A History of Mourning

A History of Mourning

Richard Davey
Richard Davey

Author: Davey, Richard, 1848-1915
Funeral rites and ceremonies
Mourning customs
A History of Mourning





Wreath composed of the flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s dirges






LTHOUGH tradition has not informed us whether our first parents made any marked change in their scanty garments on the death of their near relatives, it is certain that the fashion of wearing mourning and the institution of funereal ceremonies and rites are of the most remote antiquity. Herodotus tells us that the Egyptians over 3,000 years ago selected yellow as the colour which denoted that a kinsman was lately deceased. They, moreover, shaved their eyebrows when a relative died; but the death of a dog or a cat, regarded as divinities by this curious people, was a matter of much greater importance to them, for then they not only shaved their eyebrows, but every hair on their bodies was plucked out; and doubtless this explains the reason why so many elaborate wigs are to be seen in the various museums devoted to Egyptian antiquities. It would require a volume to give an idea of the singular funereal ceremonials of this people, with whom death was regarded, so to speak, as a “speciality;” for their religion was mainly devoted to the cultus of the departed, and consequently innumerable monumental tombs still exist all over Egypt, the majority of which are full of mummies, whose painted cases are most artistic.

Fig. 1.An Egyptian Lady preparing to go into Mourning for the death of her pet Cat.—From a picture by J. R. Weguelin.

The cat was worshipped as a divinity by the Egyptians. Magnificent tombs were erected in its honour, sacrifices and devotions were offered to it; and, as has already been said, it was customary for the people of the house to shave their heads and eyebrows whenever Pussy departed the family circle. Possibly it was their exalted position in Egypt which eventually led to cats being considered the “familiars” of witches in the Middle Ages, and even in our own time, for belief in witchcraft is not extinct. The kindly Egyptians made mummies of their cats and dogs, and it is presumable that, since Egypt is a corn growing, and hence a rat and mouse producing country, both dogs and cats, as killers of these vermin, were regarded with extreme veneration on account of their exterminating qualities. Their mummies are often both curious and comical, for the poor beast’s quaint figure and face are frequently preserved with an indescribably grim realism, after the lapse of many ages.

Fig. 2.Egyptian Maiden presenting Incense to the new-made Mummy of a Cat.

The funeral processions of the Egyptians were magnificent; for with the principal members of the family of the deceased, if he chanced to be of royal or patrician rank, walked in stately file numerous priests, priestesses, and officials wearing mourning robes, and, together with professional mourners, filling the air with horrible howls and cries. Their descendants still produce these strident and dismal lamentations on similar occasions.

HE Egyptian Pyramids, which were included among the seven wonders of the world, are seventy in number, and are masses of stone or brick, with square bases and triangular sides. Although various opinions have prevailed as to their use, as that they were erected for astronomical purposes, for resisting the encroachment of the sand of the desert, for granaries, reservoirs, or sepulchres, the last-mentioned hypothesis has been proved to be correct, in recent times, by the excavations of Vyse, who expended nearly £10,000 in investigating their object. They were the tombs of monarchs of Egypt who flourished from the Fourth to the Twelfth Dynasty, none having been constructed later than that time; the subsequent kings being buried at Abydos, Thebes, and other places, in tombs of a very different character.

Fig. 3.The Pyramids and Great Sphinx.—From a pen-and-ink sketch by Horace Vernet.

The first, or Great Pyramid, was the sepulchre of the Cheops of Herodotus, the Chembes, or Chemmis, of Diodorus, and the Suphis of Manetho and Eratosthenes. Its height was 480 feet 9 inches, and its base 764 feet square. In other words, it was higher than St. Paul’s Cathedral, and built on an area the size of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It has been, however, much spoiled, and stripped of its exterior blocks for the building of Cairo. The original sepulchral chamber, called the Subterranean Apartment, 46 feet by 27 feet, and 11 feet 6 inches high, has been hewn in the solid rock, and was reached by the original passage of 320 feet long, which descended to it by an entrance at the foot of the pyramid. A second chamber, with a triangular roof, 17 feet by 18 feet 9 inches, and 20 feet 3 inches high, was entered by a passage rising to an inclination of 26° 18′, terminating in a horizontal passage. It is called the Queen’s Chamber, and occupies a position nearly in the centre of the pyramid. The monument—probably owing to the long life attained by the monarch—still progressing, a third chamber, called the King’s, was finally constructed, by prolonging the ascending passage of the Queen’s Chamber for 150 feet farther into the very centre of the pyramid, and, after a short horizontal passage, making a room 17 feet 1 inch by 34 feet 3 inches, and 19 feet 1 inch high. The changes which took place in this pyramid gave rise to various traditions, even in the days of Herodotus, Cheops being reported to lie buried in a chamber surrounded by the waters of the Nile. It took a long time for its construction—100,000 men being employed on it probably for above half a century, the duration of the reign of Cheops. The operations in this pyramid by General Vyse gave rise to the discovery of marks scrawled in red ochre in a kind of cursive hieroglyph, on the blocks brought from the quarries of Tourah. These contained the name and titles of Khufu (the hieroglyphic form of Cheops); numerals and directions for the position of materials, etc.

Fig. 4.Mummies of Cats and Dogs.—British Museum and Museum of the Louvre.

The second Pyramid was built by Suphis II., or Kephren, who reigned 66 years, according to Manethro, and who appears to have attained a great age. It has two sepulchral chambers, and must have been broken into by the Calif Alaziz Othman Ben-Yousouf, A.D. 1196. Subsequently it was opened by Belzoni. The masonry is inferior to that of the first Pyramid, but it was anciently cased below with red granite.

The third Pyramid, built by Menkara, who reigned 63 years, is much smaller than the other two, and has also two sepulchral chambers, both in the solid rock. The lower chamber, which held a sarcophagus of rectangular shape of whinstone, had a pointed roof, cut like an arch inside; but the cedar coffin, in shape of a mummy, had been removed to the upper or large apartment, and its contents there rifled. Amongst the debris of the coffin and in the chambers were found the legs and part of the trunk of a body with linen wrapper, supposed by some to belong to the monarch, but by others to an Arab, on account of the anchylosed right knee. This body and fragments of the coffin were brought to the British Museum; but the stone sarcophagus was unfortunately lost off Carthagena, by the sinking of the vessel in which it was being transported to England.

There are six other Pyramids of inferior size and interest at Gizeh; one at Abou Rouash, which is ruined, but of large dimensions; another at Zowyet El Arrian, still more ruined; another at Reegah, a spot in the vicinity of Abooseer, also much dilapidated, and built for the monarch User-en-Ra, by some supposed to be Busiris. There are five of these monuments at Abooseer, one with a name supposed to be that of a monarch of the Third Dynasty; and another with that of the king Sahura. A group of eleven Pyramids remains at Sakkara, and five other Pyramids are at Dashour, the northernmost of which, built of brick, is supposed to be that of the king Asychis of Herodotus, and has a name of a king apparently about the Twelfth Dynasty. Others are at Meydoon and Illahoon, Biahmo and Medinat El Fyoum, apparently the sepulchres of the last kings of the Twelfth Dynasty.

In Nubia, the ancient Æthiopia, are several Pyramids, the tombs of the monarchs of Meroë and of some of the Ethiopian conquerors of Egypt. They are taller in proportion to their base than the Egyptian Pyramids, and generally have a sepulchral hall, or propylon, with sculptures, which faces the east. The principal groups of these Pyramids are at Bege Rauie, or Begromi, 17º N. lat., in one of which, gold rings and other objects of late art, resembling that of the Ptolemaic period, were found.

The numerous Pyramids of Mexico are of vast size and importance, but their purpose is not yet fully ascertained. Completely covered as they are with dense vegetation, filled with venomous reptiles, they are difficult to investigate, but they were evidently much the same in shape and structure as the Egyptian, and their entrances were richly sculptured.

The art of preserving the body after death by embalming was invented by the Egyptians, whose prepared bodies are known by the name of mummies. This art seems to have derived its origin from the idea that the preservation of the body was necessary for the return of the soul to the human form after it had completed its cycle of existence of three or ten thousand years. Physical and sanitary reasons may also have induced the ancient Egyptians; and the legend of Osiris, whose body, destroyed by Typhon, was found by Isis, and embalmed by his son Anubis, gave a religious sanction to the rite, all deceased persons being supposed to be embalmed after the model of Osiris in the abuton of Philæ. One of the earliest embalmments on record is that of the patriarch Jacob; and the body of Joseph was thus prepared, and transported out of Egypt. The following seems to have been the usual rule observed after death. The relations of the deceased went through the city chanting a wail for the dead. The corpse of a male was at once committed into the charge of undertakers; if a female, it was detained at home until decomposition had begun. The paraschistes, or flank-inciser of the district, a person of low class, conveyed the corpse home. A scribe marked with a reed-pen a line on the left side beneath the ribs, down which line the paraschistes made a deep incision with a rude knife of stone, or probably flint. He was then pelted by those around with stones, and pursued with curses. Then the taricheutes, or preparer, proceeded to arrange the corpse for the reception of the salts and spices necessary for its preservation, and the future operations depended on the sum to be expended upon the task. When Herodotus visited Egypt, three methods prevailed: the first, accessible only to the wealthy, consisted in passing peculiar drugs through the nostrils, into the cavities of the skull, rinsing the body in palm wine, and filling it with resins, cassia, and other substances, and stitching up the incision in the left flank. The mummy was then steeped in natron for 70 days, and wrapped up in linen cemented by gums, and set upright in a wooden coffin against the walls of the house or tomb. This process cost what would now amount in our money to about £725. The second process consisted in injecting into the body cedar oil, soaking it in a solution of natron for 70 days, which eventually destroyed everything but the skin and bones. The expense was a mina, relatively, about £243. In the third process, used for the poorer classes, the corpse was simply washed in myrrh, and salted for 70 days. When thus prepared the bodies were ready for sepulture, but they were often kept some time before burial—often at home—and were even produced at festive entertainments, to recall to the guests the transient lot of humanity. All classes were embalmed, even malefactors; and those who were drowned in the Nile or killed by crocodiles received an embalmment from the city nearest to which the accident occurred.

The Ethiopians used similar means of embalming to preserve the dead, and other less successful means were used by nations of antiquity. The Persians employed wax, the Assyrians, honey; the Jews embalmed their monarchs with spices, with which the body of Our Lord was also anointed; Alexander the Great was preserved in wax and honey, and some Roman bodies have been found thus embalmed. The Guanches, or ancient inhabitants of the Canary Isles, used an elaborate process like the Egyptian; and dessicated bodies, preserved by atmospheric or other circumstances for centuries, have been found in France, Sicily, England, and America, especially in Central America, and Peru. The art of embalming was probably never lost in Europe, and De Bils, Ruysch, Swammerdam, and Clauderus boast of great success in it. During the present century it has been almost entirely discarded, except under very exceptional circumstances.

Fig. 5.Tomb of Runjeet Singh at Lahore.

EAVING the Oriental and remotely ancient nations aside, we will now consider the history of mourning as it was used by those peoples from whom we immediately derive our funereal customs. In ancient times, even amongst the Greeks and Romans, it was the custom to immolate victims—either slaves or captives—on the tomb of the departed, in order to appease the spirit, or that the soul might be accompanied by spirits of inferior persons to the realms of eternal bliss; and in India we have some difficulty even now in preventing the burning of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, instances of this barbarous custom occurring almost every year, notwithstanding the vigilance of our Government.

It would be extremely interesting to trace to their sources all the various rites and ceremonies connected with our principal subject, of every nation, savage or civilised, ancient or modern; but the task would be quite beyond my limits. A thorough investigation of the matter, assisted very materially by a systematic investigation of that mine of curious information, Picard’s famous “Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples“, which contains so many original letters from missionaries of the 16th and 17th Centuries, obliges me to come to the conclusion that there is, after all, not so much variety in the funereal ceremonies of the world as we imagine. Those of the Chinese and Japanese resemble in many ways, very strikingly too, the ceremonies which the Roman Catholics employ to this day: there are the same long processions of priests and officials; and Picard shows us a sketch of a very grand burial at Pekin, in 1675, in which we behold the body of the Emperor of the Celestials stretched upon a bier covered with deep violet satin, and surrounded by many lighted candles; prayers were said for the repose of the soul; and, as all the world knows, the costumes of the priests of Buddha are supposed to have undergone, together with their creed and ritual, a great change in the early part of the 17th Century, owing to the extraordinary influence of the Jesuit missionaries who followed St. Francis Xavier into India and Japan. The Japanese cremated their dead and preserved the ashes; the Chinese buried theirs; but the Cingalese, after burning the body, scattered the ashes to the winds; whilst a sect of Persians exposed their dead upon the top of high towers, and permitted the birds of prey to perform the duty which we assign to the gravedigger.

Cemeteries existed in the East at a remote epoch, and were rendered so beautiful with handsome mausoleums, groves of stately cypresses and avenues of lovely rose bushes, that they are now used as public promenades. On certain days of the year multitudes resort to them for purposes of prayer, and the Armenian Christians illuminate theirs with lamps and tapers on the annual feast of the commemoration of the departed. Perhaps India possesses the most elegant tombs in the world, mainly built by the sovereigns of the Mongol dynasty. None among them is so sumptuous as the mausoleum of Taj Mahal, situated about a mile outside the port of Agra. It was built by Shah Jehan for himself and his wife Arjimand Banoo, surnamed Mumtaz Mahal; 20,000 men were employed for 20 years erecting it. It is constructed of the purest white marble, relieved with precious stones. In the interior is the sepulchral apartment, which is chiefly decorated with lapis lazuli. The tombs of the Emperor and Empress, which stand under the dome, are covered with costly Indian shawls of green cashmere, heavily embroidered with gold.

Another most beautiful specimen of Mahometan sepulchral architecture is the tomb of Runjeet Singh, near Lahore, which, though less known, is externally as magnificent as the mausoleum above described.

OSES prohibited the immolation of human victims on the tombs of the dead, and decreed that relatives should signify their sorrow by the manner in which they tore their garments. They rent them according to the degrees of affinity and parentage. Sometimes the tears were horizontal, and this indicated that a father, mother, wife, brother, or sister had died; but if the tear was longitudinal, it signified that some person had departed who was not a blood relation. An idea can be formed of the appalling destruction of clothing which must have occurred on certain occasions amongst the ancient Jews, when we remember that on the death of a king everybody was expected to tear their garments longitudinally, and to go about with them in tatters for nine days. This curious custom possibly explains Solomon’s proverb, “There is a time to rend and a time to mend.”

The High Priest among the Jews was exempted from wearing mourning. The French, when they embraced Christianity, added many Jewish customs to their own: up to the time of the Revolution of 1789, their Grand Chancellor, or Chief Magistrate, was not bound to wear mourning even for his own father.

The Greeks, doubtless, derived their funereal ceremonies from the Egyptians, and it is from this ancient people that we obtain the custom of wearing black as mourning. When a person in Greece was dangerously ill and not expected to recover, branches of laurestinus and achanthus were hung up over the door, and the relatives hurried round the bed and prayed to Mercury, as the conductor of souls, to have mercy upon the invalid, and either to cure him completely or else help his soul to cross the river Styx. If the death really occurred, then the house was filled with cries and lamentations. The body was washed and perfumed, and covered with rich robes; a garland of flowers was placed on its head, and in its hand a cake made of wheat and honey, to appease Cerberus, the porter of Hell; and in the mouth a purse of money, in order to defray the expenses of Charon, the ferryman of Styx. In this state the deceased was exposed for two days in the vestibule of the house. At the door was a vase full of water, destined to purify the hands of those who touched the corpse.

Visitors to Paris will remember how often they have seen a coffin exhibited in the doorway of a house, elaborately covered with flowers, having at its head a crucifix, and many lights surrounding it, e

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