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  • Deviant Burials September 19, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    The dead are prepared for the after life in almost every way imaginable. In some cases they are eaten, in some cases they are burnt, in some cases they are fed to animals, in some cases they are embalmed and in some cases they are buried in the ground. Beach has not yet come across an example where corpses are catapulted from the rims of volcanoes into the ocean, but he promises you that there will be one instance out there somewhere.

    The main concern, of course, in burying individuals is to make sure that they are happy or that they are successfully spirited away to the other world. However, in a tiny minority of cases there is also the need to protect the living from the dead.

    Beach was reminded of this by some recent discoveries in Ireland where two eighth-century graves have been found in which stones were hammered into the mouths of corpses (see photo). The corpses in questions were discovered by Irish archaeologist Chris Read and his team. CR suggests that by blocking the mouth those who buried these bodies were attempting to prevent their reanimation – stopping the soul returning to the body through its accustomed exit point. In other words, we are dealing with a fear of Gaelic zombies here.

    It is impossible to know if this is the correct interpretation – though the stone certainly suggests fear and hostility on the part of the living. But the need to keep dangerous individuals out of circulation is evident in other traditions as well. Heavy rocks were sometimes dropped on Anglo-Saxon corpses, we might imagine witches, who were placed face down to prevent them rising: in a couple of unfortunate cases there was also the practical reason that the ‘corpse’ in question was still alive.

    The vampire tradition demands that a corpse be decapitated and the heart removed or destroyed. Such cases, involving ‘grave attacks’, are still reported today in Romania.

    Then, of course, there are the more unconscious examples where corpses are just not welcome. The suicide and unbaptized child have traditionally been kept away from hallowed ground: to keep the purity of that area and to remove any magical protection from the graves of the damned and dangerous. Then there are the burnt witches and heretics whose ashes were carefully disposed of in rivers. The absolute dissolution of the body was a point of principle, but also had a simple practical purpose: their maligning of the world was definitely over. Even in more recent times modern states have often not afforded proper burial to those charged with a capital crime: their bodies being dropped into quick lime in an anonymous grave.

    Beach would be interested in putting together a list of burial customs for deviant wizards, potential zombies and, yes, the odd blood sucker: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com He thinks that there is more about being buried upside down. And now he is on the subject there are several references to warriors being buried vertically facing their enemy (another post, another day).


    Here’s Tacitus: ‘Visiting relatives in Bad Windsheim Germany I went to an archeological excavation near the town hall. A skeleton had been unearthed in which the legs had been cut off and put in the coffin correctly positioned….but turned backwards.   The theory was that if this guy came back from the dead (wiedergang) and tried to chase you, well, he would just go in the wrong direction!’ Peter W also writes in ‘[the post] reminded me very much of an article by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (The Meaning of Mourning), in which he writes of burial rites which seem to have the main object of confusing ghost of the deceased so it won’t find the way back from the burial ground to its former home. This does at times involve merely covering the eyes of the body, and goes as far as removing the body from its former home not by doors or windows, but through a whole knocked into the wall for this purpose (which will be closed again afterwards, so the ghost cannot come back the same way). Baring-Gould’s article is available online as part of his “Curiosities of Olden Times” which, I dare say, you made me find. My copy of Baring-Gould’s article is in Clive Leatherdale’s “Origins of Dracula” which is an anthology of all sorts of sources on (you guessed it) vampirism. Great read, by the way; especially Dom Augustine de Calmet’s dialectic treatment of the question “Are Vampires Really Dead?” from around 1750 is nothing short of brilliant. Thanks Peter and thanks Tacitus!!

    23 Sept 2011: Invisible writes in: ‘My first thought was of the Rhode Island ‘vampires’ who were dug up, had their hearts ripped out, burned, and the ashes fed to their consumptive relatives to no avail. It was believed that the dead were coming back to prey on the living and that this act would make them stop. Here’s an article on an 1870s exhumation: Iowa State Reporter, Waterloo , IA 9-18-1872 p. 7 BURNING OF HEARTS IN CONNECTICUT —ABSURD AND BRUTAL SUPERSTITION The village of Peacedale was thrown into quite a state of excitement on Thursday last, by the report that two graves had been dug up near Watson’s Corner, on the shore of the Saugatucket River . The circumstances are as follows: The family of Mr. William Rose, who reside at Saunderstown, near the South Ferry, are subject to the consumption, several members of the family having died of the disease, and one member of the family is now quite low with it. At the urgent request of the sick man the father, assisted by Charles Harrington, of North Kingston, repaired to the family burying-ground, which is located near Watson’s Corner, one mile north of Peacedale, and after building a fire first dug up the grave of his son, who had been buried twelve years, for the purpose of taking out his heart and liver, which were to be placed in the fire and consumed, in order to carry out the old superstition that the consumptive dead draw nourishment from the living. But as the body was entirely reduced to ashes, except a few bones, it was shortly covered up, and the body of a daughter who had been dead seven years was taken out of the grave beside her brother. This body was found to be nearly wasted away, except the vital parts, the liver and heart, which were in a perfect state of preservation. The coffin was nearly perfect, while the son’s coffin was nearly demolished. After the heart and liver had been taken out it was placed in the fire and consumed, the ashes only being put back in the grave. The fire was then put out and the two men departed to their respective homes. Only a few spectators were present to witness the horrible scene. It seems that this is not the first time that graves have been dug up where consumption was prevalent in the family, and the vital parts burned, in order to save the living. A few years ago the same was done in the village of Moorsfield , and also in town of North Kingstown , both of course without success. Peacedale Herald, Sept. 5 I also have a Boston Globe article from 1896 which, while very jocular in tone, makes it clear that some Rhode Islanders still believed in this custom. A book on the subject: Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, Michael E. Bell. Another good book on burial customs to keep vampires from walking is Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality, by Paul S. Barber. Gruesome forensic details, but also unexpectedly amusing. The Irrepressible in pursuit of the Unspeakable. The Navajo Indians of the American Southwest had/have a great many taboos about death and dead bodies and rituals to keep the dead from coming back. The dying will be removed from their dwelling (if possible) so that the building is not contaminated by their death. If a person dies in a hogan/house, it will have to be burnt over the body and the site will be off-limits:   Navajo mortuary customs article, 1890s. There seemed to be a whole spate of 18th/early 19th-century squires and parsons who caused trouble after their deaths. The Fate of the Dead by Theo Brown mentions beliefs to “bind” these ghosts to keep them from walking, usually in a pit or a pool, where they would be forced to dredge a body of water with a walnut shell, or make ropes of sand in a river. Sometimes the ghost was commanded or tricked into a bottle and then sealed up for 100 years. One ghost was threatened with being weighed down with a hundred-weight of bricks in addition to clerical invocations. Such ghosts were also allowed to return to their houses/haunts at the rate of “a cock-stride a year.” Troublesome ghosts were also laid by parsons, usually with formulae in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic. (Arabic seems to have been reserved for the worst cases.) Multiple clergymen might be needed for resistant spirits. A phrase one often sees in these cases is “It takes an Oxford clerk to lay a bad ghost.” Brown wrote of a particularly vicious clergyman, John Arundel Radford (1799-1861). He was accused of murdering his curate, but was acquitted by a jury largely empanelled from his own parish. After the acquittal the Judge asked by the jury why, in the face of all the evidence against him, had they acquitted the Rector? The jury replied, “Us haven’t hanged a parson and us wasn’t going to now.”  “Parson Jack” was eventually buried in consecrated soil, but on the north side of the church because Hell lay in the north. I have found an early 19th-century folktale from Coshocton County in Ohio about a woman named Mary Stuckey, whose disagreements with her neighbors unluckily coincided with a cholera epidemic. Accused as a witch, she was stoned to death. The deaths continued so her body was dug up, her head struck off and buried separately, and her corpse wrapped in chains. Of course you have the usual unchristened children buried in unconsecrated soil, the suicides/criminals buried at crossroads, bodies staked down in bogs, 18th-19th c. executed criminals anatomized, Eastern European bodies covered with seeds that the dead would have to count before rising or wrapped in nets where they would have to unknot all the knots. One of my favorite stories about dealing with a dead man who refused to lie down is from Dean Coombe in Devon. This is from The Ghost World, T.F.T. Dyer. Many spectral dogs, believed to be the souls of wicked persons, are said to haunt the sides of rivers and pools, and the story goes that there once lived in the hamlet of Dean Combe, Devon, a weaver of great fame and skill. After a prosperous life he died, but the next day he appeared sitting at the loom and working diligently as when he was alive. His sons applied to the parson, who, hearing the noise of the weaver’s shuttle above, cried, ‘Knowles! come down; this is no place for thee.’  ‘I will,’ said the weaver,’ as soon as I have worked out my quill’ (the quill is the shuttle-full of wool). ‘Nay,’ said the vicar, ‘ thou hast been long enough at thy work, come down at once!’ So when the spirit came down, the vicar took a handful of earth from the churchyard, and threw it in its face, and instantly it became a black hound. Then the vicar took a nutshell with a hole in it, and led the hound to the pool below the waterfall. ‘Take this shell,’ he said, ‘and when thou shall have dipped out the pool with it, thou mayest rest, not before.’ The weaver was obviously not a deviant individual in society in the sense of a witch or vampire, but to his family he was an aberration, an intrusion into the lives of the living, and they wanted him gone.’ A short email from Judith at Zenobia, but one that might explain the rock in the mouth of the Gaels. ‘Closer to home, here’s a recent report of a Venetian lady vamp(ire) and a neat explanation for how the story of bloodsucking undead might have started.‘ Thanks Invisible and Judith!

    26 Sept 2011: Chris Read has pointed out to Beach that there is a documentary on this now.

    30 Sept 2011: Judith from Zenobia and Mad Monk wrote in with this fascinating link on a mouth nailed shut in Italy.

    20 Oct Oct 2011: Judith of Zenobia fame wrote in with a link to the San Cerbone digs. Seems there was a mysterious bag of dice too! Thanks Judith!