By Tim Lambert
In Tudor times life expectancy was short. Perhaps 25% of children died before they were 5 and as many as 40% died before the age of 16. If you lived to be an adult you would probably live to your 50s or early 60s. However, only a small minority lived to be over 65 and once you were 50 you were ‘old’. Even if you were young and fit you could be struck down by an outbreak of plague.
Since life was insecure and death was never very far away religion was important for most people and they were keen to have a ‘good death’. Before the Reformation, in the 16th century, most people believed that if you were very good you went to Heaven and if you were very wicked you went to Hell. However, most people went to a place of suffering called Purgatory to be purged of their sins before they could enter Heaven.
People were anxious to reduce the amount of time they spent in Purgatory so it was important to confess your sins before you died. People also believed that living people could help the dead by praying for them. If the living prayed for you after your death it reduced the amount of time you spent in Purgatory.
Rich people often left money in their wills to pay a priest to pray for their souls. However, Protestants denied that Purgatory existed. Yet the belief continued and people were afraid of an unexpected death before they could confess their sins.
Furthermore, in the 16th century, many people believed in ghosts. They believed that people who committed suicide were likely to return as ghosts. For this reason, people who killed themselves were very often buried by a crossroads with a stake through their hearts. (That was believed to prevent their ghost ‘walking’). This practice continued until the early 19th century.
When a person lay dying it was the relative’s duty to summon a priest. Before the Reformation, the priest would hear a confession from the dying person and then administer the sacrament of extreme unction. (He anointed the dying person with oil and asked God to forgive their sins). Extreme unction was abolished in 1552 but a priest would still visit the dying, give them communion (the bread and wine) and urge them to repent of their sins. As the person died a bell was rung in the parish church to mark their death.
After death the body was placed in a shroud with sweet-smelling herbs or flowers. (It usually stayed in the family home until the funeral). A common superstition in Tudor Times was sin eating. You passed bread and beer over a dead body to a hired sin-eater. It was believed that when he ate and drank he took the dead person’s sins on himself.
However only the well-off could afford a coffin. Poor people were usually carried to the church in a coffin but they were buried in their shrouds. Only the rich could afford gravestones.
At the time of the funeral, the church bell would ring again. Then as now, mourners wore black and after the funeral, they shared a meal.