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The tradition of sitting up with the dead

POSTED: November 15, 2007 5:00 a.m.

Customs related to the passing of our loved ones have changed over the years. One such custom was the “sitting up” of loved ones and friends in the home of the deceased with the body until burial. Some cultures still keep a family member with the body of the deceased until burial as is their custom.

The night after death when the body had been prepared and displayed was accompanied with many people visiting and some staying all night. They consumed lots of coffee and snacks throughout the night. A member of the family usually took turns with the sitters in keeping the vigil known as a “wake” so that the deceased was never left unattended.  A large breakfast was served and later a meal before or after the funeral was prepared and served by the community members.

During the Civil War embalming with chemicals as a way to preserve the body came into use. In our rural area, embalming was done occasionally at home when an undertaker was hired to come to perform the service. 

Sometimes bodies were embalmed by Sipple’s in Savannah or another Savannah funeral provided service.  

When someone died up until Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Thompson established The Leslie Thompson Funeral Home in July 1944, it was quite different.  The Thompson Funeral Home was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Strickland in July 1971 and operated in the Maple Street location in Springfield until he and his sons moved the operation to Highway 21. In 1999, they opened a second funeral home in Pooler.

In the early 1900s there were members in the community who “layed out” or prepared the body. They were taught as the generations before them. They would bathe and dress the body and use various techniques to prevent the leaking of bodily fluids. The body was often placed on a cooling board as shown in the photo or on an interior door taken down for this purpose. The cooling board had measurements to be able to size a coffin and its narrow unique shape facilitated clothing the corpse which was usually in the best clothing of the deceased. People in the neighborhood did custom coffin making or the coffins were purchased from Futrelle’s Store in Guyton or Mingledorff and Bird’s Store in Springfield. The body was buried as soon as possible, especially in the summer. Some who did “laying out” in the community included: Mrs. Fannie Wilson, Mrs. Gertrude R. Wilson, Mrs. Belle Tebeau, Miss Elice Reisser, Mrs. Annie H. Freyermuth and Mrs. Nollie Exley. Mr. Abner Exley was one who prepared male bodies. Mr. Bertie Dasher and Mr. Herbert Reisser made coffins for some of the black community.   

Once the body was prepared or embalmed, it was placed in a coffin which was a wooden box in the early years.

Certain ladies in the community, including Miss Elice Reisser, often lined these with cloth. Up until the mid to late1950s, it was the custom for the body to rest for viewing in the home of the deceased until the funeral. Rarely today is this done. The viewing is done at the funeral home or viewing as the body is “lying in state” with the coffin open in the church or chapel for a period of time ahead of the funeral. Some liverymen or men with an appropriate horse-drawn wagon or later vehicle often transported bodies to burial prior to hearses coming to our community.

Sometimes a firefighter might be taken on a fire truck to the funeral or likewise for vehicles of certain professions.  
Early European customs included the covering of mirrors or stopping of clocks which is seldom seen today. If loved ones were with the deceased, they often tied a handkerchief around the chin to close the mouth and closed the eyes. Some nationalities placed coins over the eyes. Death often is accompanied by the grieving survivors uttering cries, shrieks or loud moans but gives way later to quiet reverence. In times gone by, “wailers” were hired for the funeral service.

The funeral is usually a religious service for the bereaved to bring comfort and was held in the church or graveside or both until the more modern funeral homes began to offer chapel service. Thus people now have choices for services.  
The military offered special escorts and military tributes for fallen soldiers and still does now on a limited scale unless high ranking. It was common for the whole community to be involved in the death and funeral which due to a more mobile society is less true today. Early funerals used flowers which were grown at home where now florists offer elaborate tributes.

The funeral ceremony is for the public and family to pay respect to the deceased and comfort the survivors. The viewings, funeral and service provide consolation and healing for the bereaved. Full scale funeral homes offer a wide variety of services now including cremation, etc.

The Leslie Thompson Funeral Home was the first to offer full services for funerals in Effingham County.

In his early days, Mr. Thompson embalmed and placed the bodies back in the home of the deceased as was custom.

Later visitations or “wakes” as they were sometimes called moved into the funeral home. Mr. Thompson also served as the only ambulance in the area and offered transportation for serious accidents or illness to Effingham’s citizens.

Although not medically trained, unless his wife the nurse was in attendance, and strictly for transport, he was the forerunner of our modern EMS.

The fire calls came in to his home telephone which was always manned. He pulled the alarm for the siren to go off on the Springfield water tower to alert Springfield’s volunteer fire department. This service often seriously inconvenienced him and his staff when funerals were scheduled. He and Mrs. Thompson served our community well.  

One custom that we saw here in our area was the family staying at graveside while burial of the casket and sealing of the vault is completed.  This is not still done in a lot of areas and is left up to the family to choose to do so.

Effingham does have a few private crypts above ground, but has no mausoleums.

Where people are buried now is in designated cemeteries, regulated by government and private cemeteries must meet approval for use. Funeral service providers are also regulated and licensed to provide the various funeral services. The majority of Effingham burials are in the earth and families mark the grave with a purchased tombstone or funeral plate in perpetually kept cemeteries.  Early grave markers were wooden and many are lost to time, deterioration or fire.

There are now fees for most cemetery plots where in times gone by the church cemetery or family burial areas were free. Families kept the graves and cemetery areas cleaned and cared for in earlier days. Now committees, caretakers or owners of the private cemeteries handle most of the upkeep.  

It was also common courtesy for motorists to pull over for a funeral motorcade. In our area we still occasionally see this, but seldom. People attending visitation always wore their Sunday best clothing out of respect for the dead. The general state of dress of funeral visitors has declined somewhat over the years and has become more casual. People working late often drop in at the funeral home during visitation in their work clothing.  

The death of a loved one is inevitable, unless you die first.  The community we live in has always been known for great support. We have four funeral homes to serve our public now in this county: Small’s in Guyton, Riggs near Guyton, Southeast Death Care and Cremation Services on Walter Samuels Road in Rincon and Thomas C. Strickland and Sons serving Effingham County and Pooler. We are indeed lucky to now have trained to offer dignity and respect for our loved ones and personal service tailored to the needs of their clients.

Although we don’t always still “sit up” with the dead all night, we in Effingham County do show the survivors how we care through visitation, funeral attendance, floral and memorial tributes and providing food at the home or church of the deceased to feed the family that has gathered.

Thanks to Mr. Tommy Strickland, Mr. Dwayne Duff and all of the older members of the community who contributed to this story. 

This article was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society.  If you have comments, photos or stories to share contact her at 754-6681 or email: susanexley@historiceffinghamsociety.org

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