"I’m Not Dead!"
by Jeri Westerson
The medieval period was nothing if not rife with ceremony, where everyone knew their place in the scheme of things. It’s particularly true for my character Crispin Guest, an ex-knight turned detective in fourteenth century London. He no longer belongs to the society in which he was bred, but it doesn’t stop him from living by his knightly code.
Living by the rules is one thing. But following rules on one’s deathbed?
The pomp did not wait for the person to be deceased, but began as they lay dying. There were do’s and don’ts for the those in attendance, but as if you didn’t have enough to worry over, there was also a bit to do when you were the one dying. You learned all you needed from the Ars Moriendi or “Art of Dying,” a book on how to die well. You needed to concentrate on where you were going and to avoid all those demons hovering around you waiting to snatch your soul when you were the most vulnerable. Of course, you’re dying, for crying out loud! and it seems a little much to expect a person who might very well be in pain to keep from crying out unnecessarily, or moaning, or, well…making a spectacle of yourself, even if the room is filled with people, including your confessor. In fact, family was discouraged from being with you at this crucial stage as they would be a distraction for you as you worked on keeping your pride in check. Your priest would be anointing you. Once you were dead this anointing would not be cleansed from you to give you further protection from those lurking demons. But if you had the audacity to recover, it was certainly all right to wash it all off.
The room would be draped in black and there might be your executor helping you draft that really last will and testament. If you were of the wealthier class, you would be providing cloth for funeral gowns for the attendants. Perhaps you would also provide gowns for paupers to be in attendance and they could also be useful to carry torches in the procession to the church. The poor were often dragged into the proceedings since the prayers of the poor were deemed of more value than from others, being that Christ always had a special place in his heart for the poor. Shoes were bequeathed to poor women and coal was also provided for their hearths. All this last ditch generosity served to put you in better stead with the Almighty while showing off to the populace that you were an important bloke.
Once you were really most sincerely dead—and they might use a polished brass mirror or feather to see if you were breathing, or thump you on the breast to draw your attention to a crucifix or to an elevated Eucharist—you would be dressed in a shroud and laid in a parish hearse or a hearse of your own, if you were rich, and taken to the church for a mass. In the front of the procession were candle-bearers and bell-ringers. Both of these were designed to scare off demons who were still ready to snatch your soul as it was believed that the dead’s soul lingered for about a month after death like the last guest at a party who would not go home. Many masses throughout the month would be sung for you (as long as you paid for them ahead of time) to chase away the devils and to give your soul that last heave-ho to point you in the right direction. Hopefully, that would be upward.
Mourners in funeral gowns would also be in this procession. The body might lie in state at home from one day to several weeks, depending. A murdered individual or someone who died by violent means wasn’t very welcomed into the church as it was believed that he might be dripping blood all over the place, even though a body ceases to “drip” blood once the heart stops. It was believed a corpse’s blood would run in front of the murderer, ratting him out. Not so strange, then, that no one wanted to be present at the funeral under such circumstances. Still, there was a stigma attached to an unnatural death and such funerals—unless they were for a monarch—were dealt with quickly.
A coffin might be part of the procedures. They were involved in the transport of the body but not necessarily in the burying thereof. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, after all. Though if you had enough money you could be entombed in the church itself either in a shrine or in the floor. The nave was the cheapest. Your own chapel was premium.
At the end of the month of your death, it was traditional to hold a second service, alms for the poor again, and serve a funeral feast which was often more spectacular than the burial itself. A year after the burial an anniversary celebration might take place, much as the celebration of the anniversary of the death of a saint (that’s what a saint’s feast day is, after all).
So if you are after a really great death, forget the Viking funeral. You might want to opt for the extravagant medieval-style send off. But remember. It’ll cost you.
For more reading, see Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550 by Christopher Daniell, Medieval Death by Paul Binski.
Jeri’s new Crispin Guest Medieval Noir, Serpent In The Thorns, will be in bookstores September 29th. For more, go to http://www.jeriwesterson.com/. To follow Jeri on the rest of her blog tour, visit her appearance schedule.