Coffins, shrouds and bones

Early medieval Europe was thickly forested, but by the late Middle Ages, even Sherwood Forest and the Black Forest had thinned and dwindled. As iron became the primary building material, more and more wood was devoted to charcoal production for refineries. Eventually, the discovery of coal rescued Europe’s forests, but for a time, wood was hard to come by and very expensive.

This was a problem for Christian Europe because the burial tradition that grew around the Church generally involved wooden coffins. Bodies were washed and wrapped in linen shrouds, then carried to the grave in a wooden box. (More about funeral rites in next installment.) The wooden boxes may not have been single-purpose containers early on; early Europe stored most things in wooden chests that lined the walls of a hall or cottage. (Casket, the other name for a coffin, also meant a storage chest.) Especially for children, a household wooden chest was large enough. But while wood was plentiful, Europeans began making the recognizable oblong shape to fit tall men.

A few early Christian burials used such sturdy coffins that we have some samples of the cloth used as burial clothes. A Frankish princess managed to retain some scraps of her dress, while St. Cuthbert of Northumbria’s silk shroud was clearly made of imported Asian damask, quite rare in his time. The really wealthy might line their coffins with lead so that they became airtight.

But as the cost of wood skyrocketed and cemeteries filled up, the traditions had to change. Coffins could be rented just to take the shrouded body from the house or church to the grave. There, the body was placed in its resting place but the coffin went back to the rental service or church. This was just as well, since the cemeteries were quite full. Burials tended to rotate around the graveyard year by year, instead of being like modern burial plots that are purchased from a map and might be anywhere in long rows of headstones. Ordinary people didn’t use headstones. Just as well, since at regular intervals, the burials came back around to the same area of the graveyard. When diggers found bones, they stacked them up; the bones, either boxed or loose, went into the bone house, or charnel house. The ground could be reused.

When the plague hit, cemeteries were quickly overwhelmed. Lucky corpses had a priest who lived long enough to consecrate a field; unlucky ones were placed wherever the living could dig. Bodies stacked up overnight and were buried all day; excavations of plague burials show bodies stacked like lasagna noodles with layers of sand or dirt to level off. (If I recall correctly, even an observer of the time used this analogy to lasagna—-of course, he was writing in Italy!)

The wealthy and royalty had different customs, which we’ll get to. They expected to be preserved and remembered; the common people had to be content with returning to the dust from which they came.

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