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.

Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women

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.

Carved from a single piece of ivory, c. 1650 artist and origin unknown

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?

German Watcher 1754

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.


  1. I love this story. My father, who wanted a Jewish burial, was visited by a Rabbi while still in a coma (massive heart attack) to do something similar to what you describe above as shoving the soul in the right direction. He called it hondling -- a Yiddish word I found a link about here:

    The idea was, as the Rabbi described it, that just in case my Dad needed a little negotiating on his behalf with God the Rabbi was there to plead his case.

  2. Hi Susan,

    Yes, I ran across that in research. Also this: "Lykwake" or corpse watching for payment is still practiced as a Jewish custom." All - very interesting. Thanks so much for reading.

  3. I had no idea about Lykwake. The whole concept of corpse watching is fascinating.

  4. This is fascinating -- I always wondered what it must be like for the children growing up in the funeral homes, but I never knew of anyone to ask.

    As for corpse watching, well ... as someone who has done so, I can say it helps with closure. It was much easier to bear my aunt's funeral (especially since she was cremated) after having sat by the body the night she died. Still, all the myriad superstitions surrounding the practice are, as Susan noted, fascinating!

  5. Bookishmiss: Thanks very much for your comment. I know how important the closure issue is. Did you sit up all night?

  6. Not all night, just until midnight or thereabouts. Not sure what time it was when I left, but it was after 1 a.m. when I got home so, because I detoured by the grocery store for no good reason, it was probably around midnight when I left.

  7. After a close relative died and she was lying in her casket at a funeral home wake, my sister offered to stay with her during the dinner hour in case any mourners showed up who hadn't read the official visiting hours published in the paper. Pretty sure no one would show during that time, I nevertheless offered to stay instead.

    When everyone left, I soon realized the funeral personnel had left the building too. That may have been the quietest, eeriest hour I've ever spent, walking round and round those empty rooms till mourners returned.

  8. That's interesting and curious. My father would never have left the building empty. I certainly know what that feels like though. Many times I was downstairs alone at night.

  9. We had a guest here this week from TN, so I'll be sure to share this link with her. I'm glad, Kate, you found books via the demands of your environment ... always a gift that stands ready to share something of value: a book. And, now, as you write about those days carved into your memory, your own wonderful book comes to life. Bravo! --Daisy @ SunnyRoomStudio

  10. Thanks for your thoughts Daisy. There has always been a little rivalry between Kentucky and Tennessee for some reason unknown to me. Please tell your friend that I don't participate in it!