Today I’d like to write a short post to tell you all about a few amazing instances of the pursuit of a ‘proper’ burial against all odds. Before starting, I would like to state that this is a proper burial through the lens of primarily white settler communities in the 19th and 20th centuries in what is now Canada. Thanks!
What denotes a good burial? It can be defined by a person’s social status, their religion, their personal beliefs and choices, fads of the time, and a number of other things. A proper, good burial in the medieval period included being close to the altar, in ancient Egypt it meant having belongings with you to help in the afterlife, for southern USA enslaved families it meant being able to bury their dead in peace on their own terms. For settler communities in Newfoundland and mainland Canada, it meant being able to follow their traditional burial practices of interment, regardless of the conditions.
As I’ve talked about a lot on this site before, I’m enamoured by what people did in the winter in places where the ground froze before the use of mechanised grave digging. Often, it involved a structure to house the dead and keep them cold and preserved until the ground was thawed enough for graves to be dug…but what about the people who chose not to wait until spring? Or had nowhere to store their beloved family or friends? That is what I’d like to talk about a little today, in the form of two stories I’ve been recently told!
Today I was chatting with my boss for my current job, working on a manuscript and mapping project for the historic Brick Street Cemetery. (If you’re in the area in mid-Sept, by the way, you should totally stop by the site for a visit during Doors Open London!) As we were chatting away about burial practices during the 19th century, he relayed the most incredible story to me.
In the 1870-80s in the London area, a family lost a mother, father, and an infant child. My boss said that he was told the story upon purchasing the farm. During the 19th century, the family had nowhere to store the bodies of their loved ones, or no way to get to a dead house in their community, as the family members had died during the winter. Having been here for two winters now in the grand ol’ Snow Belt region, I completely understand why they weren’t able to take the bodies away from their family farm! It also gets very cold here in the winter, so the likelihood that they could have dug the graves in the winter would have been very slim…unless they did it in an area that didn’t freeze (much), like the basement.
You see, unfinished basements in 19th-century homes in Ontario often were made from tamped earth, and sometimes older houses had a laid brick floor. Apparently what this bereaved family did was dig the graves for their family members into the floor of their own basement, side by side, and soon after set up white marble headstones within their basement, creating their own tiny family burial ground below the ground floor of their own home. The heat from their home and the depth underground would have prevented major freezing, if any, of the sediment in the basement floor. Without many other options, this would have made perfect sense, and I’m honestly surprised I haven’t come across examples before now!
At a later date, the gravestone of the mother was removed from the basement and laid face-up at the front door and the stone of the father was laid face-down at the back door. Apparently there had been supernatural occurrences within the house prior to my boss’ family purchasing the farm, due to the burials in the basement. In order to allow the spirits to pass freely from the house, the mother’s stone was placed at the front door with the inscription up, in a form of ‘welcome’, while the face-down father’s stone out back was so the movement of the spirits would not be impeded as they left the property. He told me that it worked, because the tenants they had in the house had been freaked out by the graves in the basement, but never reported any supernatural sightings or feelings while they were living in the house.
The graves were never moved from the house, and this instance of a 19th-century winter burial using the resources available to them is an amazing example of resourcefulness in the face of a difficult situation. Ghost story and historic burial practices rolled into one? Yes please!
Salt Box Bodies
Sometimes people are put into situations where they did not have access to solid ground to bury their dead in, such as spending a good deal of time at sea. Contrary to popular belief, sailors did not always bury their dead at sea, instead often taking them home to honour them with a burial surrounded by their friends and family. This happened in Newfoundland and Labrador into the 20th and potentially the 19th century, for a number of reasons.
Historically, many people living in Newfoundland took seasonal jobs fishing or sealing off the coast of Labrador. If an individual died at sea during these trips, in at least some instances they were not buried at sea but brought home. This was either due to not being allowed to bury their dead in Labrador or because they needed/wanted to be buried at home…but whatever the reason, they needed to find a way to keep the bodies safe and preserved while they waited to be brought home again.
This was the age before embalming became really popular in North America, and you couldn’t expect a body to stay preserved in the belly of a ship, even if a Labrador summer isn’t particularly warm. Instead, they used salt. Winston Burry, of the Greenspond Historical Society, informed me that he “spent five spring’s at the seal hunt and they would always take aboard salt and board lumber in case of a fatality” (Lacy forthcoming). I’d classify this as an alternative burial practice, brought on by necessity and the conditions of the deaths (Lacy forthcoming). Tina Martin told me that her brothers remembered there being at least two bodies brought back from the Labrador coast in salt to be buried on St. Brendan’s Island (Lacy forthcoming).
Supposedly, the individuals in these salt-filled coffins had to have larger graves dug for them, to accommodate the size of the box, but this has yet to be confirmed. However, the burial of a corpse which had been preserved in salt might lead to better preservation underground, as the salt would have caused the body to dehydrate. This would be an interesting project to do!
This post aimed to share stories of resourceful burial practices in colonial settlements, that tell us about the way people had to deal with death and burial within their families and communities during less than ideal situations. Having to bury your family below your house because you can’t get to a burial ground, or knowing someone on your crew might die at sea and having to bring enough salt to bring their corpse home again. Adaptations to settler burial practices are varied and unique, and depend on the situation in which they are required.
Lacy, Robyn S. Forthcoming. An Inconvenient Corpse: Settler Adaptation to winter burials through structural and oral history. Submitted to the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology Journal, 2019.