Death & Mourning

Death and mourning in the south west of Scotland had traditions and customs that were sometimes shared by the rest of the country but were occasionally unique to the area. Changes in Glasgow, Edinburgh and other large towns and cities found their way gradually to the more rural setting of Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway, but a high level of mortality ensured that the work associated with the funerary industry was never slow. In earlier times everything was handled by the family and community, but later the process became more commercialised and formal, with business matters, rules of etiquette and concerns over status.

After the middle ages, the earliest funerals were simple, insular affairs; the whole village or town would be involved to one extent or another.  After the Reformation in the 16th century, the clergy actually had little to do with it, other than the reading of the final words and overseeing the interment. Funerals were seen as civic occasions by the ministry and although their involvement gradually increased to reading final words at the home the night before, when the family and friends would gather for the 'kisting' or 'chesting' when the remains would be prepared, it was many generations - into the 18th century - before they became a central part of the ceremony.  This they seem to still have done with some reluctance; in places such as New Cumnock ministers tried to cease this practice but without success, as the public insisted on their presence. 

This hands-off approach from the religious sector allowed local folk customs to grow and take hold; some, such as the ringing of the  funeral bell (also called the deid bell, mort bell or lych bell) continued with the endorsement of the clergy.  The parish charged a fee for the used of the bell, which was divided between two parties: the beadle who rang it, and the poor fund, which allowed the penniless to have a proper, if simple, burial. 

Other practices which endured include the 'dregie' (also lykewake), which was a feast held after the burial - a tradition we still adhere to today. The custom of the lykewake originated in an attempt to stand guard to ward off evil spirits.  A funeral was accompanied by great mourning but also festivity.  Alcohol was an integral part of the day, and there was even an allowance made in the accounts for beer money for pallbearers, gravediggers, and other such individuals.  The church did not approve of such frivolity and condemned it as pagan depravity. 

Women would typically prepare the dregie, and also wash and lay out the deceased in a linen shroud, traditionally made in the early years of marriage.  The Burying in Scots Linen Act (1686) ensured profit for manufacturers of Scottish linen (who were at this time suffering from slow trade) by stipulating that this was the material to be used for the purpose.  An official would check each case to ensure that this was carried out.  Large fines were imposed for non-compliance.  In 1707 the Act was altered to reflect changes in trade, and wool became the standard material. 

As time passed, the increasing population and industrialisation of Scotland in general meant that all areas had to address a growing problem of burial space and the number of funerals being carried out allowed the opportunity for the undertaker as a business to flourish. 

Previously, the coffin would be made by a local joiner or craftsman, this being their only contribution, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many combined this with undertaking duties.  The first note of an undertaker proper in the area was in Ayr in 1868. 

The new style of undertaker would organise everything, from the funeral feast and clothing to floral tributes and summons to the burial. 

Florists could specialise in wreaths and other arrangements, as the business was becoming so large; flowers became the normal enhancement for the coffin and hearse as the mortcloth receded from favour.  This was a simple black cloth draped over the coffin, usually hired out by the parish for a fee, which also went towards poor funds. 

The procession to the kirkyard had involved the whole community, who took it in turns to bear the coffin and watch its final journey, but this became more formal in the shape of the hearse.  Still, when a funeral procession passed, it was respectful to remove one's headgear in deference, and to stop and observe for a moment.  However, when an important or well-esteemed local figure passed away, the whole community would still present themselves to say a final farewell. This was not always for wealthy dignitaries; when five miners were killed in an explosion in the pits in 1925, over three thousand attended their funerals at Kaimshills Cemetery (now Riccarton Cemetery, Kilmarnock) and a thousand were present at Auchinleck Churchyard for four miners in a similar incident in 1909. 

Horse-drawn hearses were the ultimate in ostentation and were a clear indicator of the wealth and social status of its occupant.  However, even these became more commonplace with the rise in disposable income, so the upper classes reverted to simpler trappings.  The popularity of this type of vehicle meant there was now a restriction on the number of people entering the funeral business, for they had to have enough capital to purchase horses and all the trappings.  Sometimes the parish would have a hearse available for hire, by instalment if necessary; at Caerlaverock (Dumfriesshire) and other places can be seen a 'hearse-house'. 

The early 'mortuary rhymes', written traditionally for deceased children by those close to them, evolved into printed funeral or  memorial cards, which were distributed as a way of notifying of the death and also doubled as an invitation to the ceremony and burial.  They usually detailed the time and place of death, arrangements for the interment and the name of those sending the cards, generally the next of kin.  They became so plentiful that it was possible to find full-time employment delivering them.  Printed on white with a black border, or black front, they also tended to have embossed designs, usually floral.  The 'language of flowers' was incorporated frequently, with the choice of bloom signifying the state of grief of the family and friends - a typically Victorian mechanism.  For example, cypress represented mourning; hyacinth, sorrow; ivy, fidelity. 

The correct way of doing things was an integral part of the funeral, especially in the Victorian era.  It was seen as a sign of prestige if the rules were followed to the letter.  Clocks were stopped, mirrors turned to the wall and furniture draped in sheets.  Sometimes ladies publications would advise on appropriate procedure.  The regulations covered everything from the most decorous manner of behaviour when demonstrating grief to the physical layout of the cemetery.  One was not permitted to smoke or allow animals within a graveyard, and could not touch the memorials (which were also designed with regularity in mind) or deviate from the marked paths.  Cemeteries could be very busy places, as when there were no burials taking place families were in the habit of going to visit memorials after church on a Sunday.  In fact, the Sabbath was the only day on which interments were not permitted, except if there was an emergency. 

The memorials were also seen as a sign of wealth and status and the more opulent your family monument, the higher in society you were deemed to be.  In the 1890s, the number of masons and marble cutters was previously unsurpassed, making columns, headstones, obelisks and other markers.  The grand cemeteries of Europe, such as Père la Chaise, were imitated in Glasgow and beyond, with Grecian, Roman and Egyptian style mausoleums being very popular.  An elaborate example was erected to  Robert Burns in Dumfries some years after the poet's death; he is seen, carved in marble, with the plough and 'Coila', a conceptual representation of Ayrshire.  An opportunity was grasped to make a  cast of his skull when the building work began, phrenology being a popular Victorian study. James Boswell and his family lie in a vault in Auchinleck.  Some others also had effigies carved for themselves, such as the Earl and Countess of Glencairn at Kilmaurs, East Ayrshire.  An earlier example of a fine mausoleum, dating from the 17th century, is that of Sir Robert Montgomery - the Skelmorlie Aisle, which was at one time attached to the body of the old Largs kirk.  At the very least a headstone was installed by those who could afford it; before the industrial age, there was probably not a lot to see as the upper classes had the privilege of being interred within the church body, and the poor could not provide a marker. 

Tombstone symbolism is an interesting area; sometimes we can tell the date or locality by the designs.  Popular motifs included skulls, skull and crossbones combination, hourglasses, wings, angels and symbols relating to the deceased's trade; Durisdeer (Dumfriesshire) has such an example, depicting a mason with his chisel and mallet and Alloway (South Ayrshire) shows a complete scene of a smith at work. 

For such a widespread and prominent part of society, memorials could be surprisingly reticent in their inscriptions.  As well as the biographical details, they would quite frequently use one of many euphemisms for death, as well as the actual cause. 

A continuation of the memorial cards could be seen on monuments, with verse and eulogies being carved into the stone.  There were the usual stock phrases: 'As thou art now so once was I, As I am now so must thou be' or a variation but also perhaps a line or two from an appropriate prayer or favourite hymn, or a phrase which summed up the deceased's character: 'Think what a wife should be, And she was that'.  Epitaphs could be heartbreakingly sad or intentionally humorous or witty.  Robert Burns himself composed many, although they were not always flattering. 

Clothing in particular was closely observed and mourning attire really took off when Queen Victoria adopted full black following the death of her husband, Prince Albert.  Society widows followed suit, wearing different styles according to the season and what materials were in vogue, although black crepe was very popular.  After a seemly amount of time, ladies could exchange heavy black for a lighter shade of grey or lilac, but some retained it for the rest of their lives, as Victoria herself did.  Men did not go as far as this, but usually wore a black armband to signify a loss.  Fashions from the larger urban areas arrived gradually in the south west, until eventually throughout Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway, most people adhered to this dress code in one form or another.  The poorer classes could not afford the expensive designs, however, and settled for dyeing their everyday clothes black; some could not manage this and just wore their best.  A less expensive and more discreet way of demonstrating grief was to have a handkerchief or some such item edged in black.  Jewellery also came into the sphere of mourning accessories, with much of it made of jet and other dark stones.  Lockets were made to hold a coil of hair as a memento.  In fact, in spite of the religious aspect of a Christian burial, many people still did not part with their amulets and charms.  A throwback from earlier days, the belief that they could protect the wearer against disease and ill health was maintained in an age of high mortality.  There was also a belief in the special significance of rowan wood for the casket or bier. 

The mortality rate was so high that kirkyards soon began to fill, with many plots being reused - even by families other than that of the people interred therein.  This led to hygiene and propriety concerns, and new cemeteries were marked out on the outer environs of towns and villages.  In Kilmarnock an outbreak of cholera in 1832 killed so many that the kirkyards could not hold them all, and a mass grave had to be used.  A memorial to the victims was raised in Howard Park in the town. 

Cenotaphs can be found in most towns throughout the country to those who died in the two world wars and it was customary to record each name individually.  These ranged in design from Celtic style crosses to mausoleums; the war memorial at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock is one example of the latter. 

Cremation has only become popular in the relatively recent past; introduced to Scotland in 1895, it took some time to take root as burial traditions had such a long history. 

With the passing of the Victorian age, the practice of holding elaborate funerals as a matter of course waned, but there would still be more to come that merited such ceremony.  There was an impressive parade through Dumfries to mark the anniversary of the death of Robert Burns, amongst other events.  The occasion was also commemorated by the production of various items such as whisky and medals and the image of his mausoleum was reproduced on souvenir items, like Mauchline Ware boxes. 

Notable figures buried in Ayrshire and Dumfries & Galloway include Thomas Carlyle (Ecclefechan), Alexander Peden (Cumnock), John Loudoun McAdam (Moffat) and George Douglas Brown (Ayr). 

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