7 Reasons Dying Was Embarrassing As Hell In Olden Times
Easily one of the worst things about death is dying itself -- lying there, terrified, hoping that Death is the friendly guy from Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey and not Jake Busey from The Frighteners. But as it turns out, lamenting the fact that the sun shall never again kiss your face is very much a modern-world problem. In the past, the real horror show would only start after you died, with your hassle of a corpse being given very little of the rest and peace that was advertised. For instance ...
People Would Smash Your Corpse To Prevent You Becoming A Vampire
You know what causes vampires? Procrastination. Why wait until they've settled into a nice castle and picked up a fancy amulet on Etsy before whipping out the torches and pitchforks? Medieval peasants knew that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is why they tried to nip this undead malarkey right in the bud by wreaking havoc on the dearly departed.
In Medieval England, one village was so terrified that their nearest and dearest would return to chow down on their succulent flesh, they ritually smashed, mutilated, carved, and burnt the corpses of everyone who died there.
Most communities, however, were a bit more strategic with their desecration. A popular tactic was to pin the deceased down, either with a rock ...
... or by driving an iron rod through their thigh in order to pin their vampiristic self down and cause them to starve ...
... or even by placing a scythe across their neck, presumably out of the hope that they'd immediately decapitate themselves in the event of their resurrection.
In Bulgaria, these kinds of burials were so commonplace that they had to go the extra mile to be unusual -- like this suspected vampire who was staked in the heart with an iron rod and had his head beaten in. It could be a lot worse, however, like this Polish man who had his head severed from his corpse and placed between his legs. Or maybe the crazed villagers were trying to be nice, preventing this vampire from rising, but not from giving himself a real good time.
Still, this practice was very controversial in Medieval Europe, as showing respect for the dead is an important factor in Christianity. Which might also explain this half-assed job they did in 16th century Venice, where the citizens just jammed a stone into the mouth of the corpse of a suspected witch in order to prevent her from biting anyone.
Everyone Would Have Panicked That They'd Buried You Alive
After the Middle Ages, science and medicine swooped in and took a lot of the mystery out of death -- like how it's totally natural to poop yourself and not, say, God pulling one final prank on you for being such a dickhead. Eventually, people stopped being worried they'd wake up in their graves as an undead monster ... and started being worried they'd wake up in their graves, realize they're still alive, and die screaming for help.
In the 1800s, the world lived in fear of two things: the wrath of MechaNapoleon, and the horror of having been accidentally buried alive. The latter can be blamed on a cholera epidemic that was ravaging Western society and was capable of putting people into dead-esque comas. It was such a popular fear of the times, even Edgar Allan Poe got in on the action and penned The Premature Burial, which was a massive hit -- and only made things worse. As a result, a cottage industry popped up promising families that they'd be taken care of should they wind up buried earlier than they planned. One development was a range of coffins that allowed not-dead residents to signal for rescue, such as this model which made use of a bell-and-string system.
Another design had shaft that allowed groundskeepers and priests to regularly peer at your interred face. If they noticed that you weren't decomposing as expected, they'd summon a rescue party immediately.
Of course, those kinds of precautions were very much middle-class solutions. One crazy rich family from Pennsylvania built a bank of above-ground vaults; if they were accidentally buried alive, they could easily escape using a hatch on the inside of the door -- and then eat some food, drink some water, and basically chillax, as the vaults also came with onboard snack facilities.
One definitive way of not burying someone alive, of course, was to make sure that they were properly dead first. To this end, special wards were also founded where corpses could linger for days and days until they started oozing, thus proving their amortality. Not to mention all the pseudo-scientific attempts to revive the faux-dead, like blowing tobacco smoke up the rectums of corpses in the hopes that the nicotine pep would be enough to bring them back to the land of the living. It isn't known how effective this was at revitalizing people, but we're sure it'll wind up as a cool new health fad on Goop any day now.
Widows Could Be Forced Into Ritual Suicide After Their Husbands' Deaths
This might come as a big surprise to some, but past societies haven't been all that kind to women, especially widows. No longer having a husband to serve like he's too precious to wipe his own asshole, these women were often seen as useless by their community. They might as well leap onto their man's funeral pyre and save everyone the hassle. No, seriously.
Get on the fucking pyre.
Widow suicide, also known as sati, was extremely popular in India up until the 18th century. The most common form of sati was burning to death on your husband's funeral pyre, although other methods did exist, including being buried alive with his corpse, and drowning.
The appeal behind committing sati came from the fact that being a widow sucked. Having your husband die before you meant that you were a "failed wife," earning the scorn of his family. The only way to redeem yourself was to show your devotion by following him into the next life. This, of course, had nothing to do with the fact that, upon the widow's death, all her wealth (i.e. her husband's) would return back to the husband's family. Nothing at all, they're legitimately angry you let him die of old age. How rude.
For over two millennia, sati was a perfectly legal thing to do. The only way the government offered to protect widows was to give them the human right of calling backsies. No one could force a widow to commit funeral suicide. Not for a lack of trying, though:
"As the wind drove the fierce fire upon her, she shook her arms and limbs as if in agony; at length she started up and approached the side to escape. An Hindu, one of the police who had been placed near the pile to see she had fair play, and should not be burned by force, raised his sword to strike her, and the poor wretch shrank back into the flames. The magistrate seized and committed him to prison. The woman again approached the side of the blazing pile, sprang fairly out, and ran into the Ganges, which was within a few yards. When the crowd and the brothers of the dead man saw this, they called out, 'Cut her down, knock her on the head with a bamboo; tie her hands and feet, and throw her in again' and rushed down to execute their murderous intentions, when the gentlemen and the police drove them back."
The practice of sati was made illegal in the 1800s by the British, making this the only good thing to come out of colonialism. It isn't as dead as it should be, however. In 1987, it emerged that sati was still practiced in some parts of India. Worse still, experts are concerned that its popularity as an underground religious practice could grow and grow because surely we can all agree we've become too soft on widows nowadays.
Dying In A Disaster Meant Someone Would Sing A Vaudeville Song About It
Disasters seem to bring out extremes in people: some will run into a burning building to save a child, others will run into a burning building to loot a $100 stereo. Of course, we're here to talk about the latter, the type of humanity that only sees death and destruction as another way to make a quick buck. And now, those dickheads have their own music genre.
One major cottage industry that sprang up in the early twentieth century was the disaster song, wherein a jaunty singer and his band of trumpeters and ukulelists would recount horrific tales of mass death, package them for radio, and make themselves a pretty penny. Imagine the uproar that would have ensued if Kanye West had recorded this ballad after Hurricane Katrina:
"The wind it blew about 100 miles an hour that swept the shore/ A hundred dead and many who will never be found/ And buildings that cost a million, wrecked there upon the ground."
Well, those are actually the lyrics to "The Storm That Struck Miami," a roaring hit about the 1926 hurricane that ... um, struck Miami, and killed nearly 500 people.
There's also Richard "Rabbit" Brown's "The Sinking Of The Titanic," because nowhere is it written that James Cameron is the only artist who can earn residuals from that human tragedy.
And for all the lovers listening to Ghoul FM, here's a slow jam from Elder Curry's "Memphis Flu," about a flu epidemic that ravaged Tennessee after the war and left thousands dead.
This sort of spectacle wasn't just reserved for radio, either. After the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, the crew were being held in New York pending an inquiry into how the inappropriately-nicknamed ship could sink. While waiting in the city, they had a hard time making ends meet, what with their jobs now being a mile under the ocean's surface. Upon hearing this, a local theater owner offered them a daily show in which they could recount the sinking and take audience questions, all in return for a cut of the proceeds and whatever other funds audience members donated. Being an actor must've been pretty emotionally confusing back then, knowing you were just one major personal tragedy away from making it big.
Mimes Would Mock You At Your Own Funeral
There's a time and place for comedy -- and none of them involve a funeral. That's why not even Louis CK could sell out Arlington Cemetery. But the Romans had no time for this silly political correctness. According to them, the dead are there to be made fun of, preferably while their loved ones are still wearing black. And to make it extra humiliating, they left that job to the mimes.
In Ancient Rome, it was tradition for some douchebag mime to attend aristocratic funerals and perform scenes from the noble's life. The event would start with a funeral procession consisting of musicians, animals, and professional mourners, all led by a lookalike of the deceased. Once a sufficient amount of respect had been paid to the deceased, the lookalike would then throw off the toga of respectability and reveal their true role as the "funerary mime" or archimimus -- an actor who would, basically, roast the deceased on everything from their mannerisms to vocal patterns to accomplishments. And just to add insult to injury, they'd be doing this whilst wearing the deceased's clothes and a mask of their face.
And if you think these clowns pulled their punches because they were paying their respects to the great and the good -- they didn't. At the funeral of Vespasian, for instance, he was venerated by his colleagues and loved ones as a towering figure in politics. Then the mime came onstage and started bitching about how expensive the funeral was, thus making Vespasian seem like a penny-pinching tightass.
Your Family Were Stuck With Awful Death Clothing
Traditionally, funeral garb has a pretty easy-to-follow dress code: all black, no cargo shorts. It isn't meant to be the height of fashion, just a way to show on the outside what you're feeling on the inside. But during the 19th century, the family was expected to dress for mourning not just during the funeral, but also for some time after, requiring mourners to cosplay as emo specters of death for anywhere up to two years.
Upon hearing of a death, the entire family would be required to enter "deep mourning," a period where wearing black isn't just stylish, but mandatory. As time wore on, they then entered "'half mourning" which prescribed dark purple or green clothing trimmed with black, eventually culminating in leaving mourning altogether and tripping the sartorial light fantastic. The speed at which this took didn't depend on a family's devotion, but specifically on each family member's relationship to the deceased. For cousins, aunts, and general holidays-only blood relations, they'd only have to stay in mourning for six months. Children had to go for a full year. And for widows, a phenomenal two motherfucking years in deep mourning, followed by another six months of staying in half mourning.
But color wasn't everything. Just like the modern wedding industry, you were also expected to kit yourself and your family out with the latest de rigueur mortis fashions. It was such a thriving market that clothing boutiques would regularly travel to the continent and snatch up the hottest funeral-ready designs before their competitors.
Your Family Would Pay A Poor Person To Go To Hell On Your Behalf
It used to be super hard to live a sinless life, and we don't mean that in a crazy hedonistic "looking at your neighbor's ankles" sense either. Hell, just thinking the word "hell" condemns you to one of the lower circles of the Inferno for blasphemy. (Sorry.) And woe betide you if you've ever eaten bacon-wrapped shrimp or gotten a tattoo. Christianity has mellowed a lot since those days, but to people in the 18th and 19th centuries, Hell wasn't just an abstract concept -- it was real and ugly and vicious and barrelling straight at them for the most minor of infractions. Enter the sin eater. When you were a little uneasy about your loved one's chances for Heaven, the sin eater was the guy you called to come over and literally eat their sins and go to Hell on their behalf.
When someone passed, the family would place a piece of bread on their chest. The bread, which was said to "soak up" their sins, would then be eaten by the sin eater, commencing a Trading Places-like switch where he would take their spot in Hell, rooming with Vlad The Impaler, the no-plate-washing thermostat-adjusting dick.
And how much did it cost for rich dicks to buy their way out of Hell? An insultingly small amount. Sin eaters left the deceased's house with nothing but a few coins and the knowledge they were going to burn in Hell forever. That's why sin eaters were typically beggars who were on the brink of starvation, willing to eat any slice of bread no matter the filling. Most did not repeat the process too often, hoping they'd only absorbed some minor bathroom-related sins. Which is a shame. An atheist Medieval beggar could have led a sweet, carb-laden life exploiting the rich and paranoid.
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