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Burial Customs and Rituals

When somebody died in the mountains in the early days there were several rituals which were performed. This was before funeral homes and embalming. These customs were part of our past in Scott County, Tennessee as well as the Southern Appalachian region. All these rituals were done out of love and with the knowledge that these acts were the last thing they could do for their loved one. Even today there are families which still hold on to some of these customs and rituals when there is a death in the community.
At the time of death it was a custom to stop the clocks in the home. This ritual of stopping the clock was out of respect and to show the exact time of death. This custom also stems from the superstition, "Stopping clocks in the house of the deceased to prevent bad luck for the living". Mirrors in the house would be covered with a black cloth. I have found this ritual stems from the superstition, "Mirrors in a house with a corpse should be covered or the person who sees himself will die next." One of the first things occurred after a member of the community died was the ringing of the church bell. Usually a family member performed this task. The church bell was tolled for however many years the person lived. Everyone that could hear the toll of the church bell stopped what they were doing. They knew a relative or a neighbor had died. The family of the deceased and their neighbors would turn their grief into labor. Distant relatives were notified as quickly as possible. If the death occurred during the day someone would go to the school house and bring the children of the family home. There were certain tasks that had to be done within the next forty-eight hours.
The closest neighbors after hearing the ringing of the church bell would go directly to the home to help comfort the grieving family. A group of men would gather their picks and shovels and go to the burial site and commence to "diggin' the grave". The church would usually have a church graveyard but many families often would have a family cemetery located on their land. Today there are funeral homes that will do this chore. I do know in Scott County there are still neighbors and friends that will performed this task for the family. In many ways this action is a form of respect not only for the loved one that has passed away but also for the family.
In the early days the body would be prepared for the wake and burial usually by the women of the family and sometimes with the help of one or two women of the community. The body was washed and camphor was applied with a cloth. The camphor was used as a preserver. The deceased was dressed in his or her best clothing. Long black dresses for the women and black suits for the men. Their hair was combed. A piece of cloth was placed under the chin and tied on the top of the head. This was done to hold the mouth together. The eyelids were shut and a coin was place over each eye. Sometimes irons were placed next to the feet to help prop them up. The hands of the deceased were usually placed resting just below the chest area. These rituals were done before rigormortis set it. After this the cloth around the jaw, the coins and the irons were removed.
There would be one farmer with skills as a carpenter that would always have dry popular wood in his barn loft to be used for the building of a coffin. Hearing of the death in the community he would begin this task. At the same time the coffin was being made some of the women in the community with the measurements of the coffin would begin sewing material together for the lining.
During all these preparations some neighbors would be preparing food to be brought to the home. This was done as an act of love for the family. The pratical side to this custom would be to feed the many people which came to the home and stayed for a long period of time. Between the time of death and the burial many people were at the home continually. Plenty of food and coffee were available to the family and for everyone that was away from their own homes. This custom is still practiced today by many people in Scott County.
The coffin was placed next to a wall in the parlor of the home. Some furniture was removed from the room. Several chairs, mainly straight back cane chairs, were placed in the room. If the death occurred during the warm months someone would place fresh cut flowers usually on tables at each end of the coffin. This ritual would also serve another purpose. The scent from the flowers would help mask any odor that may come from the body before the burial. Once the coffin was placed in the parlor the family was ready to receive the people of the community. Usually when they first arrived at the home they would immediately go into the parlor and view the body and then gave their condolences to the family. They would come from all over to pay their respect. Children were never shielded from a death in the community. At an early age children learned that death was as much a part of the cycle of life as the birth of a baby.
At the time of death the deceased was never left alone. Someone from the immediate family would always be sitting in the parlor. The custom was to sit up all night. The term, "sittin' up with the dead" was spoken many times during a death in the community. There was also a practical side for this custom. Having someone in the parlor at all times and especially through out the night would ensure that the body would be safe from rodents, insects and family pets such as cats. During the daylight hours many people were at the home. Most of the men and children would be outside sitting on the porch or out in the yard. Women, smaller children and family members would usually be inside the home. Some of the women would be in the kitchen tending to the food and making sure there was always a pot of coffee made. Most of the conversations would be centered around the good traits of the deceased. In the evening many neighbors would come inside the home and shake hands with the family and say their farewells for the night. In some homes singing a gospel song was a custom followed with a prayer led by the local preacher before sunset. Usually the closest friends and relatives of the family would "sit up with the dead" all night with the family.
The next morning everyone would be getting ready for the funeral. Some neighbors would return to the home prior to the funeral. The coffin would be loaded on the back of a wagon. Some families would hold the funeral at the church and others would have the funeral conducted at the graveyard. Either way the family, friends and neighbors at the home would walk behind the wagon to the designated place. The funeral service would be conducted by the preacher. Usually there would be the singing of two or three hymns followed by the sermon the preacher would deliver. The "preaching" could last anywhere from an hour to three hours. The first part of the sermon was usually about the lost of the loved one and trying to give comfort to the grieving family. Letting them know the deceased was called home to be with the Lord for ever more. This was also a time for the preacher to get across to the community the point of getting ready to meet the Lord before death came knocking at their door. When the funeral was completed the coffin was lowered into the grave. The closest relative such as a spouse would place a hand full of dirt into the grave. Once the immediate family started leaving the graveyard the rest of the people followed. A few men would stay behind to fill in the grave. It was the custom for many in the community to go back to the home of the deceased and stay most of the afternoon with the family. Food was served to all. Everyone offered their condolences to the family before they made their way back to their own homes.

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NOTE: The custom of "sittin' up with the dead" is still practiced today in some areas of Scott County, Tennessee. When I was growing up in the 50's and 60's the practice of bringing your 'loved one' home from the funeral home was still common. I have many memories as a child of going with my parents to neighbor's homes to pay our respect to the family of the deceased. As a young adult I have set up with the family all night after they chose to have their loved one brought back home. The custom of bringing food to the families home is still practiced in Scott County and neighbors will still dig the grave for the family. I will never forget the first time I helped dig a grave when I was sixteen years old. Bringing your loved one home today is almost a thing of the past. Soon it will be. Through my own research and information handed down to me by ancestors of my family this is my small way of preserving a way of life that will someday not exist.

Thank you,
Dan Gibson, webmaster
Copyright 2003

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