If someone turned up at your front door with a beer, you might be pleased; however if they turned up with a bier you may not be too happy. A bier is a trolly for carrying a coffin in the days before motorised hearses.
When you died in the past you would be covered in a winding sheet (also known as a shroud) and the Parish Clerk would be contacted.
He would arrange the funeral with the local clergy and probably the local builder. For some reason undertakers were usually the local builder or shop-keeper. A burial would occur within a day of death, the body often being made available to visitors to pay their last respects.
On the day of the funeral, the church wardens would arrive with a bier. There is a good example of one at Arlington Church, although the one at Bishopstone had wheels to assist carriage.
The body would be placed in a coffin, placed on the bier. Most people could not afford all the trappings of a funeral, so the parish would have a reusable coffin and people would be buried in their shroud.
The coffin would sometimes be covered in a cloth called a pall (that is where the term pall-bearers comes from) and proceed towards the church.
The Prayer Book of 1549 required a burial party to stop at the entrance of the church, so that prayers could be said by the village priest. He of course would not want to get wet during inclement weather, so a roof would be built over the church gate to keep him dry. ‘Lic’ is an old English word for a corpse – hence the word ‘Lych-gate‘ Some priests would take some time for prayers to be said. In order to relieve the shoulders of pall bearers when a bier was not used, a block was often built under the Lych-gate to hold the coffin. Examples of these can be seen at Sompting and at Bolney Churches.
Over here in East Sussex another solution was found in the form of a Tapsell Gate. Tapsell gates pivot on a central post so that the pall bearers could walk either side of the gate to rest the coffin. Examples can be seen at Jevington, Friston and at Kingston near Lewes.
People attending the funeral would be expected to dress in black and wear gloves. The local shop-keeper would provide black ribbon to go around the hats of mourners. He would also produce funeral ‘favours’ which were often kid gloves. When Mrs Piper died in East Hoathly in 1755, the local shopkeeper, Thomas Turner provided 20 pairs of mens’ shammy gloves, 20 pairs of women’s shammy gloves, three pairs of youths gloves, three pairs of maids gloves. Eight pairs of white lambskin gloves were also provided, presumably for the chief mourners.
At the funeral of John Cornwall at Buxted in 1757 the local shopkeeper gave away no less than 106 pairs of gloves. Wine would also be provided for the wake, so a local shop-keeper could make a considerable profit from a funeral.
It was sometimes the case that unmarried women and children were carried to church by women. A wreath of white flowers would be placed on the coffin and another would be carried by a young girl in white who led the funeral procession.
The white flower wreaths would be left in the church after the funeral. Florence Padgen of Alfriston recorded how the wreathes were made. “The lower rim was a broad circlet of wood and fixed to the sides were hoops crossing each other at right angles. They were covered in artificial flowers made of dyed horn and silk. Between the hoops hung white paper cut into the shape of gloves with the name and age of the deceased written thereon.
“There were also affixed strips of various coloured paper and ribbon intermixed with gilded or painted blown eggshells. Some had a solitary hourglass to indicate mortality” The wreaths would be left in church for over a year, the withered flowers being themselves a sign of mourning.
If you were from a titled family, your coat of arms would be painted on a diamond shaped board surrounded in black. This would be known as a ‘funeral hatchment’ It would be carried in front of the funeral procession and after the funeral taken back to the house of the deceased where it would be placed over the front door for a year. The board would often then be taken back to be displayed in the parish church.