Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

On the Eighth Day: An Explanation for Octagonal Dead Houses

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Hello again, fellow death & burial enthusiasts! My goal with these posts is to share my love of a type of structure that isn’t widely written about (clearly my goal is to change that), and inform you all about a burial practice that was reserved for the colder parts of the world…Canada, parts of the USA, the UK, etc. My research on the practice has been restricted to North America and the British Isles thus far, though it is also clear through readings that winter body storage had to happen in many other places as well (ie. Iceland). I can’t wait to dive in further!

Today I wanted to talk about why some of these structures are octagonal in Ontario, as opposed to a standard rectangular or subterranean structures. There might be a method to this madness!

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The 15th-century octagonal font at Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, UK. (Image by Michael Garlick 2018)

I’m a historic archaeologist who specialises in death and burial in the 17th-19th centuries. There is a lot of cross-over in the topics of history, historic arch, and often religious studies if you are dealing is matters like burial and church practice, as religion influences burial practices! However, I am by no means a theologian, so if there are any citations or information regarding religious meaning that I have gotten wrong, please let me know!

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Octagonal funerary church in Torres del Rio, Spain (Covin 1991, image supplied by @CaCemeteryHist)

The number eight (8) is significant within Christianity. You may have noticed that the image above is not a dead house at all, but a baptismal font. (fun fact: fonts are also sometimes the hosts of many protective marks! yay!) Many historic baptismal fonts are octagonal, carved from stone, and are a common sight in medieval and post-medieval churches throughout the British Isles and beyond. It is suggested that:

Eight-sided fonts recall the eighth day, the first day of resurrection. Saint Augustine writes about “the Day of the Lord, an everlasting eighth day.” Saint Ambrose explains that a certain font is octagonal “because on the eighth day, by rising, Christ loosens the bondage of death and receives the dead from their graves” (Huyser-Honig 2006).

It is likely for this reason that many churches during the Byzantine period were built in an octagonal shape, and why the some later churches have an octagon apse or nave (Hunt 2007; Bradley 2016:26). There is evidence of earlier square stone fonts having had their corners cut away, to make them octagonal shape, indicating that this number of sides grew in significance through the Medieval period, as many  (Rodwell 2012:162)

There are many octagonal structures in Europe that are directly associated with church structures and religious practices. @CaCemeteryHist on twitter provided me with some amazing examples from across the continent, such as St. Ambrose’s chapel built in the 4th century, an octagonal funerary church in Torres del Rio, Spain, from the late 12th century, and the Bruce Mausoleum from the Maulden churchyard in Bedfordshire, England. It is clear that the octagonal shape had a significant meaning within religious, Christian architectural design, as is evidenced by its wide use across Europe and into North America.

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The Richmond Hill Dead House (photo by author)

In North America, we tend to associate octagonal structures with a man named Orson Squire Fowler. Fowler, a phrenologist, determined that a house without right angles would provide optimal living conditions. He said “spherical is more beautiful than the angular, and the smooth and undulating more beautiful than the rough and projecting” and since a sphere is difficult to achieve with wood walls, an octagonal house was ideal (Meier 2019). The Canada’s Historic Places page for the Aurora Dead House suggests that the shape was the result of the octagonal house fad in the the United States. However, the octagonal shape for the dead houses in Ontario were likely the reflecting religious meaning, rather than the association with Fowler’s ideas about removing right angles, or else we would have been seeing a lot more that 8+ octagonal dead houses isolated to a single province. Most dead houses were rectangular, like a standard building.

In another source that I cannot find at the moment (will cite when I find it) stated that the octagonal design was optimal for storing the most number of bodies…but I cannot see how that makes much sense. It is very likely that these structures had shelving inside to stack the coffins, rather than stacking them on top of one another, so shelving to fit the coffins rather than the building would have been preferred (especially with coffins being rectangular-ish)

The earliest known octagonal dead house in Ontario is the St. Michael’s dead house in Toronto, constructed in 1855. My conclusion is that the architecture of this structure was influenced by the significance of 8-sided objects and structures in Christianity, and that the magnificent dead house likely was the blueprint for many of the other dead houses within the area. Specifically, the dead houses within the Yonge Street area, where the majority of the octagonal dead houses were constructed.

In conclusion, numbers have significance within religious history and that history likely influenced the meaning behind the unique octagonal dead houses. (and phrenology is racist garbage)

Thank you for reading!

 

 

References

Bradley, Simon
2016. Churches: An Architectural Guide. Pevsner Introductions. Yale University Press: New Haven.

Cavin, Howard
1991. Architecture and the After-life. Yale University Press.

Hunt, Michal
2007. The Early Christian Symbols of the Octagon and the Fish. Agape Bible Study. website: https://www.agapebiblestudy.com/documents/The%20Sign%20of%20the%20Fish.htm

Huyser-Honig, Joan
2006. Theological Reasons of Baptistry Shapes. Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. website: https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/theological-reasons-for-baptistry-shapes/ 

Meier, Allison C.
2019. A Phrenologist’s Dream of an Octagon House. JStor Daily. website: https://daily.jstor.org/a-phrenologists-dream-of-an-octagon-house/ 

Rodwell, Warwick
2012. The Archaeology of Churches. Amberley: Gloucestershire.

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

One thought on “On the Eighth Day: An Explanation for Octagonal Dead Houses

  1. Very interesting, Robyn. Thanks for posting. There are occasionally octagonal barns too. The Agricultural museum in Milton has one, if memory serves. I have seen one in Vermont.
    Thanks for sharing your scholarship with us.
    Chris MacNaughton

    Like

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