by Ted Currie
One of the most fascinating folk histories of Muskoka is a book entitled “Reminiscences” written by Redmond Thomas Q.C. with an interesting chapter highlighting old time funerals in Bracebridge, Ontario. I have taken the liberty of sharing portions of this historic folk tale from the Muskoka heartland.
If you've been a regular reader of this column, you may remember my previous references, to having an interest in funerary collectables. Yes, I did once own a portable embalming machine, and I loved having at our former shop, in Bracebridge, as a matter of some irony, in a storefront built onto the former W.W. Kinsey home, on upper Manitoba Street. Mr. Kinsey, of course, being one of two undertakers at the turn of the 1900's, in Bracebridge. When customers asked what the contraption was, they'd jump back, when I told them it was an embalming machine, that could be taken to any site, to perform the pre-funeral preparations. Well sir, it always got a hands-off reaction, that's for sure, although I was surprised by how many people did ask questions later, about the device, while, of course, standing well back; much as if there was still a spirit residue contained inside. I eventually donated it to my friend Dave Brown, a Hamilton teacher, who was planning to use it in an education display, for students, about early medical equipment, and how it was used.
I also got a good deal on a beautiful spindle bed, circa 1875, made in Ontario, that was once the comfortable accommodation, on which the newly deceased were placed, for viewing, in the church manse, of the Alhambra United Church, in Toronto. We call it our death bed, but it isn't haunted. It doesn't levitate, or occasionally show up the form of one of those corpses, which had been laid out, prior to the coming funeral. It is however, a short bed, as from this period, folks were generally a little shorter than they are today. We sleep on it every night, and well, it's quite comfortable. You'd sort of expect we'd have nightmares or something, but honestly, it is quite benign in terms of paranormal anything. Suzanne was mad at me for buying it, but as I told her, being an antique dealer by itself, dictates that we are going to be handling possessions of the deceased constantly, in order to stay in business. Those folks didn't die in that bed. They were embalmed, and then placed there, for viewing. There are lots of antique beds, that were a lot closer to the precise moment of death, than this fine piece of Canadiana.
I have a sea shell memorial cross, that was hand made, following a maritime boating accident, that is definitely creepy, in the Victorian style. I've turned down lots of funerary antiques and collectables, including a child's casket with a window, for public viewing, without needing the lid open. I've also had many photographs of the deceased, some appearing as if the subject of the photograph was just sleeping. I had to point this out to an antique clerk once, that a vintage photograph, they were advertising as a Victorian portrait, was actually a death image; the man lounging on a chair, had been situated that way, for purposes of this final photograph. This wasn't uncommon, and in the previous blog, regarding the folding casket, for Mr. R.B. Browning, it was created to appear as if a parlor couch, to make it appear the subject was only relaxing; not actually deceased. Death pictures do creep folks out, and of this, I feel much the same. But, it was done, and often, soon after the invention of the camera. I also owned, at one time, death images of children, painted with watercolors; each of the five portraits, given angel wings, and halos, via the artist's intent. These were painted in the early 1800's. Suzanne didn't like them whatsoever, and was glad when a gentleman insisted on making the purchase, against his wife's vehement protest. They got into an argument right in the hall of the shop, and she walked out on him, in the middle of the debate. Her concern was, that they would bring an unwelcome spirit, or group of spirits, into their happy home. As he had experienced the death of a sister due to a childhood illness, these portraits, in a way, reminded him, in a positive way, of her memorial tributes, that he remembered as a child himself. "What negativity could possibly come from these little angels," he said, as he thanked us for uniting him with this work of 'mourning' (memorial) art. "In my previous article, there was mention of the funeral of R.M. Browning, at which the horses, hitched to the hearse, plunged with such violence that the casket, broke loose from the fastenings, and crashed through the glass doors, at the back of the vehicle," wrote Redmond Thomas, in his popular book, "Reminiscences." "After publication of that article (in The Herald-Gazette circa 1967), it occurred to me that there are now many mature young men, and women, who have neither seen a funeral cortege, or horse-drawn vehicles; nor have heard about the very sombre trappings of death in such times. "Coffins had so nearly gone out of use by my earliest recollection, that I cannot remember ever seeing one, though I have seen the impression of the shape, of one, in the clay bottom of a grave, which had been opened to remove one. They were, generally speaking, form fitting, widening from the top downwards to the shoulders, and then tapering towards the feet. Caskets, now universally used, have in general appearance, changed very little within my recollection, except that no longer is seen the folding casket, such as the one to which Mr. Browning was buried; and gone also is the style in which, (until the casket was closed for the funeral) the face of the deceased could be viewed through a glass window, near the top of the casket. And no longer is affixed to the casket, a 'coffin plate' of polished metal, engraved with the name, date of death, and age, something which it seems to me, would be very useful if (as sometimes happens) bodies are moved."
Mr. Thomas notes that, "Embalming was, when I first remember funerals, not in its present standard use. Of the two funeral establishments in Bracebridge, only the Kinsey one had an embalmer, namely Joshua L. Yeoman, who was a graduate of the Chicago College of Embalming, but in that establishment, embalming was optional. The other establishment, White's, had no embalmer, but if one was desired, would bring one from Gravenhurst. There was no funeral home. The two establishments engaging in undertaking, were basically furniture stores, and in fact, the Kinsey one, handled not only furniture but pianos, organs, and agricultural implements. A corpse was never taken to an undertaking establishment (even to be embalmed), unless the deceased had no home here, in which event, the body was placed in some secluded room, to await being sent away by railroad or being given burial here. "The bereaved household was a grim place. Crepe hung on the front door (and in case of a merchant, on the store door as well). Though the crepe was usually black, it was sometimes purple, if the deceased were very old, and was invariably white, if the deceased one was a young child. The door bell was muffled, until it gave apparently no sound. While in the room containing the casket, people spoke in whispers, or scarcely any louder. All the outer clothing of the woman, of the household, was dyed black, and many ladies added black borders to their white handkerchiefs. The men of the house wore black suits, and ties, and often had a black band of crepe sewn on an arm of the coat. The social stationary of the household, had black borders on note paper, and envelopes, hence a reference in an old song, to a letter edged in black. All this was 'full mourning' and lasted for a year. There were no sympathy cards. Friends wrote letters of condolence, and these in strict etiquette were of mourning (black bordered) stationary, though this strict rule was commonly ignored."
The Herald-Gazette writer recollected that, "During the second year, after bereavement, the ladies wore half mourning which was a mixture of black and white. I have forgotten how (if at all) the men marked the second year. "Every pallbearer work a dark suit (preferably black) and a black tie. The undertaker provided him with black cotton or woollen gloves, and attached a bunch of long crepe, to whichever arm, was not to be used for carrying the casket. The undertaker wore formal attire, including black frock coat, and plug hat, and rode beside the driver of the (horse drawn) hearse. The hearse had large windows on each side, and the top of the vehicle was ornamented by metal imitations, of crepe-draped urns. (If the funeral to St. Joseph's Church, a cross was added to the top of the hearse). The horses pulling the hearse were a black team."
Mr. Thomas adds, "Across the open grave were sticks on which rested the rough box, with its top removed. The pallbearers placed the casket in the rough box, to which the undertaker then fastened the cover. Using heavy straps of tug-leather, running from side to side, under the rough box, the pallbearers, three on each side of the grave, lifted the rough box until the sticks could be removed from under it, and then they lowered it to the bottom of the grave, after which those on one side, let go, and those on the other side, drew the straps up to the surface. The committal service, even in bitterest winter weather, was at the graveside, and all men present, stood bareheaded, hence the grim saying, that many a man got his death of pneumonia, while attending the winter-time funeral of a friend. I have been pallbearer at old style funerals in summer and winter.
"As all horses in a funeral cortege proceeded at a walk, the progress was slow. If the deceased had belonged to a fraternal society, the members of the lodge walked at the front of the procession. When I was a small lad, before the motor age, I saw the two largest funerals every held in Bracebridge, and the like of which will never be seen again, or even approached in impressiveness.
"They were those of Angus McLeod, M.P., from his home where the hospital now is, to the Methodist Cemetery, and of Dr. Samuel Bridgland, M.P.P., from his home, on the west side of McMurray Street, to the Anglican Church, and Anglican Cemetery. In fact, I rode with my father in a buggy, at Dr. Bridgland's funeral, which took place less than two weeks after that of Mr. Browning (yesterday's blog). "But I never saw a bang-up funeral, like the one described to me, many years ago, by an elderly gentleman, whom I met on a train. His early childhood had been spent in a remote rural part of Southern Ireland, where many old customs then remained, a century after they had gone out of use, in the more sophisticated parts of that land. He told me of the funeral of one of the gentry, whose elegant mansion was commonly called 'The Hall,' and who, because of his affability and generosity, was beloved by the poor people. So the poor folks decided to pay him every possible honor. Hundreds of them walked in the funeral procession, and among them was a group of elderly women who were known by a Celtic name, meaning wailers. "When the great Cortege (which included a vast number of carriages of the affluent), left the Hall, for the church, the wailers were much in evidence. All the way, they walked and shrieked at the top of their voices. One of them would scream, 'He was such a grand man,' whereupon the others would scream, 'and indeed he was,' and then the whole caboodle would shriek. The horses, in the cortege, did not take kindly to this display of feminine grief, and the steeds wanted to depart post-haste, to some quieter environment, in which desire they were restrained by only a most adept display of horsemanship by the drivers, whose arms were very tired by the time the church was reached; and the wailers quit their shrieks (as after the service, the coffin was placed in the family vault in the church yard). How did the bereaved family regard the wailers? Very appreciatively indeed. For the family knew that the wailers never appeared just because a deceased person was prominent. In addition to being prominent, he must have been beloved by those of humbler station."
I have read a number of early Muskoka histories, that refer to the dreaded sound of the horses' hooves, clomping down on the hard packed rural trails, often late in the evening, with the undertaker and helper, at the reins. During the days of epidemics, it wasn't uncommon to have the hearses and sometimes just farm wagons, picking up the deceased from those homes, that had been particularly hard-hit by influenza, for example, amongst other outbreaks. What would happen, in these cases, is that the deceased, which could be as many as four family members in one night, would be picked up by courageous funerary staff, and taken immediately to the nearest cemetery for burial. They did not want any mourners, or sight-seers in attendance at these rush-funerals, for fear of contamination spreading. These homesteaders knew the sound of the wagon wheels, and the team of horses, that what was passing out front, had an omen attached; and these alerted folks, would take their lanterns out onto the road, to see what farm the undertaker and hearse were going to visit. An eerie scene unfolding. Just as much, to see the long weaving funeral processions, through the rolling countryside, with the casket (or earlier coffin), raised onto the pallbearers shoulders, on a footpath to the appropriate, or nearest cemetery, without a horse in the solemn parade, and no hearse as part of the transport of the deceased.
I have to thank Redmond Thomas, for writing the column above, which contains a considerable amount of important heritage information, on a subject many of us would rather not think about. But it is none the less important to understand and appreciate, about what our forefathers and mothers had to content, when mortality was much higher than it is today; especially amongst children. There is a story in the Shea Family chronicle, of a deceased child, being carried from the hamlet of Ufford, to the churchyard in the hamlet of Falkenburg, just north of Bracebridge, a distance that would have taken two hours to walk, coffin on shoulders. When they got there, the open grave, dug in advance by cemetery caretakers, was full of water, and the family insisted it be drained dry, before the body was committed to the ground. Fascinating history. It really is!