The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Passing On

By Max S. Thomas © 1990

Issue: April, 1990

A hundred years or so ago people who lived along the Blue Ridge never heard of the phrases "passing on" or "passing out" or "cashing in your chips." People just died. There were no undertakers or hospitals to make the word dying a more pleasant word.

When a person died, there was always somebody in the neighborhood to "lay out" the body. This consisted of washing the body, combing the hair, shaving if it was a man and clothing the body, usually in store-bought clothes.

If the family had a little money, a neighbor would haul a coffin from Floyd or Check [Floyd, County, Virginia], in a two-horse wagon. Perhaps the best coffin maker was Jose Custer who lived at Check. Johnson Poff sold Custer's coffins. The established shape of the coffin was six-sided, wide at the shoulders and smaller toward the head and foot. Good coffins were made of seasoned walnut or cherry wood. The top or lid was held in place with six knob-headed screws. Four or six shiny metal grips were screwed in on the sides. Another good coffin maker was Marion Hall, who lived near Pilot.

Since curved wood was needed for the sides, there were few good craftsmen. The lumber had to be sawed about half-way through a number of times and scalded with boiling water so that the sides could be bent. After the job was done the coffin needed to dry for about a month. You could not die and expect a relative to have a coffin made on demand, if you expected to have a fine coffin. Besides building and drying there were other delays. The surface had to be sanded, shellacked and varnished.

If the dead person had a poor family, there was usually a man in the neighborhood who could do the job in a day, if he did not have to start from scratch by using a pit saw to saw out the two foot boards. Uprights were used at the corners to nail the boards on. Sometimes the outside was painted white or brown or black, but more often the surface was covered with black muslin, using black carpet tacks.

If you wanted a Jose coffin the cost was about fifty dollars. The handles alone cost five dollars because they had to be ordered. The cheap coffins had no handles and were supported by two poles thrust underneath. The ends of the poles were lifted and carried to the wagon and then to the graveyard. The coffin was just a coffin, never called a casket. Neither was the wagon called a hearse. The burying place was always a graveyard, never a cemetery or place of eternal rest.

The gravesite was usually on a hill and the grave faced east, because on Resurrection Day Jesus is supposed to come from the east. The grave was six feet with a vault below of smaller dimensions so that it could be covered with planks resting on the dirt shoulders. Usually the coffin was placed inside a pine box. The graves were filled and tamped with dirt and mounded on top.

In older days a marker of crude slate or sandstone was placed at the head of the grave. Sometimes attempts were made to chisel the name and date. After railroads came about 1840, marble tombstones were placed at graves. Some graves had stones made of soapstone, which was soft enough for letters to be cut. Two changes came into being during the 1920's. Granite was being used and undertaking establishments became the vogue. Perhaps Mr. J.M. Tise was the first man to prepare the way for the modern undertaker in this area.

When a person died, there was usually a gathering of kin and neighbors, but the custom of a wake had not yet arrived. Waiting until the third day to be buried was a custom people followed. Probably few people knew why. Somebody might say, "W-e-l-l, Jesus was in the tomb three days." The truth is Jesus was entombed the day He was crucified, the eve of the Passover. A doctor or a herb nurse might say, "after a dead person is dead, he is dead all over after three days." Children cried in their sleep with nightmares of being buried alive. The adults were forever telling stories they had heard about people who were buried alive. This was bad for children to hear.

There is the story about the death of Andrew Jackson's father that may shed some light on the burying problem from about 1800 to 1850.

After the Battle of King's Mountain and the Cowpens during the Revolutionary War, settlers started moving into the mountain valleys of western Virginia and North Carolina. The Jackson family moved to North Carolina, the land of the Cherokees. Maybe fear of Indians in his early years explains Andy's cruelty to them later on in life.

We know that Jackson also hated the British, probably because of the shoe shining incident, when he was fourteen years old. Probably Jackson was about nine years old when his father died.

People lived far apart in western North Carolina, but most people had dinner bells. One type of ring meant Indians were raiding. Another kind of ring meant a family was in trouble and another ring meant someone was dead. Anyway through relays of bell-ringing, people soon came after Jackson's father died.

It was said that it was a week before the man was buried. A death was extra hard for grieving women who had to feed people for a week. Deer meat and corn pone disappeared rapidly along with blackberry and dried apple pies. Visiting horses and steers made a corn crib soon empty. Jackson's father had three hogsheads of hard fermented pomace.

The men buried their grief by going to the shed and taking hard pulls on reed suckers. The women just cooked. Some of the men were busy fashioning a crude pine box. Nobody was cremated for the only way for a Christian was burial. Anyway, the cider lasted a week. Perhaps this was what determined the long time before this particular burial.

On the day of the burial the box, and its contents, was loaded onto a cart. A wagon could not make the sharp turns in the woods or around boulders that a cart could. Two scrawny steers weighing about six hundred pounds were yoked to the cart. They barely had the strength to pull the cart up hills. When going down hill they could not hold the cart back and ended by running.

A fourteen year old boy was to drive the cart seven miles to a burial ground. The men, women and children went on ahead to have the grave ready. The boy got along pretty well, except he had to stop often to rest the steers, but he didn't mind for he brought along a little cider to keep him from freezing. He had a rough time at one place. The steers had run away down a steep hill and jumped a muddy spot at the bottom of the hill.

When the boy got to the graveyard, the people cried out, "Where is the coffin?" He looked behind him and saw there was no coffin. There was nothing to do but backtrack the cart. After three miles they came to the wet spot the steers had jumped. There was a little of the coffin visible. Evidently there was quicksand. It was too dangerous to get too close for they might also sink, the men thought. To tell the truth they could not think very well for their brains were a little fuzzy because of a week of cider drinking. One old man took off his coonskin cap and gazed at the sky and said, "Good Lord, let him be." All the others chorused in, "yes, let him be." Just then the coffin disappeared from sight. The old man was never buried. He was sunk.

A school teacher friend told me that when she was a little girl, her grandmother bought a coffin for herself and used it for a kitchen table for several years before she died.

Then, there is the story about a master coffin maker. It is said that he made over a hundred coffins in his lifetime. He made a coffin for himself that he called his super coffin. It was also said that a manager of a furniture factory at Pulaski or maybe it was Bassett heard of this super coffin and came to see the maker. The furniture man offered five hundred dollars for the super coffin. He said he wanted to knock the coffin down and use if for a pattern to mass produce coffins, but the old man said, "No", it was for himself.

When the old man died, the furniture man heard the news and made the same offer to the family. He offered to throw in one of his best factory coffins to boot. The family thought the offer over. One daughter said, "Pa was a good man and he deserves a nice boughten coffin - not an old homemade job." Soon they all agreed to sell. A man may will or propose in this world, but heirs dispose.