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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 5. Smelling Death: An Olfactory Account of Popular English Funeral Customs, c.1850-1920

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43877


Historians to date have sought to understand the visual, tactile, auditory and taste dimensions of historic funerary customs, and how these would have facilitated the social, emotional, and spiritual process of dying. However previous research has largely overlooked the role of smell in this connection. This chapter will therefore highlight and explore the olfactory dimensions of popular funerary customs in England, c.1850-1920. Employing contemporary antiquarian sources, and with reference to the anthropological, psychological and neurobiological literatures concerning the relationships between the sense of smell, emotion and religiosity, customs including the consumption of ‘funeral biscuits’ flavoured with caraway seeds (the sweet, woody smell of which reminded at least one commentator of a day-old corpse lain in its coffin) will be discussed. Even amongst the very poorest - and the normally teetotal - these biscuits were generally accompanied by port or ‘burnt wine’, which added alcohol, herb, and spice fumes to the distinctive olfactory admixture of a typical Victorian working-class funeral. At a time when the newly dead were normally lain out at home in an open coffin to allow for viewing, and before arterial embalming became commonplace, mitigating the malodour of decay assumed importance. While the saucerful of salt customarily placed upon the deceased’s chest symbolically warded off decomposition, absorbent bran and/or wooden shavings placed within the coffin would have played a more concrete role here. Similarly, the traditional custom of opening windows upon a death ‘to let the soul out’ would have played both a symbolic and very practical role in letting the dead go. Meanwhile the smell of the living, unwashed bodies of family, neighbours and friends pressed into small houses to view and ‘wake’ the deceased would also have been pervasive, mingling with freshly baked funeral cake and pipe smoke. Perhaps fortunately, sprigs of delicately scented ‘rosemary for remembrance’ might be provided upon entering the house. In connecting these antiquarian and other literatures, this chapter will illustrate how the olfactory aspects of religious and quasi-religious funerary customs constitute potent opportunities to make sense of the materiality-yet-immateriality of the dying and the dead, and indeed of death itself.

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