Image: “Vintage Funeral Little Girl Pallbearers Little Casket Old Time Funeral Children” via superiorview on eBay.
A curious motif caught my eye as I’ve continued to read about and research the historical and cultural spheres of death and mourning, and it was this- pictures of children carrying the casket of their departed classmate or friend. There were usually six of them. Always all boys or all girls, exclusively. And the little girls, when they had the duty of carrying the coffin, were often wearing white dresses, outfitted with bows and flowers, as if they were about to walk down the aisle for a wedding procession.
Child pallbearers, I discovered, were once part of the very particular and proper funeral etiquette following the death of a child. It was “considered good form to have six young girls, dressed in white, as the guard of honor for a young girl or woman,” while “six young men [were] appropriate for a young man who ha[d] died” (Medina). It was an honor to be named a pallbearer; each pallbearer was chosen by the family of the decedent, for it was not the custom to have family members serve as pallbearers themselves. Refusal of this honor was rare, and would only be tolerated “for the most imperative reasons.”
This tradition speaks to the very intimate nature that children naturally have with death. It is deadly to be a child. This stems from the historically perilous act of being born – something that has often led to the death of both baby and mother. Women have an innate relationship with death, and it only makes sense that infants and children would as a result of this. Childhood, with all of its presumed innocence and unadulterated joy, is a vulnerable state to occupy. It still persists as something to be survived.
Vulnerable immune systems and a propensity for accidents (whether at play or at work, as many children in the pre-modern era, just as today, were employed in dangerous apprenticeships and jobs or sweatshops) has led to a significant number of early deaths for children throughout history. In the nineteenth century, as revealed through post-mortem photographs and graves, it was not unusual for the death of one child in a family to be followed by the death of another child. This was often due to infectious diseases, such as smallpox, plague, measles, and influenza being exposed to the home, which could easily be passed from sibling to sibling (Payne). Moreover, surviving infancy was a perilous endeavor in and of itself.
The photograph below shows two plaques belonging to the Ellis family, an American family, in the mid nineteenth century: six of their young children died between 1838 and 1849 (Colman 30).
It is heartbreaking to think that a parent’s state of mourning could be continuous, grieving for the loss of one child after another. However, there were rituals, customs, and traditions, such as the tradition of child pallbearers shows, that helped these families to cherish their child’s life and properly memorialize them. These customs also enabled grieving families to slowly be welcomed back and reintegrated into the community of the living, by giving them tangible ways to address and nourish their feelings of loss.
Colman, Penny. “Death Is Destiny: Understanding Death.” Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. New York: Square Fish, 1997. 30. Print.
Payne, Lydia. “Health in England (16th–18th c.),” in Children and Youth in History, Item #166, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/166 (accessed January 6, 2016).
Medina, Miriam. “Funeral Etiquette Part III,” from Book of Etiquette by Lillian Eichler, http://www.thehistorybox.com/ny_city/society/articles/nycity_society_funeral_etiquette_pt_III_article00258.htm (accessed January 5, 2016).
This topic, the relationship between children and death, is one that I have begun devoting significant time to researching, with the hopes of cultivating a larger project. Is this something you’d be interested in reading and learning more about? Let me know, fellow rogue death scholars – I’d love to hear what you think.