Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins

 Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins Wicker coffin for green burial

Wicker Man: Victorian Basket-work Coffins A modern wicker coffin in Victorian style from a company in Australia: www.handwovencaskets.com.au

 Willow coffins are now the rage in England. They are more comfortable in hot weather, it is claimed. Dallas [TX] Weekly Herald 10 July 1875: p. 2

“Bury me,” said a ruddy and strong man, with whom I was discussing the subject of wicker coffins, — “when I am dead, bury me in an earth-to-earth wicker coffin, so that I may get out again into God’s pure air just as soon as possible.” England as Seen by an American Banker: Notes of a Pedestrian Tour, Claudius Buchanan Patten, 1885

In the summer of 1875 some residents of London received a novel invitation reading:

THE DUKE OF SUTHERLAND

Requests the honor of the company of

__________

At Stafford House,

On Thursday, the 17th, and Saturday, the 19th of June, to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins constructed on the principles advocated by Mr. Seymour Haden.

Garden entrance. Four to six o’clock

A strange summer garden-party—with perishable coffins?–and to what end?  Why, to solve the problem of London’s graveyards bulging with bones, stenches, and partially decomposed corpses, of course. This is not an issue we think of today, but for urban Victorians, it was a real concern.

The author of the following piece paints a hideous picture of the horrors of conventional burials:

The objection against vaults and hermetically sealed coffins are great; if their purpose is to prevent dissolution of the compages of the flesh, they do not accomplish it, and the horrible scenes witnessed when old vaults are opened—where water has come through or the bodies are found in a loathsome deliquescence in which they float—are infamous if they can be prevented, as they can be by the use of the wicker coffin. Daily Graphic [New York, NY] 31 July 1875: p. 2

Wicker/perishable coffins also had the advantage of being cheaper than “the extortions of the undertakers” and “it affords of the body being restored quietly and lovingly to mother earth, and to head off the cremation fever now attacking many Britons.” Cleveland [OH] Leader 19 July 1875: p. 4.

But back to that invitation issued by the Duke of Sutherland.

THE COFFIN RECEPTION

After a description of American window displays of funerary necessities, the author writes…

 While all this may seem incongruous, and while less of ‘commercial’ obtrusiveness about the necessary work of funerals might be less offensive to good taste, even the American undertaker does draw the line somewhere. We never heard, for example, of his imitating the milliners and dressmakers by holding a mortuary “opening” or giving a coffin reception.

The last-named bit of enterprise was reserved for the ingenious Duke of Sutherland. That alert nobleman discovered a reformatory speciality to which his attention had never before been turned, and he proceeded at once to make the most of it. After cremation, as a method of getting the remains of human beings out of the way expeditiously and thoroughly, had been discussed, and after a vast majority of the British public had come to the conclusion that they did not care to burn themselves or their friends, Mr. Seymour Haden proposed a compromise with convention. The idea of destroying a body before the very eyes of the mourners was, he admitted, not altogether pleasing, but he, he argued, there could be no reasonable objection to permitting the remains to assimilate with their mother earth as rapidly as possible after they should be hidden from sight. Such a disposition, he contended, was preferable to cremation, because, while the latter process would leave nothing but a few worthless ashes, the other would give to the soil much which would enrich it and make it fruitful. To Mr. Haden, thus contemplating the bodies of himself and his kindred and the great army of the coming dead as fertilizers, nothing seemed lacking but a method of interment which would the most facilitate decomposition, or which would obstruct it the least… Like many reformers, Mr. Haden has to pull down as well as build up. He is obliged to overcome the preservative prejudices of the people before he can persuade them to inter their friends in such a way as to promote dissolution. He is convinced himself that the most important appliance of a fertilizing funeral is a basket. He is willing to be buried in one, but to induce other persons to follow his example is a difficult matter…. If he could succeed in introducing his death-basket into “high life,” he reasoned, he would be enriched, and so in time would be the soil of England. He approached the Duke of Sutherland, who just then happened to have no other extravagant undertaking on his hands, and who readily fell in with the scheme. Invitations “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins” at Stafford House were issued, and a large company was assembled accordingly.

The affair was grotesque enough. In place of what at other times would have been a program of the concert or a bill of the play, guests were furnished with a printed description of the coffins, their purpose, merits and defects. There was ghastly humor in the statement, especially in the fourth direction:

“Accompanying each of them [the coffins] should be a narrow leaden band or ribbon pierced with name and date of death, to be passed round the chest and lower limbs, and through the sides and over the top of the basket: 1. For retaining the body in its position; 2. For the subsequent identification of the bones; 3. For sealing the coffin, as a guaranty that the contents have not been disturbed.”

One model was of “a nest of coffins as they will be kept in stock, from the smallest to the largest.” There were “forms of coffins for ordinary use,” with the legend, “The best are very inexpensive.”… Considering the basket coffin seriously, if it was meant to be seriously considered, the most forcible argument for it which we have seen is that it will cheapen funerals. But we are by no means sure that it would do so; the undertakers probably would contrive to make even a willow-ware burial costly. And even if it would do so, cheapness is not the only thing to be considered in living and dying. It must occur even to Mr. Haden, meditating upon his fertilizing scheme, that if the economical disposition of bodies, quick or dead, is of prime importance, it would be cheapest to die young, and cheaper still not to be born at all. Evening Post [New York] 17 July 1875: p. 2

Another eye-witness took a gallows-humor approach. (The proposal to “make a funeral very much like a festival,” has been my complaint as a church organist witness of many “celebrations of life.”)

 A cold chill ran down my back. A garden party at Stafford House, at which the entertainment was to consist of coffins and “perishable coffins” at that! There is something ghastly, uncomfortable and incongruous in this. One may joke and try to be gay when surrounded with these memorials of death, but the jokes will be far-fetched and the gayety unnatural. Mr. Haden has elaborated a completely new programme for all the arrangements connected with deaths and burials, and proposes to make a funeral very much like a festival. Everything is to be light, cheerful, and pleasant; the undertaker’s people are not to enter the house; the ladies of the family are to wrap the corpse in a light shroud, lay it in a pretty basket of open willow work, lined with fragrant moss and lichens; and, when all is ready the men of the household are to carry the body away and bury it. This was certainly less shocking than cremation; but still there seemed to be much nonsense about it. Now, however, we were to have a garden party in order to the look at the new coffins—and, perhaps, we might be treated also to a funeral got up for the occasion. Since the Duke of Sutherland had taken the matter in hand there was no reason why he might not send up to one of his Scotch estates and order a gilly or two to be killed and sent down by express train, in order to afford Mr. Haden every facility for a demonstration of the advantages of his new method of burial….

The joke about killing a gilly almost looks like Second Sight. In 1883 the Duke accidentally killed a man, said to be his gamekeeper, during a hunting expedition.

 The day was lovely; the grounds were in all their beauty; the toilets of the ladies were brilliant; the Duke, smoking a cigar, his hands in his pockets and a white hat set jauntily over one side of his head, moved from group to group, laughing and jesting. But for all this the company were not gay. The coffins saddened them, although there was nothing in them. On the broad terrace which extends along the front the house the “basket and other portable coffins” were arranged in rows. There were dozens of them, from the tiny ones intended for infants up to the full size ones large enough for the Duke himself. Some were made of nothing but willows, open on all sides like a basket; others had the sides and bottoms filled in with green moss; others, intended for the bodies of those who had died of contagious disease were double, a layer of powdered charcoal being placed between the outer and inner baskets. …

The people crowded around the coffins, examined them with interest, not unmixed with anxiety, listened to Mr. Haden’s explanations, shuddered in spite of themselves as he insisted upon the fact that a body thus interred would be all “absorbed in a month,” tried to make remarks expressive of their pleasure at such a prospect, and then strolled off into the grounds. I saw more than one lady grow pale as she looked at the little coffins for children. For all that, the coffins lined with soft and fragrant moss were not unpleasant to gaze upon—not unpleasant, that is, for coffins. Augusta [GA] Chronicle 17 July 1875: p. 3

So who were these Wicker Men, the Duke and Mr. Haden?

Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) was an English surgeon as well as a noted etcher. He was also an expert on the etchings of the old masters, particularly Rembrandt. He married a half-sister of the artist James Whistler and for a time he and Whistler printed their etchings together in a home workshop. He also testified in the Tichborne Claimant trial and invented a papier-mache coffin.

I have not been able to find out what triggered his life-long near-mania for earth-to-earth burial, although any doctor in London would have realized that the burial grounds were a breeding ground for pestilence.

Other than his interest in burial reform, he seemed to have led a fairly conventional, Royal College of Surgeons/Royal Academician sort of life, (although he had married into the family of the relentlessly unconventional James McNeill Whistler.) The founder of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers, he was revered world-wide for his artwork and was dubbed The Great Master of Etching; The Apostle of the Burin; The Foremost of Living Etchers. He was knighted in 1894.

Dr. Haden was back in the news briefly in the summer of 1896 with his comments on “shallow burial”—one foot under rather than the statutory 4 ½ feet—to encourage rapid decomposition. He came to this conclusion by studying dead animals he buried at various depths on his estate—a proto-Body Farm. I have been unable to discover if he received an earth-to-earth burial. [Source: “Disposing of the Dead” New York Herald-Tribune 3 July 1896: p. 6]

The Duke of Sutherland was Sir George Granville William Sutherland – Leveson-Gower, K. G., Third Duke of Sutherland, 1828-1892. [I will not weary you with his string of other titles.] As you might expect from the greatest landowner in Great Britain, he did as he pleased. He was frequently dubbed “eccentric” and “a queer old fellow” in the press. One of his pranks was to send a wildcat trapped in Sutherlandshire to the first Crystal Palace Cat Show in July 1871. He was intrigued by invention and loved driving locomotives. (It was said that he was the only man in the world who could drive his own engines, fired with coal from his own mines, over his own private railroad tracks, throughout his own extensive properties.) He also invented a fire engine and worked as an amateur firefighter in London.

His personal life was equally unconventional. In November of 1888, his wife, Duchess Anne, gravely ill, saw him off on a voyage to the United States, then died of a cold contracted from the exertion. The Duke caused a scandal by refusing to travel from Florida for her funeral.  Less than four months later, the Ducal widower married his “traveling companion” Mary Caroline Blair. Mrs. Blair’s first husband, Arthur Kindersley Blair, had been an employee of the Duke—some say gamekeeper; others estate Superintendent–whom the Duke accidentally shot and killed in 1883 (the date and the circumstances are also murky).  The married Duke became fascinated by the lady, who was described as 6-feet tall and “raw-boned,” causing a rift with Duchess Anne. “He was best known on account of his immoralities, which he took no pains to conceal.” [Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 28 September 1892: p. 4 ]

The Duke made several visits to the United States where he met Thomas Edison while viewing electric lights Edison had installed for a New York client. In the course of their conversations, the inventor mentioned the excellent tarpon fishing at Ft Meyers. Intrigued, the Duke visited Edison at Seminole Lodge and then built himself a home near St Petersburg at Tarpon Springs where he lived with Mrs. Blair.

At his death in 1892 the Duke left his vast fortune to his second wife who was found guilty of contempt of court for destroying documents related to the estate and served six weeks in Holloway Jail. The Duke’s children by Duchess Anne contested the will and paid the lady off handsomely. She later married her legal advisor.

Other than the Duke’s interest in innovation and invention, I am not sure why he decided to patronize Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins. I also do not know if the Duke was buried in a wicker coffin, but I have seen a note that his coffin was put into the ground rather than the family vault, at his request.

Despite his letters to the Times, Mr. Haden’s wicker coffins proved only a summer sensation. Although at the time of the “Coffin Reception,” his name was on everyone’s lips, after 1875 Dr. Haden’s press notices focus solely on his art, lectures, exhibitions, and art criticism. Neither man’s obituary notice mentions death-baskets or earth-to-earth burial.

Wicker coffins never really caught on over in the States except as temporary/transport coffins. They were unusual enough that they were mentioned as a curiosity in death notices. You sometimes see such coffins for sale, possibly because undertakers found that they were not popular with the public.

There is nothing new under the sun, of course. Seymour Haden and the Duke were early proponents–138 years too early—of what today we call the green-burial or eco-funeral movements.

A friend sent me a recent article about “free trade” basketwork coffins being made by cooperatives in Bangladesh.  You can see a pretty example here.

Bury me beneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
Where she will know where I’m sleeping
And perhaps she’ll weep for me.

“Bury Me Beneath the Willow”

-Trad. Folk song-

 

Thanks to Michael Robinson for the free-trade basketwork article, which inspired this post.

Further Reading:

Cremation: a Pamphlet, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

The Disposal of the Dead, a Plea for Legislation, Seymour Haden (London, 1888).

Earth to earth: a plea for a change of system in our burial of the dead, Seymour Haden (London, 1875)

Cremation: an Incentive to Crime, Seymour Haden (London, 1892)

The Corpse in the Garden: Burial, Health and the Environment in Nineteenth-Century London by Peter Thorsheim is an excellent article giving much of the background about issues that inspired burial reformers like Dr. Haden: questions of sanitation, earth-to-earth burials, cremation, and the transformation of some of London’s cemeteries into public parks.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

 

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