Thursday, April 05, 2007

When Life Ended

Photo from Ernst Mettlach

Three weeks ago a very good friend of mine died at age 87 after a few days of hospitalization. As I took part in her memorial service which was attended mainly by those of us who had had the good fortune to know her and which was carefully arranged by a local funeral home, I found myself thinking about the many differences between the funeral customs of our European ancestors and of those of our own day. From what I had learned from a book, LA NORMANDIE: LA VIE QUOTIDIENNE DES NORMANDS, by Hippolyte Gancel, a death in small Normandy village in France was a community affair, involving almost everyone in a final ceremony commemorating the life of one of their own. I knew it was much the same for the people living in small towns and villages in the Trier region.

The friend who had just died had helped me to translate sections of the book by Monsieur Gancel, including the section which described death and burial in rural France in the 19th century; and since she was a partial inspiration for this post, let's start with that information:

In Normandy, when an illness was judged to be very serious, the priest was called, and he gave the last rites of the Catholic Church. Then there was a period of intense anxiety while the sick person hung between life and death. A crucifix was put on a small table or chair along with a plate filled with water that had been blessed as part of the Easter rituals. Resting in in was a sprig of the palm branch which was blessed on Palm Sunday.

If death occurred, the eyes of the deceased were closed. One last prayer was said and then the burial preparations began. The pendulum of the clock was stopped. The windows were shuttered or curtains pulled. The blessed candle was replaced with a tallow candle or perhaps a pair of wax candles. The mirrors were covered, and the photographs of anyone who had died were turned to the wall. If the farm had bees, black crepe was attached to the hive and left there until the mourning period was over.

Someone went to notify the priest so that after the ringing of the bells for the angelus prayers, the bell could be tolled. According to the number, sounds, and duration of the tolling, the age, sex and station of the person was made known. The knell continued to sound after each angelus until the burial. (The angelus was rung from the church at 6 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m.)

From the time of death until the funeral, relatives, neighbors and friends sat with the body of the deceased. They received visitors. On a table they had a crucifix and a plate of holy water, again with a piece of the blessed palm in it. Those who watched were always provided with food and drink. Each night collective prayer again united relatives, friends, and many neighbors. Sometimes the priest or the sacristan participated, bringing the parish crucifix.

The morning on which the funeral was to take place, the joiner who had made it came to close the bier. The coffin was placed on two chairs and the instruments of blessing were placed at its foot.

The usual custom was for the parish priest to come to the dead person’s home along with all who were to assist in the burial. A cortege was organized. At its head a children’s chorus member carried a bell and rang it before each house. A parish official carried the draped cross, followed by the priest and then by the children of the choir, one of whom carried a lighted lantern symbolizing the eternal life of the deceased. Several meters behind, the coffin was carried on the shoulders of men called pall bearers or porters. If the bier had to be carried some distance, they would relieve one another and pauses were provided at houses along the way where chair were put out to receive the bier. The porters were offered something to drink.

I had sent a description of the Normandy traditions to Ernst Mettlach who lives in Germany to see if he knew anything of Trier area funeral customs of the 19th century. As he has so often, he provided me with just the right information. He took the time to contact knowledgeable experts about burial customs; and they confirmed that the customs of Normandy were similar to those of the German regions, with a few regional exceptions from place to place. For instance, in the German Eifel region, the body in the coffin was always directed with the head toward the cemetery to make the farewell easier for the soul and to prevent the soul from desiring to return to the living.

Ernst, of course, also asked his mother about death and burial customs of her time; and she told him of the death of his great-grandfather and her grandfather, Wilhelm. Soon after Wilhelm died, she said, the neighbours and relatives came, washed him, and dressed him in his best clothes. His eyes and mouth were closed to make him look peaceful; and the eyes and mouth had to be held in place with a bandage until rigor mortis set in. His hands were crossed as if in prayer, and so that a cross or a rosary could be placed in them. The windows were opened so his soul could fly to heaven. Ernst's mother said that the mirrors were not covered and the clock was not stopped as in Normandy. She also remembered that she changed the socks of her Grandpa each day. She said she still remembered the smell of the lavender in the room. When all was prepared, a vigil known as a wake was kept for Wilhelm for three days. He lay in the bedroom in the upstairs of the home. Almost all of the village assembled; it was a thing of respect. Those who kept the vigil sang and prayed, and the men drank Viez and Schnapps.

On the funeral day, the coffin was placed in front of the house and was then brought in a procession through the whole village. The house was decorated as you can see in the picture above. The crucifix was very important; it was a special crucifix called a "Versehkreuz" in the Trier region. Every household had such a crucifix, and it was only used for burials. "Verseh" comes from the verb "versehen", which means "to provide". Two blessed candles stood left and right of this cross, along with a small bowl with blessed water and a palm sprig. (The crucifix in the picture was handmade by Ernst's grandfather, and it is now in the possession of his mother. It was again used during the burial of her mother and father.)

Today as well as in the past, the church bell rings in the German villages to announce a death just as it used to do when I was growning up in my small farming village in Wisconsin. I remember counting as the bell tolled, hoping for many tolls. That would mean it was someone old who, after a long and good life, had died; it was not a young person who had not really lived to accomplish his or her dreams.

In our time we speak of the need for closure after a death but find it hard to achieve it. Our ancestors may not have known that word, but they certainly knew how to go about it.

Ernst Mettlach