Funeral Customs, Traditional (Ozark Mountains)
Settlers to the Arkansas Ozarks brought burial traditions with them from their home states of Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Prior to the establishment of a funeral industry with undertakers, embalmers, and factory-made caskets, every job associated with burial was handled by members of the deceased’s community. This work required practical know-how, physical strength, and access to materials, and was influenced by religious custom, folklore, and superstition.
The modern death-care industry evolved from the trade of cabinet making, when stores that made and sold furniture added wooden coffins and caskets to their wares. By the late 1800s, many such businesses also offered the use of elaborate, horse-drawn hearses; burial goods (such as shrouds); and, later, embalming. The Arkansas Undertakers Association formed in 1890 but lasted only a few years, followed in 1900 by the permanent establishment of the Arkansas Funeral Directors Association. State law established a board of embalmers in 1909.
Embalming was slow to gain acceptance, especially in rural communities where it was deemed unnecessary, as burial routinely took place within twenty-four hours of death. African Americans, however, traditionally delayed burial for as much as a week. This was done in order to hold the funeral on a Sunday. This custom originated during slavery, when Sunday was the only day slaves were given time to bury their dead.
Death almost always took place in the home. Family members nursed their patient by day, but, as death approached, neighbors would begin the practice of “sitting up” each night. In addition to providing nursing, those who sat up ensured that the person did not die alone (a taboo) and that family members would be awakened to be present at the death. As soon as death occurred, members of the community had to undertake numerous jobs required for the burial. Family members did not participate in this, except when death resulted from a highly contagious disease, such as diphtheria, in which case fear of contagion might keep neighbors away.
The first task was to lay out the body before rigor mortis (the stiffening of the body’s muscles) set in. This involved placing the corpse in a supine position on a flat surface, where it was washed, dressed in new or clean clothing, and positioned with eyes closed and hands folded. Other neighbors would bring food to the home, scrub the deceased’s room and bedstead, and do laundry. Superstition required that the clock be stopped and mirrors covered with fabric until after the funeral.
While this went on, a skilled woodworker, often the town’s blacksmith, would build either a coffin or casket. Coffins, the older of the two styles, were hexagonal boxes, tapered at the feet, with a separate, one-piece lid. The rectangular casket, a style used today, has a two-part lid, attached to one side of the box with a hinge, which permits the body to be viewed from the waist up.
Though stores sold coffins and caskets, most people preferred to have the box built locally whenever possible. As these were almost never made in advance of death, builders usually had to work through the night to complete one for burial the following day. Meanwhile, the body, lying on boards and covered with a sheet, was never left unattended (another taboo). Once again, neighbors sat up with it all night for as long as it remained unburied. The primary reason for doing so was the belief that it was necessary to keep cats (or vermin or other animals) from disfiguring the corpse.
Prior to the advent of telephones, and in towns having only weekly newspapers, notifying the public of the death and of the time and place of the funeral was done by word of mouth, tolling a church or school bell, or handing out small funeral notices. The obituary would be published at a later date and often contained such information as the cause of death, the deceased’s virtues and dying words, and a sentimental poem.
Once the coffin was delivered and the body placed within, a funeral could be held in the home, at a church or school, or in the cemetery. In the era of the circuit-riding minister (used by most denominations), the funeral service might be delayed until the minister made his next visit, often from a few weeks to several months later. The coffined body would be conveyed to the cemetery in a wagon (later in a pickup truck or hearse). It was considered to be bad luck if the funeral procession was forced to stop en route. This is the origin of the modern custom of cars pulling to one side of the road when meeting a funeral procession, now deemed a token of respect.
Another taboo required that the grave be dug on the day of the burial; digging in advance was believed to invite other deaths within the family or the community. If this digging had to be done earlier, a token amount of loose dirt would be left in the bottom and removed on the day of the burial, thereby finishing the grave on the proper day.
At the cemetery, the coffin’s lid would be removed so that mourners could take a last look at the body before the lid was nailed on. The box would be lowered into the grave using ropes or harness reins, and it was bad luck to leave before the grave was filled in.
Decoration Day, following a cemetery clean-up day, was a much-anticipated event that combined family reunions, speeches, prayers and music, a communal dinner, and the decorating of graves. The custom is no longer the major event that it once was, but it is still observed in some cemeteries across Arkansas.
The skilled, labor-intensive burial customs performed by local citizens gradually died out, beginning in the cities as undertakers assumed all of the jobs once performed by neighbors. In rural communities, customs lasted far longer but had mostly ended by the 1950s after droughts, the Depression, and two world wars caused a population shift out of the state. In addition, by the 1930s, most funeral homes sold burial insurance policies, thus easing the transition from the home funeral to ones managed by the commercial funeral industry.
For additional information:
Burnett, Abby. Gone to the Grave: Burial Customs of the Arkansas Ozarks, 1850–1950. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
Moshinskie, Jim. Early Arkansas Undertakers and Embalmers, Survey Book I. N.p.: 1978.
Parler, Mary Celestia, ed. “Folk Beliefs from Arkansas; Death and Funereal Customs, Collected by University Students.” Vol. 8. 1962. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic and Folklore. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1964.
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When I was a little girl, we would go to the graveyard to visit the grave of my grandparents. There would be two seashells on the grave with a penny under each shell. Does anyone know why?