Odd Burial Traits

Deaths and burials are not the most enjoyable topics of conversation for everyone to involve themselves in. But I have often found it interesting to read about the very odd notions people have had about burials and the way that they have been carried out at various times and in various parts of this world. Here I would like to offer the reader some of the more strange and eccentric burials that I have heard about.

1. It is said that on of England’s major figures in the industrial revolution, who made his fortune in iron was determined that he would take some of his accomplishments to the grave with him. When the man died, he had himself buried in the garden of his home in an iron coffin, over which he had built an iron tomb that weighed some twenty tons. It was a task that he could not leave to be completed by anyone and, as an extra precaution, he instructed the coffin and tomb to be built while he was still alive and would conduct tours for his friends and visitors, to show them what he planned for his final resting place.

Despite his personal supervision, however, when the gentleman died the family discovered that the coffin was too small. It was decided that until a new coffin was made, he could be laid in the ground temporarily. Then, when he was eventually buried in his iron coffin it was decided that the coffin was too near to the surface and was transferred to cave that had been excavated in a rock. The story, however, does not end there for when the man’s estate was sold many years after his death the family instructed his body to be removed from its rock tomb and buried in a local churchyard. Mr. Wilkinson, the subject of this story, has the questionable honour of being a man who died once and was buried four times, and prior to his death he was very happy to make presents of iron coffins to any of his friends who expressed a wish to have one. In a somewhat similar fashion, a certain clergyman in the granite county of Cornwall is said to have had a coffin made of granite, in which he was subsequently buried.

2.Quite a number of people don’t want to face death and would prefer to be immortal, but that will not happen. Perhaps, it is this fact that encourages people to have their coffins ready long before they are ready and keep them close at hand to look at, or have others admire them as reminders of the fate that is due to us all, until the day come when it is finally put to its proper use. There was a story of a Scottish slater who is said to have made his own coffin, decorated it with seashells and displayed it with other fancy, shell-decorated items in a room which he called his grotto. In similar fashion a joiner from the North-east of England made his own coffin and, during the intervening period used it as a toolbox that included sliding shelves and a lid that was fixed to hinges. But in this series of stories, I will try to avoid the age-old theory that people from the North of England and Scotland are tight when it comes to money. It is much better to call them thrifty and practical, and that is the reason that there are so many instances of northern working men constructing their own coffins in their leisure time.

To show this neutral stance let me offer some examples of odd burial traits from elsewhere in England and further abroad. The first story that comes to mind is of an Alderman of Gloucester, who had his coffin and his monument built before his death. When the monument was finished the Alderman decided he did not like the way in which his nose was carved on his effigy and had a new one carved. Fortunately for the Alderman the task was finished just in time, for the man died immediately after the nose was finished. Then, there is the example a Nottingham man, called Wheatley, who bought himself a coffin and filled it with liquor. Unfortunately, the poor man was quickly brought into disrepute in the town, for the coffin became his own private tavern. Just as odd, however, is the story of a navy surgeon who rose to a very important position in Portsmouth and had a favourite boat converted into a coffin and stored it under his bed for many years. Finally, there is the tale of a German couple who provided themselves with coffins, which they kept in a stable and utilised them as cupboards for storing various types of food. But it was not to end well for the couple, for when the man was the first to die, his widow packed the contents of both coffins into one and put his body into the other. Of course, the coffin full of eatables was lowered into the coffin and the mistake was not discovered until the next day when the widow opened the other cupboard to find the body of her husband there. Naturally, all that food could not go to waste and the coffins were changed over and the funeral repeated.

3. I used to joke with my mother and tell her she was not to worry about where she was going to be buried, for I would dig a hole in the garden and bury her standing up, waving goodbye. She used to laugh at the very idea of it, but the burying of people in an erect position had often been carried out. The famous late sixteenth century poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, was buried upright in Westminster Abbey, which inspired the following lines the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’

“Even rare Ben Jonson, that famous wight,

I am told is interred there bolt upright,

In just such a posture, beneath his bust,

As Tray used to sit in to beg for a crust.”

4. In fact, it is not that strange for people to buried in standing, or upright positions after death. Military heroes, for example, have often been buried by their men in upright positions on the battlefield where they died, sometimes with spear, sword, or lance in their hand. Records show that one of these types of burial was discovered at the Curragh of Kildare. Archaeologists opened an earthen tumulus and, inside the ancient monument, they discovered the skeleton of an old Irish Chieftain in an upright position, with a barbed spear in, or near, one of the hands.

Despite what some may think, it is quite easy to bury a body in an upright position by setting up the coffin on one end. However, when considering this trait, we must also look at the many instances when a body was placed in a sitting position, which made a coffin unnecessary. There are many recorded instances of this happening including the occasion when the Emperor Frederick ‘Barbarossa’ opened the tomb of Charlemagne at Aix-la-Chapelle and found the body of the great Emperor seated on a throne, as if he was still alive, dressed in his Imperial clothes, with this sceptre in one hand and a copy of ‘Bible’ on his knees.

There is also the story of a tomb in a London graveyard that could be seen from the high road and was said to have been placed there by a certain Dr. John Gardiner. It was made up of a large headstone containing an inscription that described this tomb as being his ‘last and best bedroom.’ The tomb itself was prepared some years before Gardiner’s death and, it is said, that the Doctor was buried there, although there is no strong proof.

5. Sadly there are many more cases of people being put into their graves with something that would be considered an excuse for a coffin. Among these is recorded the burial of a Mrs Fisher Dilke, during the time of Cromwell and the puritans. The lady’s husband does not appear to have had much regard for his recently deceased wife for he commissioned a coffin be made from some old boards that lined his barn and organised a grave for the lady in the graveyard a third of the normal price. The husband then invited eight of his neighbours to act as bearers and paid them with them a selection of cheap cakes and wine, while he read over the corpse from the Old Testament. The bearers then placed the body in the grave and they each threw a full spade of dirt into the grave before the husband and his neighbours trudged their way home.

Another similar instance for the provision of a poor coffin took place in an old English, which had once been a nunnery. On one occasion there had been a need to take up the kitchen floor and when this work began, twelve skeletons were found lying in a row, each between two planks. At the time of the discovery, it was decided that the bodies were those of nuns who had died there.

6. There have also been plenty of people who have been buried without the comfort of any type of coffin at all. There was once a military officer who declared in his last will and testament that his body should be attended to by medical men, wrapped in ‘Cerecloth’[1], and buried without a coffin in a particular part of his estate. He also insisted that acorns were sown on the burial spot so that sturdy oak trees would flourish having been nourished by his remains. Instructions were left with his gardener to weed and water the plant and today a fine oak grows there.

Similar to this the story is the strange burial, or absence thereof, for Jeremy Bentham, who was born on 15th February and died on 6th June1832 in London. He was a famous English philosopher, jurist, and social reformer, who is regarded as the founder of ‘Modern Utilitarianism’. His will called for a head of wax to be attached to his skeleton after dissection and the entire figure to be stuffed to the proper size and dressed in Bentham’s own clothes. The body was then seated on his own armchair and the man’s walking stick placed in one hand.

7. It was not uncommon for there to be burials without coffins in the years between the mid-eighteenth, and the mid-nineteenth centuries. In fact, there are numerous Parish Registers that contain entries showing that it was up to 25% cheaper for a burial without a coffin. One particular country gentleman directed that his body be buried without a coffin and at least ten feet deep in a particular field near his house. He also declared that the field would then be thoroughly ploughed over, as if to obliterate his memory as completely as was possible.

It is a fact that the St. Clair family of Rosslyn fame were for many generations, at least the male members) buried without coffins. The latest of these family burials is said to have taken place towards the close of the seventeenth century. It is reported that when the vault was next opened, the body of Sir William St Clair could be seen lying in his armour with a red velvet cap on his head. Apparently, there was nothing decayed except for a small part of the white fur-edging to the cap.

In some parts of Ireland, at one time, it was customary to carry the body of the deceased person to the graveside in a coffin, upon which the body was taken out of the coffin and reverently buried in the earth. There was one Augustinian abbey graveyard in particular, not far from Enniscorthy, in which certain families were generally buried in this fashion, with the graves being scrupulously prepared with boards, earth, sods, and grass. It is said that the Superior of the first Cistercian abbey founded in England since the Reformation was buried in a similar fashion in the chapterhouse of the abbey. There was also a merchant, called Thomas Cooke, who had given considerable donations to a local college who willed that his body should be buried in a winding-sheet, minus coffin, in the grounds of the college.

8. Just as some people have been buried without coffins, so have there been occasions when coffins were buried without people, most of which involved fraud in some manner. There is a tale of a foreigner who died in 1871 and whose death was entered into the Parish Register, accompanied by an authentic medical death certificate. A coffin was bought for the body and a grave was commissioned to be dug in the local Roman Catholic graveyard, and a funeral took place along traditional lines. Then, a few weeks after this, the widow made a claim for a hundred thousand francs from an insurance office. The recently deceased person, however, was known to have been a fugitive fraudulent bankrupt and the police were called in to look at the case. The grave and coffin were opened, and they discovered that there was no corpse there. It appears that the fugitive had made out the certificate of his own death, ordered his own grave and coffin, and followed his own coffin to its last home as chief mourner!

8. With or without coffins, many persons have been buried in places other than churchyards or graveyards. It is not unknown, for example, for people to be buried in their own gardens, farms, parks, or plantations. There is the story of one family that had a coffin placed as a table in a summerhouse. Another story tells of Sir William Temple, former Member of the Irish Parliament, and diplomat, who, before his death in 1700, ordered his heart to be enclosed in a silver casket, and buried under a sundial in his own garden, opposite a particular window. However, where the body was buried remains unknown. Another odd burial was that of William Liberty, a brickmaker, who was buried in a tomb that he had built himself by the side of a lonely footpath, which ran across a field. Later, it was discovered that there was a room built in the same tomb for William’s widow. And so there are many stories told in like manner.

9. But strangely there are many strange stories concerning bodies being left unburied, or kept above-ground, in an effort to avoid the consequences of some law or other. One of the strangest stories tells of a farmer whose body was kept in a barn, enclosed in lead, and placed upon one of the roof beams. The locals gave two theories to explain this, the first one being that the farmer had expressed a desire that his body should be kept there ‘until the day of judgment.’ The other theory said that the farmer believed he would return to life again thirty years after his death, and he left his property subject to this contingency. After the thirty years the farmer’s representatives gave him three days’ grace, but then buried him, and finally disposed of his property.


[1] Material that had been treated with melted wax or gummy matter and formerly used especially for wrapping a dead body