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Concourse Club attends 'Victorian Funeral'

  • LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Concourse Club of Palmerton members, left, Christine Campbell and Barbara Hafer-Prout, right, came dressed for a Victorian funeral at the October meeting. "Undertaker" Dale Freudenberger, president of the Tamaqua Historical…
    LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Concourse Club of Palmerton members, left, Christine Campbell and Barbara Hafer-Prout, right, came dressed for a Victorian funeral at the October meeting. "Undertaker" Dale Freudenberger, president of the Tamaqua Historical Society, invited them to take a closer look at his 1800s mourning parasols and many Victorian items he had on display.
Published October 17. 2013 05:00PM

There was a funeral at the Concourse Club of Palmerton. Most of the members wore black and the social room at Trinity Lutheran Church was awash in mourning.

The tables were covered in black tablecloths with black lace table runners. The centerpieces were pumpkins painted black with white accents. Black books with titles like "The Death of a Salesman," a candle, a bell with string attached, and an old photograph face down completed the tableau.

A "funeral feast" awaited the guests. But before they could partake of the repast, the "undertaker," Dale Freudenberger, president of the Tamaqua Historical Society, dressed in a Victorian era black cape and black top hat, invited the members to walk with him back in time as he gave a presentation on Victorian funerals and customs.

"People did not fear death back in the 1800s and early 1900s, but they did fear they would not be mourned," he said.

To that end, several customs and superstitions arose, many which are still incorporated in the funerals and mourning practices of today.

Curtains would be drawn and clocks would be stopped at the time of death. A wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood tied with crepe or black ribbons was hung on the front door to alert passers-by that a death had occurred.

Silver coins were placed on the deceased's eyelids. In ancient times it was believed that they could pay the cost for Charon to ferry them across the River Styx. It was believed that the coins on the eyelids of the dead kept their eyes closed. The custom is thought to have begun for cosmetic reasons. When a person dies, in a short time their eyes sink far back into their head as they dehydrate, causing the face to present an appearance that many people find disturbing. Placing coins over the eye sockets covered the eyes and made the visage less unpleasant for the bereaved. Nowadays morticians slip plastic fillers behind the eyelids to eliminate this effect.

The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of "waking." The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma. Most wakes also lasted three or four days to allow relatives to arrive from far away. They were held in the home of the deceased.

In 19th century Europe and America the dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him. 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.

Most undertakers had a side business such as carpentry and furniture-building and made the coffins.

The deceased was displayed in the parlor with windows open with candles on each end of the casket. Flowers were not given as tributes but as a way to disguise the smell of a decaying body. This was before embalming. Coffin netting was placed over the body to prevent flies from sitting on it.

A photograph taken of the deceased may have been the only photograph they could afford to take of the person. Some made it a family portrait with them all surrounding the deceased.

Mirrors were covered with crepe or veiling to prevent the deceased's spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass. When the coffin was removed, the chairs were turned around.

The wearing of black by family members made them inconspicuous ... to deter the spirts from selecting them to join the deceased.

Cards and stationery had borders of black. The larger the border, the greater the sorrow of the mourning.

Some paid for professional mourners, to have someone there 24 hours to keep watch to make sure the person was dead.

If a family could afford it, a hearse pulled by two black horse with black ostrich feathers was used. If no black horses were available, the manes were dyed black.

Children's funerals had white accents and a white coffin, to signify purity and innocence.

Six men walked next to the hearse and were called mutes. They wore somber expressions. They are now known as pallbearers. An invitation to be a pallbearer is a great honor. A funeral procession was always a public event. There were no short cuts from church to cemetery.

Jewelry was made of the hair of the deceased as a memento. Braiding hair of the deceased into a brooch helped the bereaved. A shadow box would often be made which sometimes held some hair of the deceased, along with fruits and nuts.

A woman's wardrobe became all black crepe. Freudenberger had Victorian jackets, hats, parasols, bonnets and fans for display.

A member of Fraternal orders had ribbons that when turned over revealed a mourning side. Members had special flag holders as grave markers.

The greatest shame of the poor was a pauper's funeral. It was held on a Sunday because it was the only day they did not work. It was not uncommon for a family to go without food for a week in order to pay for the funeral.

There was a fear of being buried alive. A coffin bell was attached to the deceased's finger as a form of security, so if the person awoke, he could ring the bell, alerting someone.

After the funeral there was a luncheon, a repast, held either at the church, the home or reception hall where songs and poems were read about the departed.

Women who lost their husbands went into deep mourning for one year and a day. They could leave the house after a month. After the second year they could visit close friends and could wear black silk. The third year was considered half-mourning.

Men were not as restricted in their mourning as women.

Times have changed. Customs have changed but many are still used today.

Freudenberger quoted Paul Gregory Alms, a Lutheran minister: "How we treat the dead says an awful lot about how we live. For the strong and able to serve the helpless dead, to honor frail remains, reaches deep inside us to something basic to humanity."

"I'd like to leave you with this thought. Your undertaker is always the last one to let you down," concluded Freudenberger with a twinkle in his eye.

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