History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

15 September 2008

Rest In Peace

What is the origin of that term? It must be from the Latin Requiescat in Pace but when was it first used? That question (as yet unanswered) made me wonder how and when humans began to regard death as a spiritual event or, to put it another way, when people began to see death as more than a simple event that marked the end of life. (Have you stepped on a bug lately?)

Since I turn to books to answer every question and am an acknowledged Anglophile I searched through my ill-organized library until I came upon the book with some answers. DEATH IN ENGLAND edited by Peter Jupp and Claire Gittings is a series of essays that “charts the history of death from the earliest known humans in England to the close of the twentieth century.”

What follows is a much abbreviated explanation of the ritual of death in England.

In the Neolithic period recognized burial was rare. Obviously all the information is gained through archeological exploration with few sites in England in pristine condition.

By the second millennium BC (the Bronze Age) there appeared to be burial in “cemeteries” with more whole skeletons and special markings for the wealthy or more prominent members of the community, wealth and social standing being a relative term.

The Iron Age which, in Europe, covers the period from 1000 BC to 400 AD, coincides in part with the Roman occupation of Great Britain. Is it any surprise that of the two more is known about the Roman way of death? How the people of the Iron Age handled death and burial is largely speculative based on the evidence of the Bronze Age. On the other hand, the Romans left behind a significant number of cemeteries and tombstone which have survived to this day.

There are no firm answers as to when and why the disposal of the body changed from cremation to inhumation (a new word for me: it means the act of placing the person into the ground. Thank you Wikipedia) but it became evident among the Roman burials in this period and eventually was established as the accepted ritual throughout Britain.

Anglo Saxon and Viking burial practices overlap with the introduction of Christianity in the period of 400BC to 1150. This period, primarily due to the influence of the Church, is rich with the representation of the growing concept and belief in an afterlife evidenced in a range of written material from illuminated manuscripts to wills.

The Church’s formalization of the doctrine of Purgatory in the 12th century added a new complexity to the period after death and also encouraged people to actively work to redeem souls through prayers, good works and the buying of indulgences. While I am sure this it not the first sign of the commercialization of death it is one that strikes me as very self-serving. (I feel compelled to add here that I am a very liberal but practicing Roman Catholic.)

The impact of the Black Death “intensified existing ways of thinking of death rather than transforming them.” The chilling images of death that we associate with the period were already a part of the culture. The Church had done a good job of teaching people that life was fleeting and the human body would decay as the soul never would. The Black Death gave them all the evidence needed on the transience of life.

The Reformation Protestants altered perception in a significant way by insisting that the actions of the living could not improve the afterlife of souls. This led to “less emphasis on the spiritual aspects of death and brought more prominence to eating and drinking.” Fewer people bought indulgences, lit candles or in other ways attempted to improve the departed’s place in heaven and more invited people into their homes to share their grief in a social setting.

A new belief that disease could be cured led to further changes in the emphasis on the dead between the Reformation and the reign of George III (d. 1820) As the death rate began to fall in the period up to and after 1850 the “likely time of death shifted from birth to old age.” And with that and the belief that disease could be conquered the early 19th century sees the beginning of the great monuments to the dead and the influence of commercial elements in funerary practices.

There was a decline in religious belief in the late Victorian Era (Really? Why?) which was exacerbated by the First World War when the elaborate rituals of the Victorians were impossible in the face of such great numbers of dead far from home.

With those major changes (decline in religious belief, death from old age and WWWI) more varied interpretations of how to handle death grew with funerary practices shifting from a domestic responsibility to one handled outside the home by funeral directors. This was finalized by laws and medical standards of the mid 20th century.

The last chapter states that private grieving was eroded by ease of communication and that more public expression of grief became common culminating in the outpouring of flowers and tears when Princess Diana was killed.

Admittedly this is one of my BIG picture overviews of the how humans perceive death. But I was intrigued enough to want to share it. Can you pick out an historical figure whose death you think has changed how people look at death, dying and honoring the dead?


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, you caught me at the perfect time; I am in the process of researching the marriage of Victoria and Albert (and how after his death on 12/14 1861 she practically elevated the concept of mourning into an art form). For years she imposed a more rigid form of mourning than the rest of English society did in terms of dress and appropriate behavior. But the queen also used her mourning as an excuse to avoid whatever she didn't want to do, such as attend balls in London, although she still enjoyed the ghillies' ball at Balmoral; entertain foreign crowned heads; and open Parliament -- except of course when she needed to apply to her government for money to subsidize the existence of her brood and their families and households). Her unwillingness to appear in public for months at a time tanked her popularity.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

An interesting perspective, Amanda. How long did that drop in popularity last?

And your response plays right into my research on the show of mourning surrounding the death of Princess Charlotte (1817) -- the essayist on the period in DEATH IN ENGLAND called the national mourning a "gloomy precursor of the widespread mourning that followed the death of Prince Albert"

I do not know much about the Victorian Era but it seems to me that the depth of mourning exhibited for Albert was imposed from above rather than a spontaneous reaction as it was for Charlotte. Thoughts?

10:49 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Your post reminds me of an amazing museum exhibit I saw at the Met in NY two years ago, Mary -- it was called "Anglomania," it incorporated several centuries of English paintings, fashion, and furniture. I blogged about it back then, especially the room where:

...a mannequin dressed in one of Queen Victoria’s mourning dresses (wool, silk crepe, and white cotton lawn) stands by the side of a state bed draped in heavy silk damask in a marvelous deep inky blue (from Hampton Court, ca 1698). A male mannequin is stretched out on the bed in contemporary Alexander McQueen tartan trousers while the female perched at his side is wearing black cotten canvas, Manolo Blaniks in leather and steel, and an aluminum outside corset complete with ribs and shiny, scary, realistic vertebrae....

The tableau is called The Deathbed, the subject is solemn English pagentry, and an explanatory placard tells us that 'Voltaire marveled at the funeral honors accorded Isaac Newton,' while 'state beds . . . were, in their bloated grandeur, potent symbols of wealth and status.' McQueen’s own clan tartan, on the (dying? dead?) male mannequin, refers, we’re told, to Queen Victoria’s Scottomania, while the Queen’s dress (she wore mourning for two decades) fed 'a mania that affected upper-class sartorial etiquette.'

11:03 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, I'm not sure she ever fully regained her former popularity.

Victoria dressed in mourning for the rest of her life--about 40 years, as Albert died in December, 1861 and Victoria didn't join him until January 1901. Through much of the 1860s her ministers and advisers, as well as MPs and spokespersons for her subjects, tried to get her to "snap out of it" and attend to her royal duties. But Victoria turned her mourning into a public issue. Rather than show a composed image to the outside world and get along with the business of reigning, she insisted on withdrawing at least until 1866, as though she were any commoner. Her ministers were very concerned about how that looked for the health of the monarchy since, if people felt that they could get along just fine without a queen (as it seemed to be the case, given her absence from public life), that might set a very dangerous precedent.

One thing that snapped her out of her grief was the emergence of John Brown as a confidant--much to the consternation of her family.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

One of my favorite Monty Python skits is one where Michael Palin dressed as Queen Victoria comes to a meeting of a ladies society, along with Albert's coffin, which she kept speaking to in German! And then there's Disraeli's famous remark when Queen Victoria wanted to come visit him on his deathbed and he refused because she would only haved wanted him to take a message to Albert.

I just got done reading Mistress of the Vatican, where at the death of the Pope, the servants would steal everything in the room, including the bed sometimes, leaving the poor pope's body naked and lying on the floor! Apparently this was a fact of life for any death of a noble in Italy.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam, that is an incredibly surreal and visual representation of Albert's death. Will have to go read your blog post.

Amanda, one of the things they said about Princess Charlotte was that she was "virtuous and intelligent if willful and impetuous". It sounds as though her cousin, Victoria inherited some of those same genes.(Though apparently not the impetuous one)

Elizabeth what era are you talking about in regard to the way the deceased Pope was treated?

2:51 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, from the biography of Victoria that I just finished reading, as well as the hundreds of her letters and journal entries I've read in the past week -- she inherited the "impetuous" gene as well!

3:50 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

So Amanda, what bio of Victoria would you recommend?

4:58 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

One interesting aspect of the mourning process that I think first developed in England was the event of mourning jewelry.

There were many forms of mourning broaches and bracelets and pendants done in jet or black cameo. But to me the most bizarre manifestation of this was the proliferation of jewelry made from the beloved's hair. A lock of hair in a locket is one thing. But I just don't think I would want a necklace woven of hair harvested from my husband right after his death.

I think JFK's funeral became the standard by which all presidential funerals since have been measured.

7:53 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

If I'm remembering my seminary studies correctly (parting cobwebs here), burial (instead of cremation) began to rise in popularity in the Roman Empire along with the rise of Christianity-- theologically, the idea of a future bodily resurrection might demand caring for and tending to the bodies of the dead, keeping them intact for their coming future in glory.

The Victorian period in England coincided with the American Civil War, and historian/ Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust has written a fabulous book about the effect the Civil War had on ideas about death and rituals around death. It's called This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.

It's a difficult book to read, and the photographs are pretty horrifying, but it is fascinating material.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

Physical anthropologists study burial patterns as a way to link our earliest human ancestor to modern homo sapiens sapiens. When they discover remains of a burial, it's very exciting as it showcases the beginnings of modern human culture.

As for Victoria, she regained her popularity in time for the '87 Jubilee. It also happened to coincide with Britain's last burst of imperialistic triumph before the Boer War smashed British confidence in its military might.

I like to think that Victoria's own death sparked a change. Not only did she die just as the 20th century began, but she reigned so long, most people alive in 1901 could not remember another monarch. Kind of fascinating to think about, considering most of us only know Queen Elizabeth II.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not exactly in the mainstream of this discussion, but to me it's still to the point: one of the most distressing events of this past week (and that's saying a lot) was the suicide last Friday of David Foster Wallace, one of the most brilliant writers of literary fiction around, at 46.

The premature death of someone I'd expected to be illuminating my thought for years to come, pointing out things I sort of knew but really didn't, in ways that were outrageous, unforgettable, and (yeah, even) life-changing, is daunting, horrifying, and deeply sad.

I don't know what form such grieving ought to take; it's a very private and yet a public event as well.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Mary. Mourning became rituals became so elaborate and structured in the Victorian era, that it's sometimes difficult to remember they were simpler (and shorter) in the Regency.

There is a lot of heartfelt sincerity that comes through in the accounts of the mourning for Princess Charlotte. I hadn't thought about her sharing qualities with Victoria, but I can definitely see a resemblance.

Amanda, you're writing a book about Victoria and Albert? Cool!

11:47 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Louisa, yes, on the mourning jewelry, one of the elements of the more public sharing of grief that the book mentioned.

Why do you suppose that our culture has so totally moved away from the idea of a public, but unspoken, demonstration of loss? Because we want to pretend it will not happen to us? The influence of wars?

The only public reognition of death I can recall in my life time is the flag decals so many put on their cars after 9-11 and that was as mcuh a show of solidarity as a shared grief.

Pam, your posts are always pointing out things "I sort of knew but really didn't." So often we do not mourn for the right people. All loss diminishes us but David Foster Wallace's death deserved more attention. It came during a week when the media was much more intersted in the potential disaster surrounding Ike. How else to explain the lack?

Yes, revmelinda, now that you mention it, I recall that reason for 'inhumnation' from my high school religion classes. I did not read that chapter in detail, I might go back and look again. Interesting that the idea of cremation is once again acceptable.

3:23 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Mary, Mistress of the Vatican is 17th Century Italy.

5:06 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, the bio of QV that I would recommend is Christopher Hibbert's "Queen Victoria." He has also edited a book of her letters and journals. Both of them show Victoria the woman as much as Victoria the queen.

My wip is on notorious royal marriages from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Camilla Parker Bowles; it's a nonfiction "companion piece" of sorts to "Royal Affairs." But this time I'll be leaving England to visit some continental marriages as well. I'm starting to research Catherine the Great today.

Pam's ever-astute comments reminded me of the way we treat the death of our celebrities, and the pilgrimages to and memorials left at the graves in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I had to see Molière, Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde. Others camp out on Jim Morrison's grave with a bottle of wine, a fifth of whisky or a doobie. For years the trip to Morrison's grave was a must-do for my generation.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

At Pere Lachaise, I had to see Colette.

Of course, some one who really knew classics would be pointing out a million important things to advance this discussion.

The only ones I know have to do with how much of the stuff we even barely know about the ancients comes from their tombs. And how important it was, when at war, to secure the bodies of one's dead for proper burial (and how stunning it is that the Iliad ends with Priam pleading with Achilles for Hector's body and Achilles allowing him to take it back to Troy).

7:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The book for "Anglomania" is very cool, and is still availble.

I've always been curious about how England felt about the death of Frederick, Prince of Wales (George III's unlamented father).

8:03 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Pam... re Hector's body... wherever Achilles took the body, I believe it would have been burned on a ceremonial funeral pyre, as was customary in the Bronze age of the Iliad.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Kalen, would you believe I have always wondered about him too, mostly because I live in Prince Frederick, Maryland, which is often confused with Frederick, Maryland and Fredricksburg, Virginia. One of those things I have never made time to research. I'm also going to look for that Anglomania book. You never steer me wrong.

Thanks, Elizabeth, to my way of thinking, the 17th century would be a period when the treatment you mentioned would be what those popes deserved.

Amanda, I will look around for the Hibbert book -- I sure know the name from several books in my personal library.

Pam, you're right -- this is a pretty superficial discussion but does make me THINK which I always appreciate. It is so easy for me to get lost in the day-to-day detail of both my writing and family life. This blog pushes my brain in another, less self-absorbed direction.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

As a follow-up to Lynna's comment re: Hector's burial (and yes, there was a funeral pyre for him, according to "The Iliad"; ditto for Patroclus) -- remember the entire premise for Sophocles' "Antigone" which was that her brothers, fighting on opposite sides, killed each other and because one was fighting on the side of the enemy, their uncle Creon, who was ruling, refused to allow his proper ritual burial.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

In Mistress of the Vatican, Olimpia Maidalchini refused to pay for the burial of Pope Innocent X, who was her brother-in-law, because he had banished her from Rome after an argument. And her son refused as well, leaving the poor Pope to lie stinking in a makeshift coffin until they finally found some money to bury him.

It was interesting to find out that the Popes were buried with money just in case they had to bribe their way into heaven

12:18 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

Several years ago we had a houseguest with inside knowledge of Westminster Abbey, and she regaled us with stories of open coffins and decomposing royal remains. I have no idea whether it's true (or for that matter, whether I'm remembering the story correctly), but I blogged about it here if you'd like to read it:


4:55 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Checked out your blog post, Revmelinda and it's fascinating and too weird. Which makes we think we should take a break from research and do a post sometime on weird things we have experienced. I can't think of any at the moment but give me a day or two...

5:36 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Here's an odd/eerie thing that happened to me years ago when cameras used that archaic thing called film. My uncle and I were visiting Avebury and Stonehenge in the same day and I shot both sites on the same roll of film. When the negatives were developed, Avebury and the other things on the roll were there, but on the negative strips where the Stonehenge shots should have been, the frames were blank, even as other shots on the same celluloid strip were there.

6:58 PM  

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