The Custom Of Black Signifying Death

waterloo-sandy-tonya-2008My big burial was set for noon and I was happy to be free from the confines of the funeral parlour, if just for a couple hours. I always show up before a family arrives for the service to make sure nothing has fallen through the cracks, and I like to spend that quality time walking the land while my mind processes everything. Time hangs lightly and solitude allows me time to gaze at ivy and grass and take in the nature surrounding me. Flowers glisten with last evening’s rain. As I sit or walk alone, shade splashes silently around me and I am free to talk out loud and mentally work through the needs of all the families that will be coming through my doors. Spurred by these thoughts I kept walking through the endless field of graves. The business of being alive once seemed simple—either you were or you weren’t—but even a brief contemplation reveals surprising complexities. How do I help families to the best of my ability while keeping the costs as low as possible?

A clutch of ladies stop me as I tramp by. They ask me where they can find “Gay Woodcock.” I’m momentarily puzzled by the name.

373cf06daf4289d538959d9c7554c6b8This is a tiny country park so there is no office, no worker at a booth or gravesite kiosk to access. I tell them I will walk the graves and help them look. They comment on my frivolous spiked heels and tell me that they wouldn’t have been able to walk on those little points even on the city street back in their day. After some silence they ask if I am there for a funeral since I am wearing a black suit, then ask me to kindly clarify why black was all the rage in the funeral world.

I explain. “Back in the day, the undertaker would arrive to the home with a myriad of things, some of these things being door badges. Door badges were late nineteenth century ‘Do Not Disturb’ knob hangers. They signified someone inside the home had slipped through the veil into the netherworld.”

bd2c99d061f90737fb42c25222d0b7a4“I’m Mary, and this is my sister, Sally. Do you live far from here?”

“I live just down the street on the same property as the funeral home. I am the town undertaker at Cornerstone.”

“That’s nice, dear. So were the door badges always black?”

I continue. “The undertaker would select the appropriate color door crepe or badge and attach it so the door knocker or bell would be totally silenced. Custom decreed black for the old, white for the young, and a combination of the two for young adults. Purples and grays became all the rage as time marched on, but then were replaced by colorful, floral door wreaths.”

“Black crepe was a biggie for inside the house. Mirrors were covered with it so the soul would not get trapped and not be able to pass to the other side. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.”

They smile politely as my heels further aerate the soggy ground and I sink into the mud, and we still haven’t found Ms. Woodcock. I carry on my history lesson since they are so fascinated. “Deeply colored veils were often hung in the doorways and the servants dressed the part. Their outfits were black, their cuffs were black and the scullery maids wore matching ribbons from their caps. For a year the widow only wore black with a dull finish. No sheen allowed. The rules dictated that black be the color of full mourning, and strict etiquette outlined the manner and length of mourning. Many people in middle and upper class families had to consult household manuals or etiquette books to ensure that the rules were followed closely. Widows wore mourning clothing for two years or longer.”

They perk up and want to know if women would still wear their wedding ring.

“With the exception of a wedding band, jewelry was prohibited during the first month of mourning and was limited for the remainder of the period.”

The grave of Mrs. Woodcock is finally located and I am no longer needed, just sent away with the dead flowers.


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