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Death and funeral customs in Tudor times

Religion in Tudor times was an essential part of life as death was never far away. Life expectancy was extremely short with a quarter of children dying before they were five, and 40 per cent perishing before reaching the age of 16.

Old age in Tudor times was classed as being in your 50s and 60s, with hardly anyone reaching their 70th birthday. The average life expectancy was 48 years and disease was a common cause of death.

Because of such a short life expectancy, death was constantly on the mind and people turned to religion to ease the passing. Heaven and Hell were seen as places you were sent to if you were virtuous or wicked, while Purgatory was where the Elizabethans believed most deceased souls went to be purged of their sins before they entered Heaven.

In order to cut down on the length of time spent in Purgatory, most folk tried to atone for their sins while still alive.

It was also a belief that this time could be cut if others prayed for your soul. Therefore rich people used to leave money to the parish priest in order for them to pray for them when they died.

During the 16th century people also believed in ghosts and thought that the dead could return to haunt them. Those that committed suicide were thought most likely to return to earth as ghosts so they were often buried by a crossroads, to confuse them, with a stake through their heart to prevent their ghost from returning.

No more than two to three days would pass between death and burial. Infectious bodies were buried as soon as possible at night. The very wealthy could also be embalmed to allow time for mourners to gather.

Before the Reformation, when someone was dying the parish priest would hear their confession and administer the sacrament of extreme unction. As the person died a bell was rung in the parish church to mark their death.

After death the body was placed in a shroud with herbs or flowers and stayed in the family home until the funeral.

A common superstition in Tudor times was sin eating. This was where bread and beer would be passed over a dead body to a hired sin-eater. When he ate and drank he took the dead person's sins on himself.

During the Elizabethan period, a midwife would perform some of the duties now done by funeral directors, which included washing the body and wrapping it in a plain sheet.

Depending on a family’s finances, only the rich would be buried in a coffin. Poor people were carried to the church in a coffin but they were buried in their shroud.

The same applied to headstones – only the rich had them.

When it was time for the funeral, the church would ring the bell once again to summon the mourners to church. Bell tolling was also a way of sending the deceased on to the afterlife.

If the deceased was a prominent member of society, the funeral procession would parade through the streets. The size of the procession and the number of people involved would be seen as a measure of the deceased’s status.

The family of the departed always led the procession. Once at the graveside, a minister would read from the Bible as the gravediggers lowered the body into the grave.

Everyone wanted the best burial spot, which was by the church. They believed that the closer you were to the church, the better afterlife you had ...

Read the rest of this feature in the February 2018 issue of FSJ. Click here to subscribe

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