Funeral Traditions of the Elizabethan Era

Most of the dead were buried on church grounds in the Elizabethan era.
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Elizabeth I was not even three years old when her mother was killed by her father -- and she was to witness several more deaths during her lifetime. Death, in fact, whether from plague, enemies or poverty, was not an uncommon part of daily life in the Elizabethan era, which loosely spanned the years of the Queen's reign from 1558 to 1603. Funeral traditions during this time varied depending on the wealth and social stature of the deceased.

1 The Dead

It was customary in Elizabethan times to wrap the deceased in cloth -- a simple sheet if you were poor, and richer fabrics if you were wealthy. It is likely that flowers were placed on the bodies of young, unmarried women, and herbs on the bodies of married women and men. Flowers, however, were not used to decorate coffins, nor were they displayed at funeral services. A penny was sometimes placed in the deceased's mouth; this was meant to be given to St. Peter upon arriving at the gates of heaven.

2 The Mourners

Mourners dressed in black. The higher the socioeconomic status of the family, the more elaborate the outfits: Black dresses, pants, stockings, shirts, hats, shoes and even accessories such as pins, ribbons, ruffs and gloves were common. If the family was very wealthy, they would provide black cloth for those mourners who did not have any so that the mourners could fashion appropriate clothing. Sometimes, mourners also wore sprigs of rosemary pinned to their clothing, and a few even commissioned "mourning rings," which were often shaped like skulls, crosses, coffins or even skeletons.

3 The Procession

Not everyone who died during the Elizabethan era was important enough to receive special treatment, but if you did happen to be important enough, you were remembered with a parade of sorts: Funeral processions for the deceased wealthy enough to afford it featured servants carrying banners printed with the family's coat of arms in front of and behind the coffin. Sometimes church bells would ring as the coffin made its way to the graveyard.

4 The Burial

Instead of flowers, coffins were draped in black linen shaped in the form of a cross. Black cloth was also sometimes draped over the grave, and sometimes candles were placed near or around the grave. Graveyards were on church property, and as such, they were hallowed ground. People who committed suicide were not allowed to be buried on church property, and ordinary parishioners were buried without markers. Wealthier people could choose to purchase a headstone or be buried under the church floor, which was usually composed of flagstones. Many churches also had private burial vaults for the wealthy. Because the graveyards had limited space, old coffins were sometimes dug up and the bones placed in a separate building -- called a charnel house -- to make room for new graves.

5 The Feast

Elizabethan funerals were always followed by a feast, and it was the duty of the deceased -- his final alms, so to speak -- to ensure the feast was as lavish as could be afforded. If the deceased was wealthy, money was given to the poor in his name, and food and drink were distributed to the entire village. More typically, a feast consisted of cakes and drinks such as ale and claret.