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Pioneer Life in Zorra
Chapter XIII. A Funeral Among the Pioneers

"There is a reaper whose name is death,
And with his sickle keen,
He reaps the bearded grain at a breath,
And the flowers that grow between."

WHEN death invaded the home of the pioneer, every mark of respect was shown to the deceased. The body was washed and laid out on a long table or board, until the coffin could be made; then the windows were darkened, pictures turned to face the wall, a white sheet thrown over the cupboard, the clock stopped, the candles lighted, everyone stepped softly, and a solemn silence prevailed. Still, there was great restraint of feeling, little shedding of tears, and seldom would a sob be heard, though there was a good deal of sighing and subdued moaning. The coffin was always home-made by some carpenter, and was very plain, having no handles or ornament of any kind. Lamp black mixed with the white of eggs served to color the outside of it.

When the coffin was ready it was brought to the house of the dead, a white linen sheet was spread cornerwise over it; then the body, plainly dressed in a white shroud, was put in and the linen drawn over as a winding sheet.

The face was covered with a small piece of embroidered muslin, which was removed only when some one wished to view the corpse. The hands were crossed upon the breast, giving the idea of a person resting in sleep. A saucer two-thirds filled with salt, was placed on the breast, and a copper placed over each eye, which was supposed necessary to keep the eyes closed. The severest thing that could be said of any man was that he was mean enough to steal the coppers off a dead man's eyes.

After this, preparation was made for the "wake." The coffin containing the corpse was placed next the wall. A table stood in the middle of the room with the Bible and Psalter upon it. The chairs being few, boards or planks were utilized. If it was winter time, a large "back-log" was put into the fireplace, and sufficient wood brought in to last all night.

Towards evening, neighbors and friends, old and young, begin to assemble. A special messenger had gone from house to house in the afternoon, announcing the death, and it was regarded a matter of civility for at least some member of each family to attend the wake.

At first, there was but little conversation, and that little was carried on in an undertone, but, as the bread, biscuits, and cheese, went round, accompanied by whiskey, the company looked less solemn, and the conversation became decidedly more lively.

Here let us guard against doing injustice to the old pioneers. I have read of Irish and Scotch "wakes," where there was excessive drinking, and the usual accompaniments— unseemly anywhere, but especially so at a funeral. But I am bound to say that I never witnessed drunkenness at a Zorra "wake," nor have I met with any who ever did, Scenes of intemperance, alas! were only too common on mere social occasions, but the early settlers put a restraint upon themselves in presence of the dead.

A clergyman was not expected to be present, but there was no lack of men capable of conducting a religious service. In the earlier years of the settlement there were such men as John MacKay, Hector Ross, Alex. Rose, D. Urquhart, Alex. Wood, George MacKay, and Donald Macleod, who could always lead the people with acceptance in the various acts of worship, such as reading and expounding the scriptures, prayer, and praise.

Three or four times during the night, several verses of a Psalm would be sung, a chapter read, and a plain but practical talk given on some appropriate passage of scripture.

The intervals between worship were occupied with conversation, more or less edifying, frequently the latter. Some would draw useful lessons from the life of the deceased; but it must be admitted, the conversation chiefly turned upon the occult, such as apparitions, and ghosts, and death-signs of a terrifying nature.

Donald C. tells of the trials of the departed one, first in the old country where he knew him well, and his father and his grandfather before him"; and then his trials after coming to Zorra. "Och, och!" would perhaps be the conclusion, "it's often the black ox has trampled upon his toes. Poor fellow, there's na mair trouble for him noo."

From this the conversation naturally glided into a talk on the troubles of life. "The fact is," said an aged pioneer, "there is something in every life to embitter it. Here is a story I heard in Sutherlandshire:

"A wealthy laird was travelling through the Highlands when one day about noon he came where a large flock of sheep was feeding. The shepherd was sitting by the roadside preparing to eat his dinner. The following conversation ensued between the laird and the shepherd: 'Well, shepherd, you look happy and contented, and I expect you have very few cares to vex you. I am the owner of large properties, but I am not happy, and I look at such men as you are with a good deal of envy.'

"'Well sir,' replied the shepherd, 'I have not troubles like yours,. and I would be happy enough if it were not for that black ewe that you see yonder amongst my flock. I have often begged my master to kill or sell her; but he won't, though she is the plague of my life, for no sooner do I sit down to read my book, or eat my dinner, but away she sets off over the hills, and the rest follow her; so that I have many a weary step after them. There, you see, she's off, and they are all after her! I must go!'

"Ah, friend,' said the laird to the shepherd, before he started, 'I see every man has a black ewe in his flock to plague his life.'"

A common opinion among the Zorra pioneers was that the subject sanctified the conversation. Any conversation, however gossipy or scandalous, was regarded as proper enough if the subject of it was a religious person, place, or thing. If on the Sabbath you spoke of the beautiful fields around you, a prompt reply would perhaps be, "This is na day to be speaking anent sic things"; but if you spoke of the minister, the church, or the service, you might say about anything you please without incurring risk of reproof. Hence the following story related at the "wake":

A certain minister was reputed to be a man of great nerve. Nothing, it was said, could daunt him, not even a ghost. So some of the boys decided to test him. It was known that on a certain day he would be in a distant part of his congregation visiting, and would pass through the cemetery as he returned home late at night. The winds wailed among the tombstones, the moon cast weird beams of light and shadow, and the clouds rushing across the heavens, kept the shadows constantly flitting. It was just a night for ghosts to be abroad. So two of the boys wrapped themselves in the necessary white sheets, and kept moving with certain antique motions among the stones.

By and bye the minister, footsore and weary, came along. He espies the supposed ghosts, looked at them for a little while, then coolly inquired, "Is there going to be a general resurrection, or are there just a couple of you out for a gambol?"

Such narratives, it will be readily admitted, did not powerfully tend to impress upon the minds of those present, a profound sense of the solemnity of the occasion; but told with much gravity, and interspersed with devotional exercises, they left an impression of awe upon the minds of the younger and more timid of the company which, unto the end of life they will never be able entirely to shake off.

There is little doubt that the old, and now obsolete custom of sitting up and watching by the dead, has its origin in the belief (and who can deny its truth) that the dead is still with us. They have passed beyond our ken, but we are not beyond theirs. Do our departed loved ones take no interest in us? Have they nothing to do with those strange, subtle, inexplicable influences that sometimes come over us? If our eyes were opened, who knows but that we could see those who have gone from us, and yet have not gone from us?

"One family we dwell in Him,
One Church above, beneath,
Tho' now divided by the stream,
The narrow stream of death."

Gentle reader despise not these humble toilers of the forest. Theirs not rank, wealth, or learning; but they knew their Bible, and lived according to their light ; they cherished true love to God and a genuine sympathy for one another. In few things does their nobility of character shine forth more splendidly than in their tender, practical sympathy for one another in time of bereavement. The dead usually remained unburied for three days, and during this time the family was relieved of all care, not milking their own cows, feeding their cattle, or even cooking their own meals. All this was done for them by kind neighbors in turn. If severe sickness or death occurred in spring-time or harvest, I have known as many as a dozen neighbors arrange to help, and kindly give a day with the plow or the cradle, so that as little loss as possible might be experienced by those who had for a time, through the dispensation of Providence, been withdrawn from their work.

When the day of funeral came, there was in the morning a service of more than ordinary solemnity. A suitable portion of scripture was read; the twenty-third Psalm was sung; not unfrequently we sing the words of the fifty- third paraphrase:-

"Take comfort, Christians, when your friends
In Jesus fall asleep;
Their better being never ends
Why then dejected weep?

"Why unconsolable, as those
To whom no hope is given?
Death is the messenger of peace,
And calls the soul to heaven.

* * * *

"A few short years of evil past,
We reach the happy shore,
Where death-divided friends at last
Shall meet to part no more."

After solemn prayer the usual refreshments were passed around.

"The lifting" followed. The coffin containing the corpse was brought out, carried by the nearest friends, and placed on two chairs outside the door. Then the coffin was placed upon the bier and covered with the rnortecloth. This cloth was of black silk velvet, with a white silk border, and was the common property of the district.

When all was ready six men stepped forward, shouldered the bier, and started with their burden. Frequently they had four or five miles to go, mostly by a path through the woods, involving many a sharp turn, and much caution against tripping upon projecting roots or stones. The pall-bearers were of course relieved at short distances by others. Thus tenderly upon the shoulders of neighbors and relatives were many of the pioneers borne to their last resting place, in what is now known as the "old log church cemetery."

In later years, the coffin was carried in a lumber wagon. I can well remember when a spring carriage was an unknown luxury in Zorra; but those that had a team of horses and a wagon of any kind gathered for miles round at a funeral, and the solemn procession rattled over the rough roads, with eight or ten people in each wagon. Occasionally, a front team, for some reason, would suddenly stop, and the drivers behind would not notice till the tongue of perhaps each wagon in the long procession would strike the tailboard of the wagon in front, causing one loud blow ofter another, like the firing in succession in a line of infantry.

By and bye the spring democrat appeared. The first few of these did duty as hearses for a large number of years, as they were at the service of the people for miles around.

The coming of the age of wagons gave the death blow to the ghost epoch; probably, as it was thought, because the spooks did not like the rattle of the newfangled machine.

Before the advent of the wagon, the wise and graver men of the township were said to have often seen weird, uncanny lights moving solemnly along the road after nightfall, the sure precursor of a funeral. Some of these seers were even said to have been so gifted as to hear the words of the leader of the funeral cortege, as, with military precision, he halted and gave the order, "Relief!" They could, it was affirmed, even make out the figures of those bearing the coffin.

Many stories of this kind were related at the wakes we attended in early youth; and, after hearing them, we preferred to have company on the way home at three or four o'clock in the morning.

When the funeral procession reached the grave, and all was ready, the coffin was lowered by the nearest relatives. Then, for a minute or so, all heads were uncovered and bowed in silent prayer. After this, the filling in of the grave was done, not as now by the grave-digger, but by the company in turn.

The grave being filled in, and the last sod laid upon it, all took their departure, leaving their friend's body in God's acre, and in His keeping till the resurrection day. Then, as now, the burial was with the feet to the east, doubtless with reference to the direction from which our Lord is expected to come a second time. "As the lightning cometh out of the east and shineth unto the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be."

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