Seventeenth century burials.

In the sixteenth century the common man and woman was usually buried in an unmarked grave and without a coffin, the body perhaps wrapped in a shroud if one could be afforded. In some, but not all, areas, the shroud for the poor was provided by the Kirk Session , or by a Guild if the deceased belonged to one. The practice of burial in  a shroud (or not) continued for some time, especially in the rural areas.  The Reformation of 1560 - the establishment of a Protestant - Presbyterian  faith, saw the introduction of quite severe, albeit reverential,  instruction to and by the Kirk. This focussed on respect for the dead and public health, but ceremony and images of any kind was deemed popery and forbidden. The First Book of Discipline in 1561 made an order for The Burial service:

"The corps is reverentlie broght to the grave, accompanied  with the congregatioun,, without anie farther ceremoneis. which being buried, the minister, if he be present, and required, goeth to the church, if it be not farre off, and maketh some  comfortable exhortation to the people tuiching death and resurrection. "

In 1562 " It was ordeaned, that an uniforme order should be  keeped in ministratioun of the sacraments, solemnizatioun of mariages  and buriall of the dead, according to the Booke of Geneva."

 In the Fifth Session of the General Assembly  on 30 December 1563 it was ordered that the body be interred six feet under the earth:

"Touching the burial of the poore in every parochin to landwart, it is ordainit that a biere be made in every parochin to carry the dead corpsis to buriall; and that village or house quher the dead lyes, with the nixt adjacent house thereto, or ane number of every house, sall  convey the dead to the buriall, and eid it sax foote under the eird; And that every Superintendent within his awin bounds requyre the Lairds and Barranes within the same  to make  ane Act in their Court touching this ordour, and cause their officers to warne the narrest neighbopurs quher the dead lyes, to convey the samen to buriall, as  said is , according to the said act; and farder, that the Superintendents take ordour heir as occasioun sall serve."

The biers that were brought into use were of simple design being no more than rails on which the body was borne to the grave side covered by a pall or `mort cloth`. This evolved into the conveyance of the body encased in a simple coffin - cost being the prime factor. The mort cloth became a rich drape such as velvet, sometimes with a rich lining,  symbolic embroidery, and  heavy fringes. In the seventeenth century hiring out the mortcloths  became a source of revenue for the kirk. Revenue received funded the care of the poor . In some areas the quality mort cloth was reserved for the better class funeral, and a cheaper version was made available for the commoner at a reduced price; while the poor were granted its use free of charge. Over time some of the larger churches bought replacement cloths and had a wide range of twenty or more cloths available at different prices.

In 1598 the General Assembly ordered

 " Tuiching burialls, it is ordered, that no pictures  or images be caried about in burialls, under the paine of the censures of the kirk."

It would be the 18th century before everybody was deemed eligible for a coffin, even the very poorest. Scottish ingenuity was shown in the use of a `mort coffin` - a reusable coffin owned by a church. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud, tied at head and foot,  and placed in the coffin. At the graveside it was lowered part way down and bolts were then withdrawn allowing the floor of the coffin to swing open and the body fall into the grave. The `mort coffin` was then lifted out ready for further use. At another extreme was the protection of the body from body snatchers who stole and sold corpses to doctors and medical schools for dissection. The infamous pair Burke and Hare were a 19th century manifestation of this. A common method of securing bodies was to lock them in a purpose built stone building or `mort house` adjacent to the church until the burial service. In other places an iron cage was used or a the coffin placed in a `mort safe`  for maybe six weeks ( until the body became unusable for anatomy lessons) and then re interred.

Pre Reformation burial in the church was reserved to the rich and influential such as the lairds, who in life were responsible for a wide range of financial responsibilities. Persons of wealth and the nobility were encouraged to build their own chapels or aisles for family use; and in the cities the leading Guilds might purchase space.  But in many cases internment within the church and probably beneath the persons pew, imposed restrictions on the space available for the congregation. There was also a problem of health because bodies were not always deeply buried and there was sometimes the smell of decomposing bodies. A bizarre problem also was that dogs often accompanied their master to church and would dig up bones from shallow graves. In time church burials were required to be approved by the minister or the Kirk Session. In 1576 the General Assembly had actually forbidden church burials, this act was repeated in 1588, 1631 and in 1643. However, in rural communities with a prominent and influential laird, they usually developed a pragmatic approach and the practice continued.

As the church space filled up so more and more burials took place outside where there was greater scope for decoration of gravestones. The elaborate mausoleums of inside the church could not be reproduced outside, but status and position in the community was reflected  in decoration, engraving, enclosure within railings and mausoleums such as caskets on plinths. Against the background of plain and simple burials, the grave stones in the early 17th century were mainly flat stones or - `thruch stanes` as from medieval times. Then upright slabs appeared with some details incised into the face of the stone. A common practice in Scotland was to engrave the initial(s) of the christian name on the left and the surname initial on the right. There was sometimes decoration or lettering round the edges and the mason carving the stone sometimes put his own mark or initial on the bottom right hand corner.  The upright stones were often very plain with straight or rounded tops but not otherwise decorated, and some were mounted on a small plinth or base stone such as that of Covenanter George Short in Balmaghie Kirkyard. In contrast, however, the inscriptions themselves were sometimes `flowery` and bore testimony to the increasing education of the common man who had been reared on the Bible and the catechism. The wording on Covenanter stones is quite distinctive and normally makes reference to the cause of death and sometimes the alleged executuioner.

It was not until about 1643 that the first tablestones ( a flat stone set on four or six pediments) appeared; these were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. This rather puts in doubt the painting of the signing of the Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard in 1638  by  Sir William Allan (ca 1840) showing the Covenant spread on a tablestone. It is however, indicative of the romanticism in which the Victorians  indulged.

Next. Gravestones and Memorials.

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