"There is a reaper whose name
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."