So many interesting burial stories this past week: An Ohio man strapped to his Harley Davidson and buried riding off on that Highway to Heaven in a Plexiglas case; an embalmed boxer posed in a faux boxing ring for the last bell; the remains of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor, who was buried seated on a throne, positively identified.
Today we look at some of the eccentric burial requests of the past. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of people interred with food, furniture, and keepsakes or who choose some unusual burial container or position. The concept of funerary goods seems appropriate for an ancient Egyptian or a Scythian chieftain, but alluringly exotic when applied to 19th-century corpses. Of course, any funeral director will tell you that people put all kinds of things into coffins with their loved ones, and unusual burial containers are found in every era: Think of Sandra West, buried in her nightgown in her 1964 Ferrari, or the Indiana woman buried in a 1976 red Cadillac convertible.
There are some classic tales we can just skim over: “Mad” Jack Fuller and his chicken dinner; the gambler William Mackenzie buried with cards to thwart the Devil, Jeremy Bentham, the snuff-mad Mrs Margaret Thompson, buried in a coffin lined with snuff-stained handkerchiefs, and the various 18th-century legatees who had their spouses embalmed and displayed above ground so as not to lose their life-interests. The first two are, research has shown, legends; the latter three are real events.
Recently, someone patented a nut-shaped coffin, allowing the deceased to be buried in a fetal position. But seated, rather than decently laid out, was the eccentric’s position of choice for burial.
A Curious Coffin.
Mr. Aldrich, of Mishawaka, has now completed his arrangements to the extent of having his coffin made; which is now on exhibition at Feiten’s establishment at Mishawaka. It is a curious affair and well worth seeing, as an illustration of the strange mental freaks that will take possession at times of a sane man, which Mr. Aldrich undoubtedly is. It is Mr. Aldrich’s desire to have his body placed in the vault in a sitting posture, and the coffin is so constructed as to permit this attitude. It is simply an inclosed chair, partaking of all the characteristics of an ordinary coffin with the exception of its shape. It is made of walnut and is trimmed in like style, as are neatly finished burial cases. After the body is placed in the chair the lids close down upon it as in any other coffin. It has been made according to Mr. Aldrich’s directions, and is said to meet his requirements. We have not learned when this strange idea of Mr. Aldrich’s originated, or upon what belief or post mortem creed he bases it. It is Mr. Aldrich’s purpose to have his mother, with whom he is at present residing, interred in the same vault after her death in a very similar position. The gentleman is very low with consumption, and will soon occupy his strange coffin and grave. The vault is completed. The Indianapolis [IN] News 9 September 1882: p. 2
Buried Sitting in Her Chair
Pawling, N.Y., Dispatch, July 26th No stranger funeral ever occurred in Duchess county than that of Mrs. George S. Norton, wife of a well-known contractor of this place, who is to be buried Thursday afternoon in strict accord with her singular dying fancy.
Mrs. Norton was very stout and dreaded ordinary burial, fearing that her body would be crowded in a coffin too small for her. Her body, sitting in an old rocking chair, in which she has spent the greater part of the last three years, is to be enclosed in a handsome varnished box of chestnut and lowered into a kind of well specially constructed to receive it. Then this strange coffin will be locked and a heavy flagstone will be cemented fast over the opening.
The walls of this tomb will be bricked and cemented and no earth will be permitted to touch either the body or the box. After it is all over Mr. Norton will place the key of the casket where it will never be found, he says. The box will resemble the packing case of an upright piano. The exterior will be finished with light covered varnish. The inclined front will be hinged, so that while the pastor, the Rev. S.E. Mackey, of the Methodist Episcopal Church, is conducting the simple service, the body will be visible, sitting as in life in the chair. At the close the front will be shut up, and then the whole case will be loaded into one of Mr. Norton’s business wagons and driven to the grave by one of his employes. Statesville [NC] Record & Landmark 1 August 1899: p. 5
Centerville, Iowa, Aug. 29. Hezekiah Sheppherd, a wealthy farmer ninety years old, who lived at Drakeville, was buried recently in a coffin in the shape of a chair. For fifteen years Mr. Sheppherd has been unable to rest, except by sitting in an easy chair, and in that position he proposed to die. His friends tried to dissuade him from his eccentric notion, but he had a cabinet-maker construct the curious casket. It was substantially built of white oak, with walnut trimmings. It was kept on exhibition in Mr. Sheppherd’s room six weeks previous to his death, and he took special satisfaction in displaying it to his friends. He left instructions to have his body placed in this casket in a sitting posture, the wrists strapped to the arms of the casket, the limbs to its legs, and the head and the neck to the back. A glass panel was placed in front to expose the face of the dead man. The Dalles [OR] Daily Chronicle 30 August 1892: p. 1
The cemetery of St. Michael’s Church, Brattleboro, VT, was believed to be haunted by the ghost of a beloved organist, buried in a mausoleum, seated at an organ, with his hands on the keys. See Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls, and Unsolved Mysteries by Joseph Citro, Houghton Mifflin, 1994, for the story.
Although we have archaeological proof of those Scythian warriors mentioned by Herodotus who were buried staked to their horses, “buried on horseback” seems to be primarily a romantic legend because of the logistics of the thing. Lord Dacre may have been an exception.
BURIED ON HORSEBACK
Lord Dacre, who died fighting for the Lancastrians at Towton, England, in 1461, directed that if were killed in the battle his favorite war horse should be buried in the same grave with him. According to his wishes, when his interment took place in a Saxon churchyard after the battle a tremendous grave was dug and in it the warrior was buried, seated upright on his horse. For centuries reflections were cast upon the accuracy of this tradition, but a few years ago while excavations for new graves were being made close by the reputed burial place of Lord Dacre the pick of a digger struck into a great bone, and upon further search being made the skull of a big horse was brought to the surface. As this was found almost at the very spot under which the body of Lord Dacre was said to lie, it was accepted as confirmation of the tradition, particularly as the skull was found to be standing vertically in the soil. The skull was replaced carefully in its original position and the excavation filled up. San Francisco [CA] Call 1 February 1903: p. 11
Sometimes the logic of the funeral instructions are obvious only to the deceased:
A Queer Funeral Direction
The story is told of a certain Frenchman who had been a great collector of coins. By his will he directed that his obsequies should be performed with every accompaniment calculated to inspire mirthful feelings. His body was to be wrapped in a tanned pig skin and buried coffinless in a standing position upon a pile of charcoal. Laurel branches were to be carried by the mourners, and on returning from the church they were to throw open the chambers in which his treasures were deposited and all comers were welcome to help themselves as they pleased to the contents. It was a sore disappointment to the public, however, to find that before they were admitted the servants of the deceased had decamped with everything that was portable. The Wichita [KS] Daily Eagle 4 June 1890: p. 8
The New York Day Book says a singular funeral took place recently in that city. The deceased, a few moments previous to his death, made those who surrounded his bedside solemnly promise to obey his dying injunctions, which were, immediately after his demise, his body should be wrapped with common hemp bed-cords, and over this extraordinary swathing, should be folded sheets of tissue paper dipped in vinegar, and after this was done, that his body should be placed in the coffin face upwards, with the feet at the head of the coffin, and that upon the lid should be tacked a ticket admitting him free to the regions of the blessed. The strangest part of the whole proceedings was that the dying man’s injunctions were carried out to the very letter – he was wrapped with the bed-cords, bandaged with the tissue-paper, placed as directed into the coffin, and to crown the whole the hearse was the only vehicle in the funeral cortege. Frederick Douglass Paper [Rochester, NY] 22 April 1853
It is nothing out of the usual line when the deceased is accused of insanity, even when such an idea had never occurred during his life. A French millionaire, who died about two years ago, was, during his life, a man of extraordinary common-sense, and had amassed a large fortune in cotton spinning. Still his will was contested by his heirs on the grounds of insanity, and it certainly contained some curious provisions. It directed that his coffin should be deposited in a tomb cut in a solid block of stone and that cement should be run into the interstices and over the top so that the whole should form one solid mass.
Upon the top of the whole a stone was then to be cemented, and the solid block containing the body was then to be put up in the cupola of his house. The will directed that his home, containing art collections to the amount of $40,000, should remain uninhabited, except by the scores of dogs, chickens, pigeons and other pets which the testator was so fond of during his lifetime, and that the house should remain untouched, except for repairs. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 January 1888: p. 10
Yet some requests by the deceased made a certain amount of sense:
John Reed, gaslighter of the Philadelphia Walnut Street Theater, [willed] thus: “My head to be separated from my body, duly macerated and prepared, then to be employed to represent the skull of Yorick in the play of Hamlet.”…Taylor’s “Medical Jurisprudence” reports the case of Morgan vs. Boys, in which the testator desired his body to be converted into fiddle strings [!!], smelling salts and portions vitrified into lenses for optical purposes. His property was devised to a stranger, and he attached to his will the following explanation of it: “The world may think this to be done in a spirit of singularity or whim, but I have a mortal aversion to funeral pomp, and I wish my body to be converted into purposes useful to mankind.” …A Vienna millionaire seems to have been totally in the dark as to his future state, for he willed that both the interior of his coffin and the vault in which it would lie should be illuminated by electricity. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 October 1909: p. 14
The illuminated millionaire was no odder than anyone today who would purchase a “Catacombo” sound system for their coffin.
Some post-mortem requests were motivated by patriotism:
The wish that his coffin, which he made three years ago, be painted in patriotic colors, the base red, the panels white and the top blue, was made by a ninety-year old citizens of Pleasant Ridge, Ohio, who died a few days ago. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 28 January 1886
Mr Solomon Sanborn, who long supplied the folks of Medford, Massachusetts, with headgear, when inditing his last will and testament, probably intended to make his patriotism patent to the world, but only succeeded in providing it with an illustration of the saying, ‘as mad as a hatter.’ Solomon bequeathed his body to Professor Agassiz and Dr O. W. Holmes (the Autocrat of the Breakfast-table) jointly, as Captain Cuttle would say; to be by them prepared in the most skilful and scientific manner known to the anatomical art, and placed in the Museum of Anatomy, at Harvard University. Of his skin, two drum-heads were to be made: upon one was to be inscribed Pope’s Universal Prayer; upon the other, the Declaration of Independence; and then they were to be presented to his distinguished friend and patriotic citizen, Warren Simpson, drummer, of Cohasset; conditionally, that at sunrise, upon the seventeenth of June every year, Simpson beat, or caused to be beat, upon the said drum-heads, at the base of the monument on Bunker’s Hill, the national air of Yankee Doodle. Such parts of his remains as were useless to the anatomisers were to be ‘ composted’ into a fertiliser, for the purpose of nourishing the growth of an American elm, to be planted or set out in some rural public thoroughfare; that the weary wayfaring man might rest, and innocent children playfully sport beneath the shadow of the umbrageous branches, rendered luxuriant by his carcase. Chamber’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, William Chambers, Robert Chambers, 1872
Recent exhibitions of coffins shaped like guitars, beer bottles, or ballet shoes highlight the whimsical choices available for creative post-mortem expression. You can commission a boat coffin like this one:
A strange coffin, said to be intended for a British admiral of the fleet, is on exhibition at Liverpool. It is in the shape of a double-ended lifeboat, seven feet long and painted with white port-holes like an old-fashioned battleship. It is fitted with life lines, oars, and a rudder, and is made seaworthy in every respect. Repository [Canton, OH] 13 July 1897: p. 2
Or this one:
“The most remarkable coffin of which I ever heard was that of a very old Englishman who served in the French wars under Lord Nelson, and afterward went to Canada and settled, I think, in Victoria B.C. In his leisure moments he constructed a model of the flagship Victory. It was eight feet long, and had all the masts, sails, rigging and cannons which Nelson’s ship had. The old man took the greatest pride in it, and in his last days used to watch it for hours at a time. He was a very small man, and when he died, some of his old sailor friends lifted the deck off the Victory and had the inside upholstered. Then they put the old man in and replaced the deck. At the funeral the Victory was lowered into the grave with sails set and the flags flying. I don’t suppose there was ever a more appropriate coffin than that.The Inter Ocean [Chicago, IL] 25 March 1900: p. 41
Some burial rituals arose from sacred motives.
A QUEER BURIAL
One of the oddest funeral services occurred at Centerville on Monday. Mrs. Patterson, wife of Dr. Amos Patterson, an old resident of the community, well-to-do and highly respected, died Saturday. Instead of being placed in a casket, the body was wrapped in a silken shroud and deposited in a stone vault on top of the ground, the stone grave filled with olive oil and then a flat stone placed on top and sealed with lead.
Doctor and Mrs. Patterson have visited the Holy Land and on several occasions witnessed this mode of burial, which his in vogue there, and decided upon this manner of burial for themselves.
The stone vaults have been on their lot in the cemetery for several years. Each is one solid piece of stone hollowed out, with a flat stone placed on the top. The family monument is a large flat piece of granite on a stone base, about sixteen feet square, polished highly with the names of members of the family cut in it. The Humeston [IA] New Era 22 May 1907: p. 8
And some from profane. There are a number of stories of persons dying at sea being brought home in a barrel of spirits, hence the phrase: “tapping the Admiral,” referring to the tale that sailors drank dry the barrel of brandy in which Admiral Horatio Nelson was being transported.
EMBALMED IN WHISKY
Kentucky Man to Be Buried in a Tank of Old Bourbon
Charles Bramlett, aged 80 (or 90) years, died the other day. He owned several plantations in Harrison county and had been a very prosperous man all his life. At a low estimate he was worth $100,000. He was peculiar in nothing but his ideas of his own burial. He was a great reader, and perhaps drew his notions of his own interment from the histories of ancient Egypt.
About 15 years ago he hired a skillful stonemason to make him a sarcophagus of Kentucky blue limestone, which is much more durable than the hardest marble. At the same time he bought a barrel of the best old bourbon the state could produce and ordered that at his death the whisky should be poured upon his body after it was placed in the stone coffin. The sarcophagus was then to be hermetically sealed and placed in a grave near his residence.
All his directions have been followed to the letter. It took a number of strong horses to carry his body in its heavy receptacle to the grave already waiting for it. One cannot but think of the ages to come when this singular coffin shall be unearthed and the remains exposed to the gaze of wondering men. The tombs found recently in Egypt will not be more curious, even if they are more elaborately carved.
Bramlett was a constant imbiber of apple brandy and never left his house without a flask full in his pocket. His body was almost ready for spontaneous combustion before his death, and yet none ever saw him too much intoxicated to attend to business and to talk sensibly on any and all subjects. Morning Star [Rockford, IL] 2 February 1897: p. 4
Occasionally we find stories of persons wishing to be buried standing—perhaps to be found waiting on their feet when the Last Trump sounded. But this gentleman (in what is probably a folktale–stories of petrified corpses were popular) had a more domestic motive.
STRANGE PHENOMENA CONNECTED WITH A GRAVE.
It appears from a dispatch from Galveston, Texas, to the Philadelphia Times, that twenty-five years ago there died in the neighborhood of what is now W. H. Master’s ranch, in Montague county, a very peculiar individual named Bill Sterrit. Sterrit had one little girl and a wife, with whom he lived very unhappily—a woman with a violent temper and more than ordinary will power.
A few days before his death, Sterrit, who was able to hold his own against his termagant wife, called her to his bedside and requested that his coffin should be placed in the grave in such a way that he might be in a standing posture. He was afflicted with heart disease, and suffered from difficulty of breathing while in a reclining position. When Sterrit died, his wife, remaining obdurate in spite of the entreaties of his friends, had him laid in his grave in the usual way, flat on his back at full length. She “would get even with Bill Sterrit for once,” she said.
Twenty-five years passed, Meanwhile Sterrit had been almost forgotten. His wife, leaving naught but the little wooden headboard to mark his grave, sold the ranch and moved to town. A few weeks since some new settlers, in excavating for a well on what had been the old Sterrit place, unearthed the petrified remains of a man in a standing posture. Old inhabitants identified the remains as those of Sterrit. Depositions made by them established the fact beyond a doubt; but no one could account for his being in a standing position, when they had the evidence of their own eyes to prove that he had not been thus buried.
Herein appears the strange part of the affair, which must, of course, forever remain a mystery. Mr. Masters said that while the figure, even the features, of Sterrit, are preserved almost in a state of perfection, the hands are mutilated, the knees very much scarred, and there is a considerable abrasure upon the forehead, running back into the hair. Persons who knew him have concluded that Sterrit must have been buried in a trance, and that when he regained consciousness and found himself buried, he first drew his knees up to their utmost extent, pressing upon the coffin-lid with all his strength. This would account for the disfigurement of his knees. Further, he must have beat his head against the top, finally clawing and tearing the lid with his hands. He managed to stand upright, and then died and was slowly petrified, to remain a perpetual defiance to his termagant wife, who lost her wits when she learned that Sterrit had thwarted her even in his grave, and is now in the asylum. The Encyclopaedia of Death and Life in the Spirit-world: Volume 2, John Reynolds Francis, 1906
This gentleman also requested an unconventional burial to frustrate his wife.
In the Burial Register of Lymingson, Hunts, there is the following entry: ‘12th August, 1722. This forenoon the body of Samuel Baldwin, late inhabitant of this parish, was conveyed in a vessel off to sea, and was committed to the Deep off the Needle Rocks, near the Isle of Wight.”
“This appears to have been done,” says a Hampshire paper, “in accordance with the wish of the deceased, to prevent his wife from dancing over his grave.” Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 4 September 1864: p. 2
It was understood that one neglected these dying requests at one’s peril.
A Baltimore Ghost
An Old Maid’s Ghost has been sitting on a bridal bed in West Baltimore, and worrying all the lodgers in a boarding house. The old lady’s spirit was exercised over the grave-clothes. A short time before her death, she asked the lady with whom she was boarding not to bury her in any costly dress, but in a plain shroud, and threatened to haunt the house if her direction was not heeded. Her friends thought that it was only an old maid’s notion, and when she died, buried her in an elegant silk and adorned the casket with beautiful flowers. About two weeks ago, a bridal couple engaged board at the house. Enter the ghost. The young wife awakened her husband, one night, with a startled exclamation. There was somebody in the room, she said; somebody was sitting on the bed. He heard a noise. Somebody was moving softly across the room, he said; somebody had been sitting on the bed. Whereupon he struck a light; the shade was not in sight. The next night a gentleman in the next room was visited by the ghost, during the next fortnight, she paid visits to every sleeping-room in the house. All the boarders have left the house, and the landlady is talking of having the body exhumed, the silk dress taken off, and the plain shroud put on. It is just as well to let an old maid have her own way in matters of dress. St Alban’s [VT] Daily Messenger 12 October 1876: p. 2
COURTS HIS WIFE’S SPOOK
An Iowa Man’s Appreciation of the Presence of his Wife’s Ghost.
A refusal of a husband to cremate the remains of his wife has, according to his story, entailed upon him a haunt by her disappointed spirit. Mrs. V. was a vivacious brunette and an aesthetic woman, always abreast of the times. The idea of cremation won her most enthusiastic support in a moment, and being a society lady, with little else to do but gratify her whims, she allowed the new scheme for disposing of the dead to enthuse her.
It took so much of her attention from her devoted husband that he grew jealous, as it were, of the innovation. He grew to hate it more on the ground of its divorcing his wife’s devotion from him than aught else. Suddenly she died, and on her deathbed made him promise to cremate her corpse. She talked until the last moment of how her spirit would delight in watching the urn containing her ashes on her husband’s mantel, but vowed that she would haunt Mr. V., if he was untrue to his promise. It is even said that her longing to become a subject for the furnace actually hastened her death. The husband, however, spurned the thought of giving all that was mortal of his adored wife to the cause that he believed had robbed him of his darling, and, placing the remains in a costly casket, he had her quietly buried.
He kept their chamber, where the urn was to have been, sacred to her memory and his own use. Two negro servants were employed to live in the basement and take care of the house. After a few nights the colored man’s wife awakened him with the exclamation: “Mrs. V’s upstairs.” He laughed at it at first, but after listening a little while, was convinced she was right. Mrs. V. seemed pouring out a torrent of invective and reproach against him, which was varied by a smart controversy. In the morning he appeared with a haunted look in his eyes and face pallid. The spook kept getting worse every night, until finally they heard a struggle and a sound as of glass breaking. They rushed up and, breaking into the room, found him struggling with an imaginary foe. The debris of a lot of vases that had stood on the mantel were strewn about the floor. The next day he complained to a friend of his trouble, stating that his wife haunted him every night. He was advised to have her remains taken up and cremated, but says he would rather have the company of her spirit than none if the phantom would only desist from pulling hair and breaking furniture. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 30 December 1888: p. 11
Cremation, promoted by burial reformers for health reasons, was regarded with suspicion and distaste at the time of this story. Its enthusiasts were widely seen as irreligious, eccentric, or crankish. Perhaps we think that this is a trivial reason for a haunting, but this is not the only story I have seen of a ghost returning to complain about its wish for cremation being disregarded.
Finally, we have the inadvertent or the simply bizarre burial.
A QUEER COFFIN
New York Herald
Perhaps the most singular coffin in which a human being ever was buried is the one of which the following story is told:
A workman engaged in casting metal for the manufacture of ordnance in the Woolwich Arsenal, in England, lost his balance and fell into a caldron containing twelve tons of molten steel. The metal was at white heat and the man was utterly consumed in less time that it takes to tell it.
The war Office authorities held a conference and decided not to profane the dead by using the metal in the manufacture of ordnance and the mass of metal was actually buried and a Church of England clergyman read the services for the dead over it. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 September 1910: p. 4.
In 1907, a brick, composed of five parts of cement and one part of ashes of the cremated body of a suicide, was buried in Hand-in-Hand Cemetery, West Roxbury Pressed into the face of the brick is the epitaph:
Died May 30, 1907
Leave me in peace
Unger was a traveling salesman who believed that the human body after death would be revived in the form of a flowering growth which would spring from his mortal flesh. This thought being repulsive to him, and desiring to preclude any such resurrection, he left a will in which he directed that his corpse be cremated, and that the ashes be mixed with sufficient cement to form solid rock. This request was carried out, the brick being molded in a small square box. American Clay Magazine, Volumes 2-7, 1907
Or, in the language of Saki or P.G. Wodehouse, he was a brick.
Any other unusual burials? Nail down the lid and sent to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.
See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.