Burial customs differed at turn-of-the-century

Death may be the great equalizer, according to William Shakespeare, but how the dead are memorialized and buried varies vastly depending on customs, the time period and the prosperity of the one “pushing up daisies.”

Throughout time, people have been buried wrapped in a shroud or in a wooden box. Graves were marked with stones or wood. Families cared for their dead and buried the bodies on the farm or in church yards.

During the Civil War, this began to change. Families wanted their kin sent home for burial.

Embalming began to help ship the bodies over a long distance, according to Galen Betzer, funeral director for 35 years at Galen R. Betzer Funeral Services, Muncy.

Physicians first performed embalming, which was done to forestall decomposition. They did not do cavity embalming as is done now, however, instead using harsher chemicals such as “salts of heavy metals” such as arsenic, he said.

“The majority of funerals were held in the home, prior to World War II,” Betzer said.

The undertakers would have a wagon with wooden folding chairs, drapes for behind the casket, tables and velour table coverings.

“They would drape the door knocker so families wouldn’t be disturbed,” Betzer said. “The front door would be draped in black crepe for men, gray crepe for chaste women and white for children. Children’s deaths were more common because of home births and less medical technology.”

Bodies were carried out feet first so they couldn’t call the living to follow them, he added.There also was a traveling embalming kit. The body was drained of blood into a container in the home, said Michael R. Lingg, supervisor and funeral director at Knight-Confer Funeral Home, and the funeral home disposed of it. The incisions made were stitched up.

“Sometimes, depending on the manner of death, there was a casket veil. This covered the top half of the coffin like a bridal veil to keep people from touching the body and to help with flies,” Lingg said.

There is a difference between a coffin and a casket, based strictly on the shape, Betzer said.

“A coffin is eight-sided and is wider at the shoulders and narrower at the feet. It is called a toe-pincher. A casket is six-sided and straight sided,” he said.

Coffins have been made from wood, cast iron, steel, glass, bamboo, wicker and even gold.

Flowers always have been a part of death. Certain flowers last longer and have different meanings, Betzer said.

“Lilies symbolize the innocence that has been restored to the soul of the departed,” according to www.frazerconsultants.com. “A gladioli embodies strength of character, sincerity and moral integrity.”

Popular floral arrangements were made in a square and compass for members of the Masons and also on a wire-structured archway featuring an open gate called “Gates Ajar.”

“The fragrance of the flowers were used to mask any foul odors from the body,” Lingg said.

Women bore the brunt of the customs surrounding death, Betzer explained. Men might have only been in mourning for three months compared to women who were in stages of mourning for 2 1/2 years.

A woman who married a man who just lost his wife even wore a subdued color for her wedding dress. These customs carried over from England’s Queen Elizabeth.

Other customs included postmortem photos of the deceased, especially children, because families may have not had any previous pictures for remembrance, Betzer said.

Hair wreaths and jewelry also were made. Though not all hair jewelry was made from the deceased; some couples exchanged a lock of hair for sentimental reasons before going off to war.

Goose feathers and wax flowers were used to make memorials.

Death was determined by the person ascertained as a physician, and the methods were far from being acceptable by today’s standards, according to Lingg. Official death certificates weren’t recorded until the early 1900s.

“A mirror was held over the mouth and watched for condensation,” Lingg said. “A glass of water was placed on the chest and watched for ripples, and a pin prick test was done.”

“Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead,” George Washington requested about his deathbed.

Being buried alive was a frightening possibility in the Victorian days. Before embalming, the original purpose for sitting up with the dead was to watch for signs of life in the 1900s.

Several undertakers even designed caskets with escape systems. These life-detecting caskets had tubes that encased a rope tied to the deceased hands, which ran to the surface to a bell, Betzer said.

The term “graveyard shift” came from someone who would sit up all night in a cemetery to listen for bell and dig up the coffin.

Thomas Pursel, a fireman, was prepared in 1930 with his tomb in Wildwood Cemetery, 91 Wildwood Blvd., which featured a ventilated, felt-lined vault for himself and four family members that could be opened from the inside with a hand wheel. He was entombed with a board or two, an ax, a hammer and a piece of bread.

In the late 1800s, church yards in Williamsport began filling up, as well as the Williamsport Cemetery on Washington Boulevard, and a trend began focusing on cemeteries as parks — places families could go for picnics. These were independently owned landscaped cemeteries.

Wildwood Cemetery Co. was incorporated in 1863 with a committee consisting of Robert Faries, John M. McMinn, Peter Herdic, William H. Armstrong and George White. The original cemetery is on the west side with the chapel, which was built in 1897 for $11,000.

“In the late 1800s, people would buy large lots of 20 graves or more for their families,” said Paul Novak, Wildwood manager. “The graves were dug by hand, which, with the rocky ground, probably took a few days. Graves are dug 6 feet below the top grade. There is a lot of history here with a lot of big money people.”

Family plots were enclosed with iron railings or wrought iron fencing. A monument would be placed in the center with the graves either on the side or in a circle.

“Many graves sit empty because spots were bought for generations of families,” Novak said. “How some of the monuments with fulcrums and pulleys and horse-drawn wagons were erected would be interesting to see. They weigh tons.”

There are 25 to 30 private mausoleums. The crypt size is smaller than today’s standard. The length isn’t a problem, but the width was 25 inches compared to today’s 30-inch caskets, Novak said.

A potter’s field, which is a simple area designated for the unwanted, forgotten and indigent, is located on the east side.

“I’m not sure what the city paid but they were called city lots,” Novak said. “The graves are lined in consecutive order such as row two, grave five. It is an area for the poor. There are also infant sections. Lots of babies died then and they were buried together in different areas around the cemetery.”

Wildwood opened the first crematorium in the city in 1972. Only 23 were performed that year.