History of Campbell County, Tennessee

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Death Practices In Appalachia : In Earlier Days, Bells Tolled For Each Year Of Life, Family, Friends Dug Grave

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

Every person must face death, whether in later years of life or earlier in life. Each culture has its own specific death rituals. The death practices of the Appalachian culture will be our focus in this article.

Close examination of this custom finds that funeral homes and public cemeteries were virtually nonexistent in the early days of Appalachian culture. Today' Appalachian is not much different than other areas of the country, however, many of the old customs are still in use today.

At a person's death a bell was usually tolled, many times ringing out the number of times of that person's age. For instance, if a person was 80 years of age the bell would toll 80 times. The surrounding community would then be alerted as to a person passing away. Eliminating an accident, most people could have some ideas as to whom passed away. Consequently, family and friends would then be alerted and travel to the house where the death had occurred.

Preparing the body for burial was the first assignment. No preservation of the body was forthcoming as the Appalachian culture had no means of preserving the remains.

The funeral was generally held the next day after death. Preparation of the body for burial generally consisted of family members washing the body and dressing him or her in the finest clothes they could find. If the deceased person did not have fitting attire, a neighbor would undertake the assignment and offer some of their own.

Appalachians merely believed that death is simply the passing on to a greater place. To be properly cleaned as well as properly clothed meant a fitting ascent into Heaven.

The eyes of the deceased would normally be open at death. To remedy this, silver coins were placed over the eyes to close them. This custom was exercised because in those days, they believed that entry into Heaven with their closed was a divine way to enter. This was a means of saying to God that they are not worthy of entering Heaven and asking God to forgive them of their sins. Silver coins were used instead of pennies. The copper element in the pennies would cause the skin around the eyes to turn green.

The face would be prepared for viewing by wetting a rag in soda water and be placed on the face until time for viewing. Reasoning for this would be to keep the skin from losing its color.

The community carpenter would normally be chosen to fashion the casket. It usually would be made out of pine, poplar, oak or chestnut. Depending on the talent of such a person, these caskets were usually quite fancy. Some even had glass tops for viewing.

However, most caskets were just basic, rectangular boxes with a slightly wider dimension at the top than at the bottom. These containers were fashioned to a person's measurements to allow for a tight fit. It is a fact that most people were fitted for their caskets long before their death to eliminate the worry by family members.

Family members and friends would gather at the home of the deceased the night before the burial. This custom was called a wake. Singing of hymns, praying and just comfort to the family members went on throughout the night. The close family members would not leave the body until the next day, when it was time to take the deceased to the cemetery.

In these early days the casket was loaded onto a wagon pulled by steer or oxen. Steers were customarily used only for plowing fields, however, an honor was bestowed upon these beasts work to pull the funeral wagon. Family and friends would walk behind the wagons to the place of burial, sometimes the distance being many miles. Cemeteries were generally located by the community church.

Being well known in the community generally depended upon the length of the graveside services. Some lasted an hour while others lasted several hours. The itinerary consisted of praying, singing of hymns, and the preacher delivering a message. Personal accounts of the deceased would be delivered telling of their experiences with the loved one. A family member, a mother, father, wife, or husband would speak on the achievements of the deceased.

Once the service was over, each member of the congregation would walk past the casket. Many stopped to touch or kiss the body,. Even the smaller children would do this. As in the case today, many children would be lifted up by an adult so they could gaze into the coffin. Custom was that the closest relative would always be the last to walk by and say farewell.

Digging of the grave was done by relatives and friends. These same people would lower the body into the grave and fill it after the people had left.

Flowers were placed near and on the grave. Some would plant bushes and trees in the vicinity. Many times benches were built close to the grave so visitors could have a resting place.

These customs are old but many of them are practiced today. Wakes today are often held in funeral homes. In many instances, family members still dig and fill graves. However, today the funeral homes are engaged in taking care of the deceased, although family members still assume a lot of the responsibility of the care of the loved ones


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