Haunted Appalachia: Settin’ up with the dead
My mother was born in a small coal mining community in Webster County, West Virginia. Bergoo was a remote community but what it lacked in convenience it made up for in beauty as it was surrounded by mountains and expansive forestland. One of the local coalmines was called #4 and was owned by the Pardee and Curtin Company. Many were employed at the mines, including my grandfather, Otley Green. Everyone knew each other and many houses were related by blood. Due to the remoteness of the area, families tended to stay put and marry other local families leading to hundreds of cousins and descendants of many of the same pioneer for many of us.
People helped each other out in times of need whether it was for food, employment, the birthing of a child or the celebration of a marriage. It’s hard to imagine, in the mobile, disposable society we now live in, that this kind of concern for your neighbors was something upon which you could rely, but it was. My mother often spoke of the generosity of neighbors in the form of groceries dropped off and much needed medicine being made available.
Death also brought people together. The local funeral home was about a 45-minute drive away and many did not have transportation. Death was taken care at the home and by the families. Graves would often be dug by hand and by someone who knew the deceased. There was a more personal touch to the passing of one’s body back in those days. In decades past, many smaller rural communities had no access to a mortuary or funeral home. The tasks of preparing the body for burial and constructing the casket were done not by a mortician, but by the community members themselves.
The practice of watching over a body springs from the oldest religious traditions. Scholars say the ancient Romans took the custom with them as they conquered the Mediterranean and Europe. By the Middle Ages, the practice was wrapped into Christianity and came with the first European settlers to the New World. There were often prayers, hymns and lit candles at the head and the feet of the body. However, with the rise of funeral homes in the early 20th century, the home-based wake declined and evolved into ‘visitations’ or viewings at funeral parlors.
My mother often told us tales of her and her family sitting up with the dead. Mom said it was done out of respect, of course, but also out of necessity. The body would be washed, dressed and then laid out in the parlor or suitable room of choosing. This room would typically be a front room or a room with a large doorway to allow passage of the casket. My mom would also tell us that someone would volunteer to sit up with the body overnight. Mom would chuckle and mention someone had to keep the cats out of the room and I remember as a child, I was always too afraid to ask why. Another custom she mentioned to me was the placing of coins on the eyes of the deceased to help the lids remain closed. Pennies would not be used because they could turn the skin green, so often it was the use of nickels or quarters. In my years of researching death and funeral customs, I came to find out that this custom dates back to the ancient Greeks as payment for the Ferryman to aid in crossing the River Styx or River Acheron, the waterway in the depths of the Greek Underworld.
Every civilization has its own distinct way of life, it also has its own way of death and burying. The dead, after all, have to be disposed of by the living and funerary practices are deeply embedded in society and culture. When a man or woman dies, the daughters and sons survive and though death comes daily here on Earth, such are the cycles by which a society endures. In the Jewish faith, one of their mourning traditions is to sit Shiva at the home of the deceased (or principal mourner) for seven days. The word Shiva means seven in Hebrew. Family and friends visit to pay their respects.
In Ireland, the traditional Catholic wake is still carried out. Soon after the death, word of mouth will spread the news and neighbors will help in preparing food and drinks and alcoholic beverages. The corpse will normally be dressed in white linen and laid out in their own bed. Candles are usually lit and the corpse is never left alone. The ‘Irish Wake’ was a traditional mourning custom practiced in Ireland until the mid-1970s. The customs are now only practiced in full in remote Irish towns that honor tradition.
One of the most studied civilizations placed the ritual of death at the very heart of public life. The Egyptians celebrated with death masks, mummies and grand tombs for their royalty. The afterlife, or Duat, was believed to be much like the land of the living. Preparation for the journey was ever important and could involve burial of a servant, pet dog and other creature comforts for the afterlife such as ornate furniture and supplies of food.
In funerary practices, as in so much else, the Romans followed the lead of the Greeks. The conception of the afterlife was much the same. So too were their burial rites, but they seem to have felt more strongly than the Greeks that death was something to be kept at a distance. The Roman dead were banished in areas away from the living with cemeteries being established outside of the city limits. Often tombs and cemeteries were established on main roads arriving and departing from a major city.
On the subject of burials, I have been told that on some occasions, lumber had been put away for the purpose of constructing a casket. In Appalachia, a very fine casket could be made from cherry lumber and if that kind of wood was used, the deceased person was a little bit better off financially than most folks were. Most of the time, it was pine or poplar that a casket was made from. Food was brought to the home of the deceased person by neighbors, and those who came to sit up were always invited to partake of what had been brought in. The graves were all hand-dug, using picks and shovels. Again, this was usually done by neighbors. This task was especially hard during the cold winter months.
Prior to having air conditioning, decorative veils were occasionally draped over the casket. These were most often used in hot weather when the deceased person’s body was kept at home prior to the funeral service. Veils were useful in keeping annoying flies away. During summer months when windows and doors were kept open for air to circulate, someone with a fly swatter would sometimes stand near the casket and make use of the fly swatter as they occasionally also shooed the cat away. I think it would make for a dreadfully long night.
I often think of those odd conversations with my mother about death out in the country and the keeping away of cats from the viewing room. Seems as these days we view death from a greater distance and at funeral homes that are cold and impersonal. Yes, many of us fear the ‘Great Equalizer,’ some will welcome it and most of us will fight it to the very end. As Mark Twain once said, ‘The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.’
Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net