The Death Drawer: 1900

MODER flowers

The burial of Mrs. Abraham Lesher at Kleinfeltersville, the other day, with her sixty-five-year-old black silk wedding-gown for a shroud brings to notice a queer East Pennsylvania custom which prevails among German farmers. Nearly all the people, old and young, have their shrouds and grave-clothes all ready when death comes. The old people especially have all arrangements for their funeral made, and written out in all details. Indeed, it is a common thing to find a special bureau-drawer set apart for the grave-clothes. One custom is to keep every vestige of the wedding outfit for the interment apparel. Gown and undergarments are in many cases worn but once by the bride, and then laid away to wait for her death. Gray silk is much in vogue for wedding-gowns, as the color is preferred for burial-robes to white or black. Where wedding-gowns are not saved, the women folks make their own shrouds, cutting them out, sewing and trimming them. To borrow a shroud-pattern is nothing unusual. It passes from farm-house to farm-house. Long winter evenings are taken up with getting grave-clothes ready; so that when a person dies, all the friends need do is to open the death-drawer and there find written instructions as to the place of burial, the kind of grave and coffin, the name of the minister who is to officiate, the text of the sermon, the three hymns to be sung, the pall-bearers, the grave-stone and its inscription, and all about the grave-clothes. This fashion makes it very easy for the friends to decide on the funeral arrangements. Some old farmers go so far as to state exactly which calf and how many chickens shall be killed for the funeral dinner, and who is to be hired to take care of teams and feed the horses of the visitors.

Not only do the elderly women provide a grave or death drawer, but young wives and young girls do the same thing. They begin early in life to accumulate their death trousseau. Sometimes elaborately trimmed garments, stockings and slippers are carefully wrapped in oil paper and stowed away. At times some of the white garments have become yellow with age. Silk wedding gowns, if they lie in folds, are very apt to go to pieces, and for this reasons such gowns are placed in bags and hung up on the wall. On rainy Sunday afternoons many a housewife on the Pennsylvania German farms spends an hour or so looking through her death drawer to see that nothing has been left uprovided for. If she attends a funeral and sees something new in the shape of a collar, piece of lace, handkerchief, eiderdown blanket, embroidery or anything else that may strike her fancy, she’ll buy it on her first visit to town and put it in her death drawer. Where a young wife is especially fond of a certain perfume she’ll buy a small bottle the contents of which will be used when she is buried.

The old folks will frequently make out a list of small articles they want placed in their coffin, such an old prayer-book, or Testament, spectacles or a thimble. One most unusual request was that a plate, cup and saucer, knife, fork and spoon should be placed in an old woman’s coffin. She had used them for 70 years, and did not wish anyone else to use them when she was gone.

This, like all other requests found in the death drawers, was faithfully carried out. Some old people invariably direct that their old house dog shall be shot and buried after the funeral. It is nothing unusual to find a written request that a certain person shall sing a special solo at the funeral, either at the grave or during the taking of the final leave of the remains. Some request that their face shall be well covered before the coffin lid is screwed on for the last time. Others do not want this.

The death drawers are always kept locked, but the family knows where the key is kept. Each drawer is regarded as sacred, and no one save the owner, for any consideration, would venture to open it. The men folks occasionally have death repositories, but they are not so careful as the women are. The old men have their wills and final instructions very carefully written out, so that no mistake can be made.

The Sun [New York, NY] 18 February 1900: p. 27

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This notion, seen as a trifle eccentric by the writer, quite appeals to Mrs Daffodil’s housekeeper’s heart, with its love of order and organisation. Mrs Daffodil also believes in the practice of contemplating death, as the great Stoic philosophers would have us do, although she confesses that the subject of her meditations is usually some malefactor in need of removal.

While the notion that ladies include burial clothes with their trousseaux because of the ever-present danger of dying in childbirth is a common one, actual primary-source evidence for that practice has been wanting. One hears a rumour here, a whisper there, but this is the first really extensive discussion on the subject that Mrs Daffodil has seen, albeit in an ethnic context. It will be quite a coup for Mrs Daffodil when she posts the article to that funereal person, Chris Woodyard, over at Haunted Ohio, who has written a book on the subject of Victorian mourning customs and oddities and is always crowing about her discoveries. See the “Mourning” categories here and at the Haunted Ohio blog for more on sombre topics such as shroud making, coffin threats, and funerary excess. It is a subject both of us return to with pleasure.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.



7 thoughts on “The Death Drawer: 1900

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