The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 21, 2013

Long ago death (sometimes not) provided many modern terms

By John Blankenship

— Since England is a small country, the British began running out of places to bury people by the middle of the 19th century.

Consequently, finding new grave space in some old churchyard cemeteries became a major problem for Christian family members who wished to bury their relatives.

To solve that problem some kinfolk started digging up coffins and taking the ancestral bones to their homes so they could re-use the graves.

But when the grave diggers started opening some of the coffins and discovered scratch marks on the inside, they were chagrined — to say the least.

One out of every 25 coffins dug up was described as having some interior marks or scratches, according to old legends and folktales.

The discoveries raised questions in the minds of local officials. Were some unlucky stiffs being buried alive?

It appeared that way to many.

That’s when the English came up with a novel idea: They would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse (this was before embalming became a common practice) and lead the cable through the top of the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell.

That meant that someone, however, had to sit out in the graveyard all night to listen for the bell. That’s how the saying “graveyard shift” got coined, I reckon.

And get this: If the bell would ring (you probably guessed it), that person was “saved by the bell” or he was a “dead ringer.”

But wait. There’s more to tell.

It seems that patrons of the local pubs in Merry Ole England often drank their ale or whiskey from lead cups. The residual effects of the potentially lethal chemicals ingested by the alehouse guests can only be imagined, for there are few medical records available for study.

But it can be surmised that many of those who consumed alcoholic beverages from the tainted goblets probably wound up unconscious in the gutter.

And whenever these rowdy folk would fall by the roadside, while staggering home from the tavern, folks passing by in daylight might surmise that the inebriated victim was dead.

So they would pick the person up and take him to his home or the residence of a neighbor and get him ready for burial.

But they didn’t want to be too hasty about it. The person might suddenly wake up from his deathlike slumber. Then what?

Perhaps he wasn’t dead — well, not completely, anyway.

So they would lay the cadaver on the kitchen table for a couple of days — just to make sure the victim had indeed departed.

Family members, meanwhile, would gather around the corpse and eat and drink and wait to see if the deceased woke up.

That’s where the custom of holding “a wake” originated.

“Sitting up with the dead” actually became a popular pastime.

Neighbors and relatives would bring in their victuals, spread them out on the kitchen table, and folks would come around, if for no other purpose than to fill their stomachs.

Bringing food to the family of a deceased person is still in vogue today throughout most of Europe and America.

But the dining habits of the early Brits are interesting for other reasons.

Back in the day, folks residing in the English countryside normally had a big kettle that always hung over the fire.

Every day, the occupants of the house would light the fire and start adding things to the pot.

Mostly they ate vegetables. Meat was scarce. After all, folks were forbidden to poach the king’s deer in the forest.

Common folk mostly ate stew for dinner, leaving the leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day.

Sometimes the stew would have food in it that had been in there for a fortnight.

Thus the rhyme: “Peas porridge hot; Peas porridge cold, Peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

Sometimes, though, the man of the house would get hold of some pork.

Folks felt really special when that happened. And when company came over to visit, the hosts might hang a rack of meat in the parlor to show off.

It was a sign of wealth, indicating that the man of the house “could really bring home the bacon.”

The occupants might even cut off a few pieces to share with their guests.

Then everyone would just sit around and “chew the fat” until the bread got done.

And if bread wasn’t plentiful, “half a loaf was better than none.”


Top o’ the morning!  

— Blankenship is a reporter for The Register-Herald.