One of the fun parts of being a writer is having the opportunity to visit some very interesting places, which I was able to do when researching this week’s piece.
In my dad’s column from 6th March 1982, he mentioned that Easingwold Church still had a parish coffin. A parish coffin was used to convey a deceased person to their grave when they couldn’t afford to buy their own. The corpse would be buried, often in a communal plot, wrapped in a shroud (or winding sheet, as I mentioned in a few weeks ago). Dad suggested that the Easingwold coffin would likely be hundreds of years old, dating possibly from the 13th century.
He wrote this 40 years ago, so I wasn’t sure if the coffin was still there. By a happy coincidence I was due to be passing through the town, so I called the church and asked if they still had it, and whether it was possible to go and see it.
The very helpful chap on the other end of the phone readily agreed and we arranged to meet at Easingwold’s St John the Baptist and All Saints’ Church. We found the coffin hidden at the back among stacked chairs, noticeboards, tables and the like, and if you didn’t know of its existence, you probably wouldn’t even realise it was there.
We moved all the bits of furniture and heaved it out into the open. It was very plain, made of thin planks of dark oak with heavy iron ringed handles around the side. It was much longer than I expected, well over six feet, but surprisingly narrow. I didn’t think I would be able to comfortably lie in it, even though I’m of fairly average size (needless to say, I wasn’t tempted to try it out!). Of course, in previous centuries, if you were a pauper who could not afford a coffin, then you probably couldn’t afford much food either and therefore would not be in any danger of becoming too fat to fit in such a thing.
According to Dad’s piece, although many of these parish coffins had disappeared, there were a few churches in the North East that still had them, including one in Stockton-on-Tees, another in Howden, East Yorkshire, and also at St Oswald’s Church in Durham. Some parish coffins had hinged bottoms, and when they were placed over the grave, the base would open up and unceremoniously dump the unfortunate body into the waiting pit.
Being buried as a pauper was the ultimate humiliation, so many people would try to avoid it. As such, funeral guilds developed, where members would pay a small amount each week into a communal pot, and when the time came, the pot would fund the burial. These clubs died out towards the end of the 19th century as life insurance became more common, and yet a few lingered on into more modern times, including one at Egton Bridge in Eskdale, my parents’ home territory. In fact my Dad’s mum, Nana Walker, was a member of the Egton Bridge guild until her death in 2004. Our family didn’t need to call upon it for support as her late husband, my grandad, was fortuitously an agent of the Prudential Life Assurance Company Ltd. Her funeral expenses were therefore covered.
Today if someone dies in destitution or without any family to arrange a funeral, the local authority has a statutory duty to provide a coffin and engage a funeral director to transport them with dignity to either a crematorium or cemetery. Known as ‘public health funerals’, a simple service is held before the person is laid to rest.
On a slight tangent, I wonder if you have ever visited an ancient Catholic church, and found a strange oblique viewing hole in the outside wall that, if you look through it, gives a perfect view of the altar? This is known as a ‘squint’, or more formally, as a hagioscope, and was designed to allow severely diseased people, or those considered outcasts, to witness Holy Communion. It meant they were still able to take part in the mass without affecting the rest of the congregation.
You can still see these squints in some churches, including the Church of St Andrew in Grinton, near Reeth, St Oswald’s Church in Sowerby near Thirsk, Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate, York, and St Mary’s Church. Whitby.
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 4th and the Gazette & Herald on 2nd March 2022