I’ve been thinking about all the strangers who used to spend the night with our family. When we were busy my father usually closed the funeral home around ten o’clock, except for the nights when, through a sense of tradition, superstition or an emotional inability to leave, the family of the deceased requested to stay the night. The ancient custom of sitting with the dead, ‘night-watching’, annoyed me royally. It was difficult enough to sit still for hours while underneath our floorboards the choral hum of people flowed through the funeral home. It was creepier having living strangers downstairs all night than it was hosting the dead ones.
I hurl the blame at those who interrupted the sleep of my childhood and aim it at the Middle Ages. Before the Middle Ages death was not contemplated, the body was tossed back to the earth with nary an attempt to memorialize even the burial site.
First off, in the Middle Ages you’ve got your memento mori all over the place; the artists’ shocking reminder that we will indeed, all die. Why, in the face of famine, plagues and disease, a reminder of death was needed, is a question for the church.
Most works of memento mori were products of Christian art. The concept of the immortal soul became universally accepted because it appealed to the idea that one’s identity did not dissolve at death. However, death was a rude and unwelcome guest and the gruesome images were a reminder to live well and good.
Examples of memento mori can also be found in Asian and Buddhist art.
The ritual of watching the dead varied according to culture and religion. Christians believed there was a need for special prayers for the soul; a soul that might benefit from a shove in the right direction. The Jewish custom of visiting the sepulchre for three days following death was in part out of hope that the departed might gain consciousness.
Once watching became a ritual in all its varied forms, it wasn’t long before people were paid to do it. Watchers were hired to protect the body from animals, body snatchers and thieves. In the 14th century professional watchers who were bored with the endless hours of tedium played games and tried to “rouse the ghost” and raise the dead with black magic or witchcraft as one was wont to do in the Middle Ages. Food and some form of alcoholic beverage were provided: mead, wine, beer, or whisky, a crust of bread and cheese. Party central, if you will. See where I’m headed here?
The transition from moving the deceased out of the home parlor and into ours had long been made.
There were those who came from deep country ways who were superstitious and pleaded that they didn’t want to leave their relative alone all night. My father was a tad insulted that they wouldn’t entrust them into his complete care. There were no gas lamps or candles to spark a flame, the doors were securely locked, there was no danger of night animals, and after all, safety was included in the price. He would never mention that their dearly departed was soon to be much more alone than they were now, instead, he caved in and said of course anything they wished was fine.
It’s easy to take advantage of an undertaker. A good one will refuse you nothing. Tennessee habitually coughed up people on our Kentucky doorstep who claimed it was too far to travel back and forth for the duration of the visitation and funeral. When they asked if they could spend the night, my father could hardly refuse.
Selfishly, I wanted to listen to records, watch TV and stomp around at night, especially after an entire day of tiptoeing around upstairs. I now realize that I have the watchers to thank for forcing me to pick up a book to retreat from their stories to those of my own choosing. We gave them a few more hours with their loved ones; they gave me years of entertainment and a certain addition to my education.