Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Curious Funeral Custom

As I have been working on moving many of our Reference books to circulation or storage, I came across a rather interesting English funeral custom in one of the books.

"Burials are customarily laid in the grave facing east--the direction of the rising sun and of Jerusalem--though clergy are still sometimes buried the other way round, so as to be ready to preach to their congregation at the General Resurrection. This, it was believed, would begin at the eastern end of the graveyard (which was hence the most favoured place for burial) and continue in a sunwise direction to finish on the north (or Devil's) side, which in many parishes was thus abandoned to strangers, criminals, and suicides--if indeed, these last were admitted at all to consecrated ground, and not buried at crossroads to confuse their vengeful ghosts."*
While I knew that it was common in many places to bury criminals and suicides outside the gate of the cemetery in many places in America, I had never given much thought about the actual placement of the graves. I began to think of the Hester Cemetery in Monroe County, Mississippi where I know that some of the burials were originally outside the gates for that reason and later enclosed to minimize vandalism. They are not on the north side. The ones I know of were all on either the south or western sides. I guess that custom didn't continue in America.

Are burials still facing east? In the cemeteries with which I am most familiar, most of them are. What about clergy members? Are they opposite? I simply don't know.

This certainly gives me some things to ponder at my next cemetery visit.

* Charles Kightly, The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopaedia of Living Traditions, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1986), pp. 120-121.

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