Friday, October 31, 2014

OCTOBER 31, 1814

200 years ago in Washington County, Indiana Territory, the settlers of our bicentennial community were often left to their own devices in disposing of the remains of those who died in their family or neighborhood.  Life expectancy at birth in the early 1800s was predicted by the Carlisle Tables to be 38.7 years. With the risks of childbirth, many infants and their mothers were at considerable risk.  The risk of sepsis from poorly treated trauma also contributed to this modest life expectancy.  Finally, the presence of stagnant water in uncleared and undrained river valleys or in crudely impounded streams fostered the spread of water and insect borne diseases that often were fatal.

The burial of a deceased usually had to be conducted within a 24 hour period as there was no available method of preserving a body for a deferred burial.   A person with carpenter skills was summoned to build the crude unlined wooden coffin out of available oak, walnut, poplar, cherry or chestnut boards.  When a person was lingering near death, the coffin was often made while the soon to be departed was still alive.  Upon death, the body was laid on a “cooling” board which may have been an unhinged door or a special board left over from a previous death. Family members would then quickly wash the body and dress it for burial.  In some circumstances a burial shroud was used if clothing was at a premium in the struggling household.  A family member or attending neighbor would then ride from cabin to cabin to inform neighbors and friends of the death. In some neighborhoods all work ceased until the deceased was buried.

As many of the settlers of Washington County were of Pennsylvania, Virginia or North Carolina origin, the Scotch Irish ritual of a death wake was frequently observed the night before the next day’s burial.  This ritual was thought to reawaken the deceased so that they could share in their farewell from our earthly realm. The wake was a social gathering that often provided an amusing diversion from the grief to come including products of the still and fiddle music.  While this neighborhood and family gathering served to comfort the family of the deceased during their time of bereavement, it also served the practical purpose of keeping flies, insects, rats and other vermin away from the body prior to its interment.

The burial itself would have been somewhere on the land of the deceased or his/her family or on unclaimed land nearby.  Few church houses yet existed so there were very few congregational or community grave yards in existence in 1814. Burials of bodies at this time also needed to be close to the home of the deceased’s family so that they could protect the buried remains from scavaging by wolves, bears, wild hogs and grave robbers.  Neighborhood men would dig the grave at the location selected by the family and accept no compensation for their service.  The grave was dug on an east-west orientation so that the decedent faced the rising sun in readiness for "Judgment Day". The funeral service itself would be by the graveside as the decomposition of the body did not allow time for a service at the home or the home where the deceased’s church may have met.  Preachers were often not available on less than a day’s notice to conduct the service so the graveside rite was often conducted by laymen or family.  If the deceased was a member of congregation or an adherent of a particular denomination, the preacher often did a funeral service a few days later.

There are numerous pioneer family graveyards throughout Washington County today.  Some are reasonably well preserved, some may have very weathered or shattered stones,  a few have been relocated to accommodate construction, and some have been obliterated by time, nature or succeeding landowners who had no respect for the graves and gravemarkers of their forebearers.  State law now requires that any know burial on a tract of land be disclosed in a deed when the land is transferred.  The Brock Cemetery north of the Salem Elementary School, the Brewer Blockhouse Cemetery formerly located at the east steps of DePauw Park, and the Philbert Wright Cemetery southeast of Lyndee Lane south of Lake Salinda are three examples of these early cemeteries.

The graves of my ancestors John and Cassandra Crook Collier are examples of the natural destruction of the graves of our early settlers. When John Collier died on September 22, 1831 he was buried on an unoccupied tract of land near his farm on a north facing bluff overlooking the north branch of Lost River.  His wife, Cassandra, died on February 2, 1844 and was buried next to him.  A visit I made to this location several years ago revealed that Lost River had eroded the bluff away many decades ago and had taken the remains of two of my 3rd great grandparents downstream.  This reminded me of the ending of the movie “A River Runs Through It” where the narrator said:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

                                            PIONEER WOOD COFFIN

                                                   FUNERAL WAKE

                                       PHILBERT WRIGHT CEMETERY

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