Funerals Rites & Customs in Elizabethan England

by Anne Cagle

Death was an ever-present fact of daily life during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I from 1558 to,1603. English citizens saw mortality in many ways, such as the corpses on gibbets that hung as warnings against crime and treachery or the piles of corpses that resulted from plagues that swept through towns like merciless scythes. The most common fatalities were the innocents who died as infants after taking their first breath. However, this impermanence of the mortal shell was not as essential as the fate of the soul. Elizabethan funeral rites reflected certitude about both the power structure in the society of the time and the afterlife.

Preparing the Body

Readying the deceased for a funeral began when a midwife or other female washed the corpse and then wrapped the body in a large cloth. The nobility or rich would have silk or other fine material for the shroud, but the poor often had nothing but sheets from the deathbed to clothe their remains. There were many peasants who were too poor to spare the sheets and the corpse was thus naked. Mourners of either class added flowers such as rosemary to the grave linens of female corpses and deceased children to represent innocence. The midwife or other woman who prepared the body added herbs such as rue for virtue to grave linens for men.

Funeral Clothing

Funeral apparel of the mourners was, like the preparation of the deceased, based on rank and wealth. Black was the color for mourning if the mourners were of the nobility or rich heirs. The family wore black pins, ribbons, stockings, ruffs and other dark apparel, including blackened shoe soles. The mourning attendants who walked before the funeral procession wore black gowns and carried black staves or waved black mourning banners. Poor people would wear the clothes they possessed, which were often cast-offs or clothes that they inherited from the deceased. There was not any need for decoration because the burial of the impoverished, unlike that of the rich or nobility, was quick and simple.

Holy Burials

The wealthy or nobility had their place of rest under the flagstones inside of a church, in a family crypt or in a churchyard with a gravestone. The poor had anonymous burial in mass graves in the churchyard without caskets or headstones. The rich deceased, however, often left one benefit after their death. The heirs of the dead gave a feast for the community and supplied alms to the poor. This was part of the deceased's Christian obligation even after burial in hallowed ground. The soul's ascent to Heaven was of the greatest importance and this was not always assured for the dead.

Unhallowed Burials

Most Elizabethans had a Christian burial, but this was not true for criminals and suicides. The Church denied the churchyard to criminals such as murderers, traitors, thieves and suicides. Suicide, or "felonia de seipso" (self-murder), was a criminal action in this era because only God could determine an individual's time of death. There was also harsh punishment for the survivors. The government confiscated the deceased's land, money, debts owed and all household goods. Burial was not in the churchyard. The officials of the parish, churchwardens and their helpers carried the body to a crossroads and threw the unclothed corpse into a pit. The officials hammered a wooden stake through the body to pin it to the ground and they filled in the hole with dirt. There were no prayers for the dead.

About the Author

Anne Cagle has been writing ever since she was a toddler who could scribble with crayons. Her first published article, at age 12, was in a teachers' newsletter. She was published in "Optical Prism" magazine and has worked as a reviewer for the Webby Awards. She holds a degree in English from the University of Oregon.

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