ONE IN A THOUSAND
How Mrs. Stum Arranged the Details of the Funeral.
If all women were as cool and matter-of-fact as Mrs. Stum! But she is one in a thousand. She was over at Mrs. Moody’s, on Macombe street, the other day, her iron-gray hair combed down flat and her spectacles adjusted to gossip range, when she suddenly arose and said:
“Mrs. Moody, be calm. Where do you keep the camphor bottle?”
“Why?” asked the surprised Mrs. Moody.
“Because they are bringing your husband through the gate on a board! I think he’s smashed dead, but be calm about it! I’ll stay right here and see to things!”
Mrs. Moody threw up her arms and fell down in a dead faint, and Mrs. Stum opened the door as the men laid the body on the porch.
“Is he dead?” she asked in an even tone.
“I think so,” answered one of the men; “the doctor’ll be here in a minute.”
The doctor came up, looked at the victim and said life had fled, adding:
“His back and four or five of his ribs are broken.”
“That’s sensible, that is,” said Mrs. Stum, gazing at the doctor in admiration. “Some physicians would have said that his vertebrae was mortally wounded, and would have gone on to talk about the ‘larynx,’ the ‘arteries,’ the ‘optic nerves,’ and the ‘diagnosis.’ If he’s dead it’ll be some satisfaction to know what he died of. Well, lug in the body and send a boy after an undertaker.”
The men carried the body through to a bed-room, and Mrs. Stum went back to Mrs. Moody, who was revived and was wailing and lamenting.
“Don’t, Julia—don’t take on so,” continued Mrs. Stum. “Of course you feel badly, and this interferes with taking up carpets and cleaning the house, but it’s pleasant weather for a funeral, and I think the corpse will look as natural as life.”
“Oh! My poor, poor husband,” wailed Mrs. Moody.
“He was a good husband, I’ll swear to that,” continued Mrs. Stum; “but he was dreadfully careless to let a house fall on him. Be calm, Mrs. Moody! I’ve sent for one of the best undertakers in Detroit, and you’ll be surprised at the way he’ll fix up the deceased.”
When the undertaker came in Mrs. Stum shook hands and said that death was sure to overtake every living thing sooner or later. She mentioned the kind of coffin she wanted, stated the number of hacks, the hour for the funeral, and held the end of the tape-line while he measured the body.
Several other neighbors came in, and she ordered them around and soon had everything working smoothly. The widow was sent to her room to weep out her grief, doors and windows were opened, and as Mrs. Stum built up a good baking fire, she said:
“Now, then, we want pie and cake and sauce and raised biscuit and floating islands. He’ll have watchers, and the watchers must have plenty to eat.”
When the baking had been finished the coffin and undertaker arrived, and the body was placed in its receptacle. Mrs. Stum agreed with the undertaker that the face wore a natural expression, and when he was going away she said:
“Be around on time. Don’t put in any second-class hacks, and don’t have any hitch in the proceedings at the grave!”
From that hour until two o’clock of the second day thereafter she had full charge. The widow was provided with a black bonnet, a crape shawl, etc., the watchers found plenty to eat, a minister was sent for, eighteen chairs were brought from the neighbors and everything moved along like clock-work.
“You must bear up,” she kept saying to the widow. “House cleaning must be done, that back yard must be raked off, and the pen stock must be drawed out, and you haven’t time to sit down and grieve. His life was insured, and we’ll go down next week and select some lovely mourning goods.”
Everybody who attended said they never saw a funeral pass off so smoothly, and when the hack had landed the widow and Mrs. Stum at her door again, Mrs. Stum asked:
“Now, didn’t you really enjoy the ride, after all?”
And the widow said she wouldn’t have believed that she could have stood it so well.
– Detroit Free Press.
Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 4 May 1875: p. 7
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil hopes that, should she ever find herself in a similarly worrying situation, she would be as resourceful as Mrs Stum, (the name means “silent,” in the Germanic tongue) if not quite so painfully candid.
There were, in point of fact, a thousand-and-one little duties to consider when organising a funeral; Mrs Stum’s quiet efficiency touches on several of them: providing the widow with black clothing without her having to leave the house; opening doors and windows, presumably under the “superstitious” belief that it would aid the the dear departed in departing; baking plenty of food for the “watchers,” who would sit up all night to ensure that the dead were not left alone—such vigils were thirsty (and hungry) work. The “hacks” ordered were the carriages to carry the family and friends to the grave and a successful funeral was often judged by the number of carriages following the hearse to the grave.
Mrs Daffodil has previously written of “fiends for a funeral,” who relished the rare treat of a carriage ride to the cemetery, while that funereal person over at Haunted Ohio has appropriated the same title for a post about individuals with a peculiar taste for attending the funerals of total strangers. Undertakers ultimately had to resort to special cards and tickets of invitation to keep away the interlopers. One feels instinctively that Mrs Stum would have instantly spotted these funeral fanciers and turned them out of the cemetery.
For more on Victorian mourning customs in a (mostly) more sombre vein, see The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard.
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.