Thursday, 29 December 2011

Death and Burial, Part 6

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 is about placing items with the body of the deceased in the coffin, which as he notes is a Romany custom, but not uniquely so, and would appear to be very ancient indeed. Within Jersey, we have the practice in the Neolithic sites, of placing "grave goods" such as stone amulets, shells, pottery etc with the partial bones of the dead. But it is more difficult to discern the purpose of those, as not everyone was buried within Neolithic tombs; indeed while they seemed to have been a hinterland between the world of the living and the world beyond, they were also as much places of worship as burial sites - in that respect they are more like ancient Parish churches, where some people are buried within the building, reflecting in part the beliefs of the day, but not being the main function of the building as such.

In the 6th century, we find lavish burials, such as that in the Middle Rhine, of an adult male buried at Planig, where the "grave goods" included included a golden helm decorated with Christian symbols; other sixth-century grave-goods were decorated with crosses. The introduction of Christianity into the extensive Frankish regions, which included Neustria, much of which formed Normandy, meant that pagan grave goods were re-defined within Christianity:

The Merovingian church made no attempt to stamp out the practice of burial with grave-goods; indeed, it used grave-goods to help define the power of saints and churchmen. The spectacular finds recently unearthed at Frankfurt demonstrate how the church had no reservations about turning the use of grave-goods to its own advantage. Underneath the Carolingian palace complex, a series of inhumation burials beneath a stone church of the late seventh century have been found. These burials include that of a girl of four or five with fabulously rich grave-goods, interred in a tunic embroidered, in gold, with a cross, but also with amulets near her head and pots containing burned animal flesh. Here, the spectacular display of wealth and power through the deposition of lavish grave-goods helped establish the standing of the new church in a local idiom with strong syncretic elements (1)

Regarding a hammer, Danish sites from Viking times until at least the 10th century included "Thor's Hammer", and the Roman Catholic custom is also mentioned, along with a gypsy funeral, in Bertram Puckle's survey of funeral customs:

The hammer has thus been mentioned as one of the objects commonly buried with primitive man, and we find this custom continued under another guise, namely, that the dead may use it to announce their arrival by "knocking with it on the gates of Purgatory."' This quaint belief is still to be met with in Ireland. At the funeral of Zachariah Smith, a gipsy who was buried in Yorkshire a few years ago, in the traditional manner of his tribe, the following articles accompanied him for his convenience in the future state: An extra suit of clothes, his watch and chain, four pocket-handkerchiefs, a hammer and a candle. (2)

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

Money is frequently buried with the body. Leland, on the authority of one of the Deightons, says that £3,000 was buried with one of the Chilcotts, which is, I think, improbable. The sums are usually small. Twopence was buried with Zachariah Smith, " a copper or two " with Kenza Smith, a penny each with Supplista Smith, Noah Holland and Thomas Penfold. Some of the Boswells were apparently buried with a pound or two, for the Derby branch of this family used to put' in the coffin any money the deceased had about him when he died or had handled just before he died. The largest sum that I have knowledge of is the sovereign thrown on to the coffin of Alice Barney.

The custom of burying money with the dead is not confined to Gypsies, of course. The Prussians used to put money in the coffin so that the deceased could buy refreshment on the way, and the custom is not yet dead in Germany and Austria, and I believe is still followed in parts of the Balkans. Thompson records that. at the funeral of James Hedges, one of a half-blood family that travels chiefly in Essex, a friend dropped half-a-crown into the open grave, saying as he did so : " Here, Jimmy : here's something for a drink on the way." The old Irish tinkers used to drop a coin into the grave and, when the grave was filled in, spill some liquor on the soil.

The inclusion of a coin in the coffin was not unknown in gorgio funerals, particularly, it is said, among Roman Catholics, though it is generally strenuously denied by them.

Some details of this may be found in Notes and Queries (1879, 1880) : " Cuthbert Bede," writing about the burial of a Roman Catholic lady of title not then very long dead, states that tenantry and others saw her in her coffin and, according to " two or three cottagers," a hammer rested in her right hand and a gold coin in her left : " with the hammer she was to knock at the gate of heaven, and with the coin to pay St. Peter for admittance." He discredits these statements and suggests that a crucifix and a reliquary were mistaken for the secular objects named. Then follows some correspondence during which one " C. B." thought that the " hammer " must have been a crucifix and suggested that the " coin " was a medal, perhaps granted by some religious order. He denied that it was a Roman Catholic practice to furnish the dead with a hammer and a coin, but added : " I have heard of such equipments for a corpse spoken of among Montgomeryshire peasantry."

Next comes R. H. Hampton Roberts, who said that once he had been told by some aged Welsh people of the burial with Roman Catholics of a candle to light the way, a loaf of bread for refreshment on the journey, a hammer to knock at the door of heaven and a coin to pay St. Peter for opening it. Lastly, J. W. Smith wrote to say that a similar story, with the addition sometimes of a billhook or hatchet to clear obstructions from the road, and a tinder-box, flint and steel to strike a light, was current in Essex. He declared this to be an absurd Protestant idea arising from ignorance of Roman Catholic usages. If so, as Thompson points out, it is odd that an Irish Roman Catholic of the late Mr. Hall's acquaintance should have told him that he had witnessed the putting of a hammer, a candle and one or two pennies into the coffin at gorgio funerals and for the purposes mentioned, even supposing he did not imply priestly sanctions or tolerance of the practice.

Both candles and hammers have been placed in Gypsy coffins. I know of no recent inclusions of candles, but a hammer was placed in the coffin of Caroline Penfold in 1926, and there are records of this as far back as 1864. Whether it is Gypsy custom that was copied by some gorgios or vice versa is a nice point. Myself, I incline to the latter view.

(1) State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley, 400-1000. Matthew Innes, 2000
(2) Funeral Customs, Bertram Puckle, 1926

No comments: