note: This is a true account of how a rural Missouri farming community handled death before WWII, as told by Letty Owings, age 87.
The customs and traditions pertaining to death in our community were in place prior to the Civil War and remained unchanged until after WWII. Prior to the Civil War, the land that would become our farm was multi-crop plantation territory where corn, wheat and clover grew. After the Civil War, the plantation area was divided into farms. Our farm was 160 square acres. We had no street address; we were part of a community that included a population of about 300 in the country and 600 in the nearby town.
A woman I knew named Minni had lived through the period prior to the Civil War, and I would often visit her and listen to her stories. On the way to her house, I passed a slave graveyard of about twenty graves that remained on the property. Many of the graves were simple stone markers indicating a child’s burial. In those days death was common among infants and young children in general, and it was not regarded with the same concern that it is today. It wasn’t that people were mean about it, they were just more honest. In other words, deaths of infants and children were almost expected. Causes of death among slave children in particular were never noted or studied during that time, although looking back one can speculate that tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other diseases and childbirth complications common to that era for all children may have been the cause. We must bear in mind that penicillin was not available until after WWII.
Although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end segregation, nor did it end mindsets, attitudes or plantation thinking. There was no end to segregation until Martin Luther King came along. Minni’s aristocracy mindset was evident in her velvet curtains with beads and her velvet chair and velvet footstool, and in her marriage to a man named George. George had not hailed from the upper echelon of plantation hierarchy, and Minni never let him forget it. While George tended to the chickens, for example, Minni stayed inside on her velvet throne, reminiscing.
One day, George died. Death in those days was in the living room. There were no funeral homes before WWII, so when someone died, an embalmer, usually the local undertaker, came to the home, embalmed the body, placed it in an open casket and took the casket to the living room. The body was never removed from the house before the funeral. Death was also a community affair, so when someone died, a person rang the phone six times on a party line to spread the news. The local German Evangelical Church in the community, on receipt of news of a death, would ring the church bell one time for each year of a person’s life. This practice of ringing the bell was repeated at the funeral. As the casket was carried into the church, the bell chimed one time for each year of the person’s life. There was only one possible exception to tradition that I remember. Someone shot a man named Red in the middle of the day, in the middle of town. The news spread by word of mouth in the form of “Someone shot ‘Ole Red today,” followed by the reply indicating consensus that went something like, “Good riddance.”
After death and embalming, while the body waited in the living room, the custom at the time was never to leave the body alone. People were assigned the duty of ‘setting,’ which amounted to sitting with the body, in shifts. Death was all a part of life, and I mention these customs because most kids today have probably never seen a body. As kids in those days, we might be assigned to sit with the body for a couple of hours during the day. Night shifts were arranged among the men in the community who would ask each other, “Who is setting up tonight?” My father often took the duty. He also sat with the dying. The person doing the night duty would light a candle at each end of the coffin, and sit all night with the body.
Minni did not want to attend George’s funeral, but my father forced her to attend. My father saw no distinction in a person’s worth based on economic status or social class. He saw everyone as equal. In the end, Minni attended the funeral.
My father also took the position that all people were equal regardless of the color of their skin, which was remarkable for the time. Racism was not delineated as unacceptable in those days. Rather, it was an integral and accepted part of the culture, so much so that we had no other perspective. My father forbade the use of the n-word in any conversational utterance. That my father’s view was a dramatic departure from acceptable norms of the times became apparent many years later.