C.R. Johnson, 1973
As I knew them in the Nineteen Hundreds
Note : This was originally published in booklet form.
n.b Spelling, grammar and punctuation are true to CRJ’s original – Ken Morse
Wedding customs do not seem to have changed much over the years. In the olden days however, Registry Office marriages were rare, but many couples toady are content with the civil contract made before the Registrar, I believe however, that the religious ceremony in church, makes a strong appeal to most couples, probably due to the atmosphere and setting of the church for so an important event.
MARRIAGE in the CHURCH of ENGLAND
After the Banns had been called on three consecutive Sundays, and no impediment having been alleged, the bridegroom with his ‘best man’ would arrive at the church on the appointed day, a short time before the bride and her attendants, their relatives and friends meanwhile assembling in the church.
Since the beginning of the 20th Century, changes have taken place in the disposal of the dead, from the custom which prevailed at its beginning.
Cremation is being resorted to more and more, thus reducing the number of traditional burials in village church-yards.
I am writing of village customs as I knew them in my own village of Yorkley Slade, in the parish of All Saints, Viney Hill, and not of the towns where conditions were always so different.
As my memory goes back to the early nineteen hundreds, I think I can recall fairly accurately how funerals were carried out at that time.
THE PASSING BELL
An old ‘canon law’ of the church, directed, that when a parishioner was dying, the ‘Passing Bell’ should be tolled so that those who heard it should pray for the departing soul. In my parish the bell was tolled to announce a death, for the last Rites of the church were rarely requested – if at all – for a person that was dying. It has now been discontinued.
The canon law directed that the bell should be tolled for a few minutes, consisting of, for a man, three strokes, then a pause, and then repeated. For a woman, it was two strokes with a pause and then repeated. It was not tolled for a child under seven years of age.
THE DIGGING OF THE GRAVE
Digging a grave was no problem in the old days, for the church had an official sexton and gravedigger, who conferred with the relatives of the deceased as to where the body should be buried, with, of course the vicar’s approval.
It should be noted that although every person dying within the parish boundaries has the right of burial in the parish churchyard, it does not follow that relatives have any legal right over the grave, as is thought by many to be the case. Fees paid at the time of burial are for services performed and not for any claim upon the grave.
If the grave to be dug was a new one and not a re-opening, it was almost always dug ‘double depth’, that is to say, deep enough to allow for two burials, and also for the requisite four feet of soil between the coffins and the surface required by law. This was almost always done at the death of husband or wife, so that the surviving partner could, at death, be buried in the same grave.
AT THE HOME OF THE DECEASED
As soon as a death took place in a home, the blinds were at once lowered in all the rooms notifying that a death had occurred there.
Blinds in those days were mostly white, and were attached to a cord that ran over a pulley, so that it could be raised or lowered at will. Relatives were informed of the death, who then lowered their blinds, but usually in their bedrooms only. Blinds were also lowered by neighbours if the funeral procession passed their homes en route for the church. It was thought ‘not proper’ for relatives to wear mourning (?) before the day of the funeral.
On the day of the funeral, relatives arrived well before the appointed time, to be followed by friends of the family, the latter coming, not only to pay their last respects, but also to bear the body to the churchyard. This often meant a big effort on their part, for they worked longer hours then, than they do today, and funerals being in the afternoon, it did not give them much time after leaving work to attend a funeral, especially during the short days of winter. It was the custom to wear black at funerals, and many men kept such a suit specially for these occasions, those who hadn’t, would have a patch of black cloth sewn to the arms of their jackets.
Four friends of the deceased were chosen as chief bearers, who were known as ‘pickers up’. It was their task to strap the coffin to the bier, and carry it out of the house in readiness for the procession to the church.
Before the procession started, a short service was held, when a prayer would be said by a Minister, or more often by a layman, and a hymn was sung by the people assembled.
In addition to the four Bearers, or ‘Pickers-up’, four, or sometimes six, other friends were chosen to act as Pall Bearers, even if the Pall was not in use. As with the chief bearers, the Pall bearers were chosen as being close friends of the deceased. When a Pall was used, if the bearers were four, they each held a corner of it till they reached the church, if there were six, the other two held it in the middle. When there was no Pall, the bearers walked beside the coffin.
The business premises now owned by Lowe and King, was owned by my Uncle Albert in the days of which I am writing, with my father and my Uncle Robert as partners. A funeral Pall was kept at the shop which was loaned to families that required it. I remember well it being used on one or two occasions. If my memory serves me well, the colour was violet or purple, relieved with embroidered designs. I can visualize it now, as it so gracefully covered the coffin.
THE FUNERAL PROCESSION
After the service at the home the procession would start for the church. The four chief bearers would be the first to carry the coffin on the bier, carrying it shoulder high as was customary. Change of bearers took place en-route for the church at the discretion of the undertaker who walked in front. When relieved, the chief bearers walked in front of the undertaker till they reached the church, where they would take over again.
The method of changing bearers, was for four men at the rear of the procession to drop out, quicken their pace till they reached the coffin, two on either side in readiness for the change. When the change was completed, the four men relieved would rejoin the procession at the rear, and four others would go forward for the next change.
Arriving at the church, the vicar would meet the cortège at the church gate receive the death certificate from the undertaker, then the service would begin. When the funeral procession was approaching the church, the bell was tolled to announce it.
The chief bearers, who had taken over at the church gate, carried the coffin into church and placed it at the foot of the chancel steps, wit the foot of the coffin toward the east, as was, and still is, customary. The chief mourners were conducted to front seats, the general congregation sitting behind them.
When the service ended, the chief bearers, again took up the coffin, and bore it shoulder high to the graveside, with the foot of the coffin foremost.
At the graveside the service continued, the committal sentences being read by the vicar after the coffin had been lowered into the grave by the chief bearers. The custom of throwing earth into the grave at the words, ‘earth to earth’ etc. is a direction of the prayer book service. The bell was again tolled after the service ended.
After the service, many of those who had attended it, would return to the home of the deceased, where food and drink were often provided, ostensibly for those who had travelled a long distance to attend the funeral, but it sometimes happened that other friends and neighbours joined the company, which would unfortunately develop into a funeral feast.
MAKING THEIR APPEARANCE
On the Sunday morning following the funeral, the family mourners attended morning service at church, entering the church as a body making a procession of it. This was known as ‘making their appearance’. The custom is still observed today by most families, but at Evensong and not at Mattins. This is probably a custom derived from the days when the family attended the Holy Communion service, on the first Sunday after the funeral, if a Requiem Mass had not been celebrated at the funeral.
TRIBUTES TO THE DEPARTED
Flowers were very much on evidence, usually in the form of a cross or wreath, both forms being symbols of the Christian Faith. The cross testifying to the Redemption of mankind by the death of Jesus on Calvary, and the wreath testifying to Jesus wearing the Crown of Glory in Heaven.
LETTERS AND CARDS
Many families had memorial cards printed, that were edged with a black border giving name, age and date of death of the departed, those being sent to relatives and friends.
For correspondence, writing paper and envelopes were also edged in black, some wide and some narrow according to taste.
Long since those days, the motor car and motor hearse have come into general use, so that we do not now see the long processions of people in dark clothing, walking slowly and quietly behind a coffin on their way to church.
Instead we see the motor hearse followed by a few cars, in which are the family mourners. Friends wishing to pay their last respects, assemble at the church.
The service in church has altered but little. The 1927 revised prayer book is often used now, but its main features are much the same as that of the 1662 prayer book. However, as cremation is growing in favour today, there are less traditional burials in the churchyard.
When a body is cremated, there are various ways of disposing of the remains. They can be kept in the ‘Chapel of Rest’ at the Crematorium, some relatives have them scattered ‘to the four winds’, whilst many have them interred in the family grave of their parish churchyard. In this case, the interment is usually attended by the family only. Either before, or after cremation, a memorial service is held in the parish church, or at the place of worship to which the family is attached.
Archive retrieval by Stephen Morse, recreated for the rest of us by Ken Morse, March 2010
On the arrival of the bride, if the organ had been requested, a voluntary would be played, whilst the bride, on the right arm of the person giving her away and followed by her attendants, would proceed to the chancel steps, taking her place on the left of the bridegroom, the best man being on the groom’s right. The marriage then proceeded, the vicar being robed in surplice and white stole, facing the couple to be married. After the betrothal and marriage at the chancel steps, a psalm was sung as the vicar led the way to the Altar rail, where the couple knelt to hear the vicar’s address and to receive the benediction. They then went to the vestry for signing the register, during which time the bride received a kiss from her husband as well as from relatives and friends.
A procession was then formed, with the newly wedded couple walking arm in arm, followed by their attendants as they left the church to the strains of an organ voluntary, usually Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. During the service, it was customary to sing one or two hymns. Outside the church photographs were taken, as is also done today.
AFTER THE MARRIAGE
As the motor car at that time was only just coming into its own, people walked to church, but nevertheless the bridal pair received a happy send-off at the church gates, where rice was showered upon them by their relatives and friends. Rice was thought to be a symbol of fertility.
On the way home from church, the bridal party was often held up by finding a rope stretched across the road, held at each end by men or boys. It was only by scattering money on the roadway that the party was allowed to pass. As this occurred at many points, it was essential for the best man to have plenty of loose change in his pocket.
Going away for a honeymoon was rare in those days, so that the celebrations were kept up at the bride’s home, which went on well into the night and sometimes until morning. As now, most weddings took place on a Saturday. After the wedding breakfast, celebrations took the form of music played on the piano, singing and dancing, together with the traditional drinking.
NOTE on the WEDDING BREAKFAST
Previously to 1888, marriages had to take place between the hours of 8.0 am and 12.0 noon, but in that year Parliament extended the time until 3.0 pm.
The probable reason for marriages taking place early in the day, was to allow a nuptial Mass to be celebrated if required, so that the newly-married couple could communicate fasting, thus conforming to the rule of the church. This, no doubt, was the reason for the meal that was taken immediately after the marriage , being known as the ‘wedding breakfast’ i.e breaking the fast.
In modern days it is known as the ‘Reception’.
NOTE on the BANNS OF MARRIAGE
In the past, as also today, marriage in church was normally preceeded by the calling of the Banns. This was, and is still known as ‘being asked in church’, in local parlance.
The reason for the Banns being called in church, was to publicise the proposed marriage, and so give an opportunity for any member of the congregation to lodge a protest against the marriage, if he or she knew of any legal impediment that would make the marriage unlawful. In lodging a protest, I understand the procedure was for the objector to stand and declare, ‘I forbid the Banns’.
After the service, the objector would submit to the vicar, the reason for the objection, and if substantiated the marriage would not take place.
The Banns had to be called on three consecutive Sundays in the Church of the parish in which the couple lived, if however, they lived in different parishes, the Banns had to be called in both. It was generally thought unlucky for either of the couple to be at the service when their Banns were called. On a personal note however, I attended church as usual when our Banns were called, and my wife and I had fifty years of happy married life.
Whilst on the subject of Banns of Marriage, I ought to perhaps mention that marriage in church can take place without the Banns being called. This is done either by license or special license. A marriage license is issued by the Bishop of the diocese through his ‘Surrogate’ – a priest appointed specially for that purpose. This dispenses with the calling of the Banns in church for special reasons or circumstances. This was sometimes resorted to during the two world wars.
A special license is issued by the Archbishop only, and is rarely asked for and I am not sure what privileges it confers, but I believe it allows the marriage to take place in any church of his Province.
NOTE on the WEDDING RING
The wedding ring, traditionally of gold, is of great antiquity, and is thought by some historians to have had connections with marriage since the days of Abraham.
As it has no beginning and nor end, the ring is regarded as a Christian symbol of eternity, denoting the life-long nature of marriage. It is worn on the third finger of the woman’s left hand, and it is thought wrong by many people to remove it, even after death. Why this particular finger for the ring, I do not know, but years ago, there was a curious belief that a special nerve connection existed between the heart and the third finger of the left hand. Could that be the reason?
Both in the 1662 prayer book, and in the revised one of 1927, it is directed that the bridegroom places the ring on the bride’s finger, but it appears that in very ancient times the priest did this, for it is on record that he would invoke the name of the Holy Trinity, by first placing it on the bride’s thumb when saying, ‘In the name of the Father’, on the first finger at the invocation of the Son, on the second finger in the name if the Holy Ghost, and on the third finger at the Amen, where it was left.
KISSING THE BRIDE
Kissing the bride in the vestry by the bridegroom and relatives and friends has been a custom of long standing.
It is not certain how it originated, but it is thought that it probably arose from an old marriage service direction, whereby at a nuptial Mass the celebrant would give the bride-groom the ‘Kiss of Peace’, the bridegroom then having to pass it on to his bride. Relatives and friends having witnessed this ceremony, took advantage of it by kissing the bride in the vestry at the signing of the register.
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