Mourning the Dead

Specific traditions and customs govern the post mortem period, as with all other death rites. From the moment of death, ceremonial weeping was customary in different cultures. Expressions of grief once widespread, especially in Middle Eastern countries, included fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, the tearing of one’s clothes, the pulling and tearing out of one’s hair, and of course, extensive wailing and weeping. In Biblical times, these practices were carried out so vigorously that a clear ban against excessive rites of mourning, such as cutting one’s hair or mutilating one’s flesh, was laid down in various Old Testament books.149

In European countries, mourning was, and in many cases still is, signified by the wake, the wearing of black clothes, and various other traditions, such as the custom of covering mirrors or turning them to the wall in houses where a death has taken place. This practice is almost universal and found in countries as far apart as England, India, Germany, Greece, and Madagascar. Behind the tradition lurks the superstitious belief that in a house where someone had recently died, the ghost of the deceased would carry off one’s soul projected in the mirror-reflection, as any reflection of oneself was thought to contain one’s soul. Therefore, once a death had occurred, it was of utmost importance for the living to do everything in their power to help safely convey the soul as far away as possible into the other world. Nobody wanted the deceased to be detained and remain as a bothersome ghost in the house, perhaps appearing behind someone looking in a mirror. For this reason, it was customary in some countries to cover not only mirrors, but also all shiny things in the house, such as brass, copper, silver, and gold.

Besides mirrors, portraits were also thought to contain the soul of the person portrayed, hence, the superstition about misfortune befalling someone whose picture falls off a wall for no apparent reason. There are still people today, who hold the belief that to capture their likeness robs them of their soul, and consequently, they are aghast at seeing their image in a photo. In rural parts of Turkey, Morocco, and various Asian countries, this notion lingers. 

Another important aspect to be considered when someone has died is Mortuis nil nisi bonum, meaning ‘Never speak ill of the dead’. As early as 77 CE, Pliny wondered: ‘Why, at any mention of the dead do we protest that we do not attack their memory?’.150 This superstition is still widely observed. The dislike of speaking ill of the dead has been proverbial throughout the ages. To speak of the dead at all has always been viewed with great disquietude and is usually accompanied with the apologetic statement, ‘God bless his soul’. Furthermore, if anything disparaging and negative is said of the dead, it is common to qualify such a statement by adding a phrase of regard or sympathy, such as ‘poor man’, or ‘honest man’, however, often in direct contradiction to the deceased’s character. 

Formerly, to speak of the dead, that is, mention their names, was greatly feared, the reason being the firm belief that should the name be mentioned, the spirit of the dead appeared immediately. This reminds us of a quote from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead: ‘To speak the name of the dead makes them live again, brings them back to life’.151 In European countries, the topic of death is still avoided, and we say that a friend or relative has ‘passed away’, ‘passed on’, ‘taken the road of no return’ or that the ‘thread of life has been severed’. A direct referral to the unpleasant topic of death is thereby avoided, the evocative power of speech vaguely lingering as a fearful superstition. However, in many traditional societies, this belief prevails. Among Australian Aborigines the name of a deceased person is not mentioned for some time following a death. 

Another important death rite is the custom of touching the dead as a final courtesy or gesture of farewell. This tradition is widespread and is found in many parts of Europe and America. It demonstrates a lack of ill feeling towards the dead person. Superstitious belief once held that touching a corpse prevented its spirit from inducing any visitations or troubling dreams. In Scotland, it was once firmly held that a murdered man’s corpse would not decay if all mourners had not ceremoniously touched it. The tradition of touching a corpse as a gesture of goodwill might be a relic of the medieval trial by ordeal, in which someone accused of murder was taken to the dead body and made to touch it with his hands. Should blood ooze from any wounds or any change occur in the colouring of the corpse’s feet or hands, the person was judged guilty. 

Often, the implicit belief in this form of justice resulted in the accused displaying great fear, then considered to indicate guilt, whether the person was guilty of the crime or not. Such trials by ordeal are mentioned in the Daemonologie (1597) of King James I: ‘In a secret murther, if the dead carkasse be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were crying to heaven for revenge of the murtherer’.152 

In many Asian and African countries however, taboos are still in place against touching the dead and everything associated with them. According to Hindu belief anyone touching a corpse becomes polluted and must undergo ritual cleansing, which is why the burning of corpses is traditionally carried out by Sudras, adherents of the lowest Hindu class. Similarly, the Old Testament intones: ‘He who touches the dead body of anyone shall be unclean seven days. He shall purify himself with water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean’.153 

Apart from touching the dead it was once also considered a pious necessity, according to European tradition, to kiss the deceased to bid them farewell. An old English belief firmly stipulated that children especially should be made to kiss the dead and, by so doing, receive the gift of long life and physical strength from the newly dead. Needless to say, many a child must have been terrified and severely traumatised by being forced into this ritual.

In many cultures, it was also customary to exhibit an exaggerated, melodramatic show of grief by hiring professional wailers. According to Western cultural observances, the correct deportment for mourners of rank has always been one of controlled repression. Professional wailers, therefore, were employed by the well-to-do to dispel an impression of indifference on the part of those left behind. Women, traditionally more inclined than men to displays of emotional sorrow, have always been in great demand as professional wailers. For suitable remuneration, they followed ancient Greeks and Romans to their tombs, loudly weeping, flaying their arms, and beating their breasts. Such wailers were still employed in various European countries in the early 1900s. 

On the other hand it was thought that too much mourning and crying was very disturbing to the ghosts of the dead. In countries such as England and Germany, it was regarded as wrong to weep inconsolably at a funeral, as this was thought to hinder the departing spirit. Crying was considered to hold the dying person back and was commonly referred to as ‘crying back the dead’, therefore, not acquiescing to Divine Will. On the islands off the west coast of Ireland, no funeral wail was permitted until three hours after someone’s death so that the sound of lamenting would not hinder the soul from leaving the body.

A morbidly fascinating custom is that of post-mortem photography, which evolved as a direct result of the invention of photography in 1839. Up until this time only the wealthy possessed portraits of themselves. However, photography suddenly enabled those, who would never have been able to afford to sit for a painted portrait, to have their picture taken. For all those who had missed out on a photographic likeness during their lifetime and to help families in the grieving process, photographers offered ‘last look’ photographic portraits, taken either in a studio or in the home of the deceased. 

To our modern-day sensibilities the custom of the proverbial ‘last look’ may seem somewhat morbid, but during the nineteenth century the practice was widespread and formed a vital part of the mourning process in European and American culture. Death was a common occurrence: life expectancy was low and infant mortality especially high. When post-mortem photography was in vogue, it was customary to make the deceased appear to be merely sleeping or resting, which is why the deceased was often propped upright in bed or in a chair or settee. Sometimes the eyes were left open to give the corpse a more life-like appearance. Parents posed with dead infants in their arms and various props such as flowers or a cross were added to the scene in order to give an indication of the post-mortem nature of the photo. With the passage of time however, post-mortem photography slowly changed to focus on a draped coffin adorned with flowers, with a photograph of the deceased placed on top. 


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