother lived with them at the time, and the article from Vesey-Fitgerald was accurate.

And a reviewer in Nature, in 1945, noted that: "Now he has given us a most interesting book on the gipsies of Britain. For the accuracy of this book I can vouch, because in the course of a medical experience of more than fifty years I, too, have studied gipsies and doctored all who came my way, in all sorts of conditions, from the heaths of West Cornwall to the open fairs of East London."

The book is also listed in the bibliography of reliable sources in historian Angus Frazer's The Gypsies.

I am therefore, inclined to disregard the opinion of the local Romany, who it appears, from my correspondence with U.K. and U.S.A. Romanies, may be not entirely accurate herself in what she says about Romany culture, and in particular the way in which Romanies are supposed to practice Wiccan style esbats and sabbats, for which I can find no independent sources, and I have looked far and wide. Perhaps the outburst was because there might be a certain romanticism in how she describes her own background, and conflation of that with Wicca (which she practices), which other sources might expose as rather more singular than commonplace among the Romany peoples.

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

I have said that Gypsies have a strong aversion to handling a corpse and that the laying out is almost invariably done by gorgios. One might as well say " invariably," for Thompson, in all the long and careful research he has
done into Gypsy death and burial customs, has come across only one instance of a Gypsy assisting at the laying out of a corpse. This aversion to handling the body is sometimes accompanied by a strong objection to anyone else doing so. Sometimes on these occasions the normal preparations are very much curtailed. Thompson cites as examples two comparatively recent deaths at Birkenhead. Both were youngish men and both died fully, even carefully, dressed, though both had been ill for a considerable period. The only attention either received subsequently was to have his eyes and mouth closed, and his face sponged over very lightly and rapidly by his mother. " On each occasion the body was then laid on a strip of carpet at the back of
the tent, and covered with a white sheet. The undertakers were not allowed to make any measurements, and when they brought the coffin their instructions were to lift the corpse into it by taking hold of the carpet only." A similar procedure is said to have been followed in the case of earlier deaths at Birkenhead, notably in the case of Ambrose Smith's sister, Elizabeth, in 1883.

This custom of the Ambrose Smith family may be regarded as rather extreme, but the practice of dressing up for death was formerly quite common and I have known it to occur as recently as low or thereabouts.

When Louis Boswell was buried on January 26th, 1839, he was fully dressed and shod in buckle shoes. In his pockets were his watch, his pocket-knife and some money, beside him lay his walking-stick, his silver tankard and, perhaps, his fiddle. When his daughter Vashti was buried later in the same year she, too, was fully dressed and had on her buckle shoes. Round her waist was a broad belt ornamented with silver, and having concealed pockets in which money had been placed. There are other records of Gypsies being buried in shoes, notably Absolom Smith, who was buried at Twyford in Leicestershire in 1826 wearing shoes adorned with silver buckles each of which weighed half-a-pound. But the custom of being buried in shoes seems to
have been confined in the main to the midlands. Thompson only gives two examples outside the midlands, and says some Gypsies, including a Gray, a Heron and a Lee, have informed him that it is contrary to Gypsy custom.

Dressing up, however, is certainly not. It has been a common practice not only in England, but in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe. In England and Germany best clothes are worn, but they are always clothes that have been worn before. In Eastern Europe there seems to be a preference for new clothes. Covering the head does not seem ever to have been a common practice among English Gypsies. Eliza Heron was buried in Norfolk about 1887 in a scarlet bonnet, and this seems to be a unique record. There are two records of midland Gypsy women being buried with kerchiefs arranged in the usual manner on their heads. There is one similar record for a Norfolk Gypsy, Tom Brown, and Eliza Boss was buried with the hood of her cloak turned up. The practice seems to have been more prevalent among Scottish Gypsies, who were otherwise buried naked more often than not. Simson says that a paper cap was used and that paper was also put round the feet of the body. Otherwise the body was naked except that on the breast, opposite the heart, a small circle of red and blue ribbons was placed.

Burying a corpse naked is unknown among English Gypsies, and so is the use of paper or of ribbons of any colour to adorn the body. But the circle on the breast idea is not unknown, for instead of ribbons some English Gypsies have used, and perhaps still do, a round sod of turf. The exact purpose of this custom is not known. I find it impossible to take seriously the Smiths' explanation (the custom was commonest among Smiths), as quoted by Thompson, that it was to prevent swelling. It is, in any case, not entirely a Gypsy custom. It was formerly common among the peasantry of the lakeland counties, in Staffordshire, in Cornwall, and even occurred occasionally in Hampshire. It was known and practised by the northern potters. And related customs-the use of a few tufts of grass (which would certainly do nothing to prevent swelling) by midland Gypsies, of grasses or flowers by southern Gypsies, and of a pebble by Irish tinkers-are many. It
is curious to find no explanation in all the pages of Folk-Lore (if there is one I have missed it) and even Fraser is unhelpful. The same reason-prevention of swelling-has often been given for the placing of a saucer of salt on the breast. This is a generally accepted survival of saining ; so it looks, as Thompson points out, as if the motives that once prompted the adoption of these rites had been forgotten or had become confused.


Geraint Jennings said...

Ahem, I'm Jersey born and bred, me!

TonyTheProf said...

Apologies. Somehow I always thought you were Welsh. How did you come by the name Geraint, then?

TonyTheProf said...

Note - an earlier version of this post inadvertently had Geraint as not Jersey born. It has been corrected.

J'ai r'gret!

Geraint Jennings said...

The short version of a long story is: my name was inspired by Sir Geraint Evans, the opera singer, rather than by Sir Geraint, the knight of the Round Table. All hopes of singing talent have since been cruelly dashed...