Prior to the funeral industry’s rise and its use of embalming, a practice that gained legitimacy during the War Between the States, the interior of a corpse was generally not accessible to prying eyes, hands, or medical equipment.
Instead, the deceased was prepared – laid out – and remained in the home until burial. This was a sacred, almost ritualistic, process. The body was washed as soon as possible after death with soap and water. Then it was dressed in its Sunday suit or dress and laid out for viewing.
While in a few instances the laying out was performed by family members, more typically it was done by neighbors who came to a home for the death watch. An old Scottish belief, still seen today in some of the more remote areas of Tennessee’s Unaka Mountains, holds that watching the corpse for 24 hours after death will prevent the body from being whisked away by agents of the devil.
Sometimes the laying out was performed on a bed. If the person did not die in bed, the corpse was often carried there. However, mattresses made it difficult to keep cold death or stiffening by mountaineers) set in.
The solution to this problem was to place a body on a cooling board (sometimes called a laying out board). This board, covered with a sheet, could be a door taken off hinges, a table, a board used for ironing, or indeed any piece of lumber that was handy, though many mountain families had a specific board for the purpose passed down generation to generation.
Original photo caption reads: Mountain people carrying a homemade coffin up creek bed to the family plot on the hillside where it will be buried. This section is too isolated to hold any formal funeral services immediately. Up South Fork of the Kentucky River near Jackson, Kentucky.
If the person died in the winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a grave, the cooling board could simply be placed in a protected place outdoors till spring. Otherwise the cooling board was placed in a parlor on two chairs or sawhorses, and the body stretched out straight. Depending on the person’s position at death (some die while sitting or sleeping curled up) it might have been necessary to break bones or soak parts of the body in warm water to get the corpse flat on the board so it would fit into a coffin.
Neighbors used a rope or sheet to tie the body to the board to keep it straight as well as to prevent it from suddenly jerking upright and scaring the living. Some families employed the Scottish process of saining: the oldest woman in the house lit a candle and waved it over the corpse three times. Then she took three handfuls of salt, placed it in a wooden bowl, and put the bowl on the corpse’s chest. This process was supposed to prevent the body from rising up unexpectedly.
When the corpse was placed on the bed or cooling board, the arms were folded across the chest and the legs brought together and tied near the feet. A rope or handkerchief was tied under the chin and over the head to keep the mouth from opening. Another towel soaked in a strong soda solution took care of discoloration. Some families placed a bowl mixed with salt and ashes underneath the cooling board to absorb disease. Others placed cedar chips or spices around the body to help ward off unpleasant odors.
Some people died with their eyes fully or partially open. If they were left open and rigor mortis set in, they couldn’t be closed. Therefore mountaineers placed weights on the eyes to close them and give the impression that the deceased was sleeping peacefully. Have you heard the phrase “he’d steal money from a dead man’s eyes”? Coins were often used to close eyes, and since they were valuable, there were indeed dishonest community members who would do that very thing. The saying is still heard in the mountains today.
Sources: Death and Dying in Central Appalachia: Changing Attitudes and Practices by James K. Crissman, Univ of Illinois Press, 1994
Demon in the Woods: Tall tales and true from East Tennessee by Charles Edwin Price, Overmountain Press, 1992