Seventeenth century burials.

In the
sixteenth century the common man and woman was usually
buried in an unmarked grave and without a coffin, the body
perhaps wrapped in a shroud if one could be afforded. In
some, but not all, areas, the shroud for the poor was
provided by the Kirk Session , or by a Guild if the
deceased belonged to one. The practice of burial in 
a shroud (or not) continued for some time, especially in
the rural areas.  The Reformation of 1560 – the
establishment of a Protestant – Presbyterian  faith,
saw the introduction of quite severe, albeit reverential, 
instruction to and by the Kirk. This focussed on respect
for the dead and public health, but ceremony and images of
any kind was deemed popery and forbidden. The First Book
of Discipline in 1561 made an order for The Burial

corps is reverentlie broght to the grave, accompanied 
with the congregatioun,, without anie farther ceremoneis.
which being buried, the minister, if he be present, and
required, goeth to the church, if it be not farre off, and
maketh some  comfortable exhortation to the people
tuiching death and resurrection. “

In 1562
” It was ordeaned, that an uniforme order should be 
keeped in ministratioun of the sacraments, solemnizatioun
of mariages  and buriall of the dead, according to
the Booke of Geneva.”

 In the
Fifth Session of the General Assembly  on 30 December
1563 it was ordered that the body be interred six feet
under the earth:

“Touching the burial of the poore in every parochin to
landwart, it is ordainit that a biere be made in every
parochin to carry the dead corpsis to buriall; and that
village or house quher the dead lyes, with the nixt
adjacent house thereto, or ane number of every house, sall 
convey the dead to the buriall, and eid it sax foote under
the eird; And that every Superintendent within his awin
bounds requyre the Lairds and Barranes within the same 
to make  ane Act in their Court touching this ordour,
and cause their officers to warne the narrest neighbopurs
quher the dead lyes, to convey the samen to buriall, as 
said is , according to the said act; and farder, that the
Superintendents take ordour heir as occasioun sall serve.”

The biers
that were brought into use were of simple design being no
more than rails on which the body was borne to the grave
side covered by a pall or `mort cloth`. This evolved into
the conveyance of the body encased in a simple coffin –
cost being the prime factor. The mort cloth became a rich
drape such as velvet, sometimes with a rich lining, 
symbolic embroidery, and  heavy fringes. In the
seventeenth century hiring out the mortcloths  became
a source of revenue for the kirk. Revenue received funded
the care of the poor . In some areas the quality mort
cloth was reserved for the better class funeral, and a
cheaper version was made available for the commoner at a
reduced price; while the poor were granted its use free of
charge. Over time some of the larger churches bought
replacement cloths and had a wide range of twenty or more
cloths available at different prices.

In 1598 the
General Assembly ordered

Tuiching burialls, it is ordered, that no pictures 
or images be caried about in burialls, under the paine of
the censures of the kirk.”

It would be
the 18th century before everybody was deemed eligible for
a coffin, even the very poorest. Scottish ingenuity was
shown in the use of a `mort coffin` – a reusable coffin
owned by a church. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud,
tied at head and foot,  and placed in the coffin. At
the graveside it was lowered part way down and bolts were
then withdrawn allowing the floor of the coffin to swing
open and the body fall into the grave. The `mort coffin`
was then lifted out ready for further use. At another
extreme was the protection of the body from body snatchers
who stole and sold corpses to doctors and medical schools
for dissection. The infamous pair Burke and Hare were a
19th century manifestation of this. A common method of
was to lock them in a purpose built stone building or
`mort house` adjacent to the church until the burial
service. In other places an iron cage was used or a the
coffin placed in a `mort safe`  for maybe six weeks (
until the body became unusable for anatomy lessons) and
then re interred.

Reformation burial in the church was reserved to the rich
and influential such as the lairds, who in life were
responsible for a wide range of financial
responsibilities. Persons of wealth and the nobility were
encouraged to build their own chapels or aisles for family
use; and in the cities the leading Guilds might purchase
space.  But in many cases internment within the
church and probably beneath the persons pew, imposed
restrictions on the space available for the congregation.
There was also a problem of health because bodies were not
always deeply buried and there was sometimes the smell of
decomposing bodies. A bizarre problem also was that dogs
often accompanied their master to church and would dig up
bones from shallow graves. In time church burials were
required to be approved by the minister or the Kirk
Session. In 1576 the General Assembly had actually
forbidden church burials, this act was repeated in 1588,
1631 and in 1643. However, in rural communities with a
prominent and influential laird, they usually developed a
pragmatic approach and the practice continued.

As the
church space filled up so more and more burials took place
outside where there was greater scope for decoration of
gravestones. The elaborate mausoleums of inside the church
could not be reproduced outside, but status and position
in the community was reflected  in decoration,
engraving, enclosure within railings and mausoleums such
as caskets on plinths. Against the background of plain and
simple burials, the grave stones in the early 17th
century were mainly flat stones or – `thruch stanes` as
from medieval times. Then upright slabs appeared with some
details incised into the face of the stone. A common
practice in Scotland was to engrave the initial(s) of the
christian name on the left and the surname initial on the
right. There was sometimes decoration or lettering round
the edges and the mason carving the stone sometimes put
his own mark or initial on the bottom right hand corner. 
The upright stones were often very plain with straight or
rounded tops but not otherwise decorated, and some were
mounted on a small plinth or base stone such as that of
George Short in
Kirkyard. In contrast, however, the inscriptions
themselves were sometimes `flowery` and bore testimony to
the increasing education of the common man who had been
reared on the Bible and the catechism. The wording on
Covenanter stones is quite distinctive and normally makes
reference to the cause of death and sometimes the alleged

It was
not until about 1643 that the first tablestones ( a flat
stone set on four or six pediments) appeared; these were

the 18th and 19th centuries. This
rather puts in doubt
painting of the signing of the Covenant in Greyfriars
Kirkyard in 1638  by  Sir William Allan (ca
1840) showing the Covenant spread on a tablestone. It is
however, indicative of the romanticism in which the
Victorians  indulged.

Next. Gravestones and Memorials.