"Western funerals: black hearses, and black horses, and fast-fading flowers. Why should black be the colour of death? Why not the colours of a sunset?"
Daniele Varè, The Maker of Heavenly Trousers
Funeral group at unidentified location
Image © and courtesy of Rachel Thomson
I was sent this photograph of a funeral scene a couple of years ago by Rachel Thomson, who wrote:
I found it in my parents' estate and no one seems to know its origins. It's morbidly fascinating as it's of a child's funeral. It could quite well be taken in Scotland. What is interesting is the reflections of peoples faces in the glass hearse. I thought someone might have a theory of its origins.I did have a good look at the photograph at the time, and did some research into horse-drawn hearses, but didn't come to any conclusions as to location, and didn't feel that I had anything useful to contribute. Then, I'm afraid the query was neglected under the usual pile in my Inbox.
The image chosen for the Sepia Saturday this week is of a quite different topic, in a generalised sense, but Alan chose to make a point of the contrasting action within. I think this photograph shows similar qualities, and it is easy to be drawn into the scene. It depicts what must be the funeral of a young child, the funeral party arranged for the photographer around a horse-drawn hearse, which is itself parked in front of a long, single-storey building.
Detail of funeral group: the central characters
The "morbidly fascinating" aspect of the image centres around the tiny open white coffin, held by two young men at a slightly alarming angle, obviously so that the well-draped deceased baby would be in full view of the camera lens. This group of five each hold a silver candlestick. I'm not familiar enough with funeral rites and accoutrements to know whether these are characteristic of any particular denomination. I found this account of Scottish Burial Customs, but it makes no mention of candlesticks.
Detail of funeral group: the grieving parents
On the left of this central group are a couple who I suspect are the parents of the deceased child. Their eyes are turned downwards, but perhaps they are primarily concerned with how their older child, shown below, is managing with her candlestick. The woman's hair and clothing style, including the wide lace collar, lead me to tentatively suggest a date of perhaps the late 1870s or early to mid-1880s.
Detail of funeral group: the big sister
The child dressed in white, with a frilly bonnet and her mouth partly hidden by a ribbon or flower posie, is perhaps two to three years old and could easily be an older sibling of the dead child. She looks cautiously at the photographer.
Detail of funeral group: the coffin bearers
The two young men holding the child's coffin - actually only one of them seems to have a good grip on it - could be uncles of the deceased. They are both holding candlesticks and while one faces directly into the camera lens, the other is more intent on something off to the left - perhaps the the child's mother is his sister. Be
Detail of funeral group: the supporting cast
To the right there is a large group of young men, two or three of who are holding candlesticks and are holding up the decorated coffin lid, and one young woman. The latter's face is partly hidden in this image, but her dress is visible in the larger image above. All face the photographer except for one on the left who looks down at the lid.
Detail of funeral group: faces through the glass
Just visible through the glass of the hearse - and therefore probably standing behind it - are the ghostly faces of at least four, possibly five, women, and potentially another man. In light of the Scottish custom of the burial at the cemetery only being attennded by the menfolk, mentioned in the previous reference, it's interesting to note that most of the men are off to the right, and the women behind the hearse.
Detail of funeral group: the undertaker and his horse
The undertaker in his spotless coat and top hat, and the horses with their shiny polished bridle and harness, are off to the right. Yes, there are two horses, although one is pretty well hidden - look at the shadows. The undertaker, no doubt doubling as driver of the hearse, has his hands behind his back, and is probably holding the reins to keep the horses still. Leaning against the wall at the left is a dustpan with a handle, which may or may not have something to do with the horses.
Detail of funeral group: Finial on hearse
I found images of several horse-drawn hearses of a similar shape to the one in the photograph, but one feature renders it a little unusual. The hearse appears to be of a design that was more or less standard during the latter half of the 19th Century, but I've not been able to find anything similar to the five carved finials attached to its roof. Finials were not always used, but when they were present they were usually turned, and thus with a circular-section, or carved into shapes resembling drapery, rather than this square-section form.
The building itself is constructed from roughly shaped and dressed stone, with a slate roof bordered at the left with lead flashing, and topped by two stone chimneys, each with two pottery chimney pipes. The three visible glazed windows each have substantial wooden shutters on iron hinges, suggesting to me that the location may be a coastal one which commonly experiences adverse weather conditions. There is an open doorway behind the hearse, only just visible over the top of it.
My commentary is therefore long on observation, and rather short on both interpretation and conclusion. I'd welcome further contributions from readers, please, because I'm a little bereft of ideas to progress the investigation at the moment. Perhaps you have a different reading of the way people are standing and interacting with each other? Please leave your comments below, and then head over to Sepia Saturday 91 to enjoy the other interpretations of this week's theme.