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burial with grave-goods


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In pagan burials and cremations, the dead body was often (though not invariably) accompanied by jewellery, weapons, food, and drink, and sometimes a horse or dog, presumably its possessions in life. Christianity abolished the custom for ordinary people, but allowed priests, monks, and nuns to be buried in their religious vestments and habits, and bishops and abbots to have their rings and croziers with them. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, there was always a conflict between the urge towards the humble anonymity of a shroud, and the wish to dress a corpse in clothing appropriate to its status. Recent clearances of over 2,000 18th- and 19th-century coffins from vaults of London churches produced a good many wedding rings, but only two cases of men buried in normal clothing: one in military uniform, one a dandy in fashionable dress, with wig and cane (Litten, 1991: 73). Nowadays shrouds are still common, but many people prefer clothes, which can be anything from high-quality nightwear to one's wedding dress or a favourite suit.

In modern times, it is normal at military and state funerals for flags, items of uniform, insignia, etc., to be laid on the coffin; they may or may not go with it into the grave. The same may be done for other occupational symbols, as when the friends of an old bargeman who was being buried at Havant (Hampshire) in 1994 laid his cap and a small anchor on the coffin at the end of the service (FLS News 22 (1995), 13). It is fairly common for small personal possessions such as photographs to be slipped into the coffin or dropped into the grave; even more frequently, suitable objects are laid on graves, either after the funeral or on anniversaries and festivals.

Archaic customs such as animal sacrifice and food offerings occasionally reappear; Lovett stated that in the London working classes early in the 20th century, it was ‘by no means rare’ for pets to be killed at the death of their owner; he notes two instances—a little girl's canary laid in her coffin, and an old woman's cat buried in the garden on the day of her funeral, ‘so that the old dear might have her best friend with her’ (Lovett, 1925: 35, 48). In 1928 at Paignton (Somerset), a woman who used to put chickens, pigeon pies, fruit, and wine on or in her family vault sued the local council because they had forbidden her to do so, saying this constituted a ‘nuisance’. She lost her case (Daily Express, 21 Mar. 1928 and 11 Nov. 1928.)

See also FUNERALS, GRAVES.


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