Thursday, 8 December 2011

Death and Burial, Part 5

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.

Around 2005, I was talking to various Romany folk on MSN Groups sites. Those are now gone; Microsoft decided to shut them down, but in their time, they were very popular. I'd heard about the book from discussions in the MSN chat rooms, and got my copy secondhand. Frank, a Romany who now works as a London cab driver (or did in 2005!), told me this:

"I'm glad you got the book . I remember telling you about it in the chat room . I hope you enjoyed it .This book is the most accurate book about English Romany's I have ever read . It gives , I feel a balanced view . It accurately represents the traditions I learnt as a child"

When I open a book depicting the past, the accuracy of it is always something to consider, and this kind of encounter, when I came across a Romany who had lived part of his life and grown up hearing these traditions - not from the book - but from his own experience, was a welcome confirmation. It is always good when oral and written sources dovetail and corroborate one another, and clearly this is the case with Gypsies of Britain.  

This section deals with how the dead are buried, with clothes and possessions, and the kind of possessions. It's interesting to see how some of this seems to suggest preparation for the afterlife. Grave goods, as archeology terms this, is a very ancient custom indeed, and I wonder if it came with the Romanies or was something they came across on their travels. It's also notable that some of the customs with clothing was also reflected in the non-Romany rural culture of that time.

Certainly the food placed in the coffin, the "dear God's bread", would seem to indicate some Christian influence, but whether this is a transformation of existing custom is unknown. Cunning folk used Christian prayers as charms, as a kind of folk-magic to ward off evil, and of course, Bram Stoker adopts the use of Holy Wafers as a form of talisman to keep away the Vampire in his novel Dracula.

There were a lot of folk practices with a Christian form on what was in fact a mixture of faith and talismanic magic, where the talisman had magic properties. L'Amy's Jersey Folklore mentions numerous examples from anecdotes told by people still living, and I've heard tell of Portuguese people in Jersey doing something similar with bags of grain or flour. Perhaps the phrase in the nursery rhyme "a pocket full of rye" is a distant echo of these beliefs.

There is no clear distinction between faith and folk-magic, and the boundaries are blurred - the Celtic Carmina Gaedelica, for example, has what could be regarded as prayers, or charms, or incantations. Some people would like to tidy up matters and make those kind of distinctions, but the past is more untidy than they realise. In a way, it is the last remnant of the Medieval worldview, in which the world was full of signs and wonders, and what remains today are tattered fragments, torn loose.

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

If dressing-up for death was at one time a fairly common practice among English Gypsies, the burying of possessions including clothes with the dead was very much more common and is not yet extinct, nor, in fact, does it show any signs of becoming extinct.  And this is the reason why many Gypsies' coffins are so exceptionally large. There is nothing else out of the way about Gypsy coffins.   In my experience they are always very good and solidly made and the inscriptions short, plain and neat. 

Clothes are the most usual possessions buried with the dead.  Thompson gives a fairly full list of well-known burials of this type. Her entire wardrobe was buried with Ethelenda Heron, the greater part of Santinia Smith's with her:  Isaac Heron was buried with a suit and an overcoat, Savaina Lovell with one or two dresses, a silk shawl, and other " bits o' finery."  All these Gypsies were buried only in undergarments and a shroud. It was probably less usual to bury additional clothes with a fully-dressed corpse, but it undoubtedly did occur, and Thompson, who gives two examples, thinks that it would be easy to obtain many more and that it may once have been customary to do so. On the other hand, the East Anglian Smiths, who normally buried their dead fully dressed, regarded any loose enclosures in the coffin with disfavour, though one of this family, Elizabeth, was buried with two Brussels carpets, one a " large one " as well as the strip upon which she was laid out.  The clothes very rarely include boots or shoes. Boots were placed in the coffins of Thomas Penfold and Supplista Smith, but this is most unusual, and I think the inclusion of a pair of new boots in Job Cooper's coffin, as mentioned by Leland, must be a mistake on the part of that great rai.  There is no other record of a similar occurrence among English Gypsies, and it is absolutely contrary to accepted English Gypsy practice, though it has occurred among foreign Gypsies in England as recently as 1936.

Indeed there is a strong aversion to unworn clothes belonging to the dead, and Thompson mentions that when Theophilus Boswell was buried his large coffin was almost filled up with clothes, but a new suit which had just come for him from the tailor was left out, and subsequently cut up and sent to a rag-shop.

The clothes buried with a corpse are sometimes turned inside out. There are not many recorded instances of this among English Gypsies, but for all that I think this custom was once fairly widespread, and it is not dead even to-day. The three best known examples are all for members of the Heron family who died within a year or so of each other- Isaac Heron, his niece Amelia Heron, the wife of Elias Gray, and her niece Ethelenda Heron.  Isaac and Amelia died in the midlands, Ethelenda in South Wales, and in each case the clothes were folded inside out and laid beneath the body. According to Thompson, these are the only three records of this practice in England, but he mentioned related practices in the coat of a fully dressed corpse being turned inside out and of bodies being buried clad in underclothes  turned inside out,  both being practices regarded as normal by his informants.  I can add one further example of clothes being folded inside out and the corpse laid upon them-Caroline Penfold was buried thus. I know of no case of a fully dressed corpse having any of its clothes turned inside out, but I do know of two, and perhaps more, cases in which underclothes have been turned inside out.  This at least seems to have been a widespread custom, for James Arigho maintains that the true tinkers were always buried so.  The reversal of garments, so Thompson was informed, is a practice in Bulgarian mourning. I do not know about that, and cannot find confirmation anywhere, but the reversal of clothes is a well-known safeguard against ill-luck among many peoples.

Thompson gives one or two examples, including one from a Gypsy tale.  Among peasant peoples in England it is uncommon now, perhaps it was never common, but it does still occur and the remnants of it still linger among the educated classes.  I have been told by highly educated people that it is good luck to put a sock on inside out, I have even been told that it is good luck to put on a jumper or pullover inside out.  I have known a Hampshire farm labourer turn his jacket inside out before taking part in a ploughing match, and I have known Irish peasantry reverse their hats before any big event in which they particularly desire to be lucky.  I think it not
improbable that this reversal of clothing as a burial custom is no more than a desire to ensure that the corpse has a lucky journey to the next world, though it would be easy to produce much more complex reasons for it.

I think consideration of the journey that must be taken after death plays a large part in deciding the other articles that are frequently buried with a corpse.  All sorts of things are buried, but jewellery and trinkets seem to be the most usual.  Occasionally a vast amount of material is buried with the deceased.   Rodney Smith, the Evangelist, in his autobiography, Gipsy Smith, his Lift and Work, says :  " When an uncle of mine died my aunt bought a coffin large enough for all his possessions-including his fiddle, cup and saucer, plate, knife, etc.-except, of course, his waggon.  My wife and my sister pleaded hard for the cup and saucer as a keepsake, but she was resolute.  Nobody should ever use them again."  Such wholesale methods are unusual, and, as a general rule, Gypsies destroy a dead person's crockery and table cutlery.  There have been few exceptions to this rule, though a Constance Smith had a knife, fork and plate buried with her, and Mordecai Boswell a cup, plate, knife, fork and spoon, all carefully wrapped up in a" crumb cloth."  His daughter Ambrozina, as Thompson records, remarking that " he'd likely have need of 'em."

These are, however, exceptions : jewellery and personal trinkets are not. Most Gypsy women wear rings, necklaces and ear-rings or ear-pendants, and these are often- probably even to-day more often than not-buried with them. Leland heard of Stanleys buried with rings on their fingers, and Thompson says that the Derby Boswells regard stripping a dead woman of her jewellery as both wicked and dangerous. In this family it was usual to place in the coffin with the body any trinkets that the deceased was not wearing at the time of her death, but in most families Thompson thinks it is probably more usual to break them up and either drop them into water or bury them in a hole.

It is recorded that at Alice Barney's funeral, at Otterbourne in Hampshire in 1911, her jewellery was interred underneath the coffin, a practice intermediate between those commonly favoured. Actually the heavy gold ring
that she was wearing at the time of her death was removed and is still being worn by a descendant.   Alice Barney was buried, except for this, in the jewellery she was wearing, and all the rest, a considerable collection, was dropped into the grave just before the coffin was lowered.  A point I have not seen mentioned is that a golden sovereign was thrown on to the coffin before the grave was filled in.

Watches are sometimes buried with the men, and so are all sorts of oddments that might conceivably be thought useful in after-life or on the journey, for example pocket-knives, walking-sticks, tankards (many old Gypsies carried drinking mugs in their tail pockets), tobacco boxes, and so forth. There is one record, at least, of a fiddle being buried and one of a whip. They were the things that the deceased used most frequently or was fondest of, but, curiously, I can find no record of a snuff-box being buried, and as I have seen some very old and exquisite snuff-boxes in the possession of Gypsies it would seem that these were always kept as mementoes.

Food, curiously enough, seems to have been buried with the dead only by Hampshire Gypsies.  Thompson quotes a very curious record which he says was originally published by the Hampshire Field Club in 1922 of a Gypsy burial at Blackwater in 1912.  (I cannot find any record of this in the Club's publications.)  At this funeral there was placed in the coffin the deceased's best set of harness, some grain and some bread.  The reason for this is evident enough. Harness and corn would be needed for his horse in the next world or en route to it, and bread would be needed for his own sustenance.  Thompson very rightly casts doubt on this record. For one thing it is supposed to have taken place in Blackwater churchyard, but there is no church at either of the Blackwaters in Hampshire nor is there one at the Blackwater in the Isle of Wight.  Again, the man is described as " a Gypsy king," and Thompson has no knowledge of anyone who could possibly be described as such dying at any of the three Blackwaters in or about 1912.

The last objection is easily disposed of-all Gypsy men who die and achieve print in so doing are " kings," all Gypsy women who achieve print at their death are " queens " (even poor Caroline Penfold was " a Gypsy queen ").  It means no more than that.  The objection about the churchyard is more serious, at first sight indeed insurmountable.  Since there are no churchyards at any of the Blackwaters the man could not possibly have been buried in one.  But he might, I think, have been buried at Blackwater.  As I have already said, I have wondered once or twice about one of the Blackwaters as a possible burial ground analogous to Mousehold Heath.  The late date, 1912, makes an unsanctified burial very unlikely I admit, but-. I do not know anything more definite about this mysterious burial than this-that early in 1912 one Job Churen, almost the last of that mysterious and respected family, died, and that at his funeral his favourite horse (Thompson wondered about the horse and if one was slaughtered at the Blackwater funeral) was slaughtered. So much I have heard, but I do not know where Job Churen was buried.

One more point : bread and grain are believed by many Gypsies to afford protection against ghosts, witches, evil luck generally, and even against the devil.  Gypsies have been known to sew bread inside their horses' collars to safeguard the animals against " witching." Thompson states that Sandi Lovell used to clutch a loaf of bread to his naked breast whenever he was assailed by wandering spirits, and that Tom Lee crumbled a whole loaf around his tent when his son, Bendigo, was born. Furthermore, tales are not in frequently told by Gypsies of men and women who habitually carried wheat or other grain in their pockets as a measure of safety, or ran into cornfields when followed by the beng or a mulo.  " The dear God's bread " and " the dear God's grain " are common expressions among old-fashioned Romanies.  Amos Churen always carried some bread in his pocket.  He set very great store by it.  It was something much more than a talisman to him.

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