Early Burial Customs In Tennessee


By Nell Morisette
Camden, Tenn.

W.E. Bivens Coffin Receipt
This receipt for a coffin dated Oct. 17, 1890, for $3.00 is from
W.E. Bivens (Elijah), owner of Bivens Funeral Home at that time.

Hello Tribune readers! This weather makes one want to go fishing, or plant a garden. Oh, but March isn't over yet.

The same cousin that asked me about he Halls Valley Community asked me could I tell her anything about early burials. Doris aren't you glad I am a little order than you?

In most every community at least one family had a big bell mounted outside the house. This bell was used mainly to ring for the workers to come in from the fields for the noon meal. It also had other uses. For example, if anyone in the neighborhood got sick, had an accident, or died, the bell would be rung and people would gather to see where they were needed and what was wrong.

Back then without todayís modern conveniences, people had to make do with what was available, and in many cases, had to take care of burials themselves. For example, in the case of a death, a forked stick was fastened inside the personís mouth in such a way as to keep the mouth closed. Coins were p;laced on the eyelids to close them and keep them closed. The corpse was washed and dressed and laid in a wooden box lined with domestic fabric. A body would not be kept out long, especially in the summer.

Some methods I was told of to keep preserve the body were filling it with charcoal, removing the internal organs, soaking it in alcohol, or wrapping alum-soaked clothes around the body. People were so afraid of being buried alive that some requested their wrists be cut before burial to make sure they were dead. As one can see there were many customs used.

Neighbors sat up in the home with the family until the time of burial. The woman would cook while the men would care for the farm animals and other chores. The men would gather at the burial place and hand dig the grave six feet deep.

In those days burial was on farm sites. Graves were usually unmarked, except with a sandstone rock or a tree planted at the head and foot, the most popular tree being cedar. Later on the funeral was most often held in the church. The body was carried to the burying place on wooden sleds pulled by mules or horses, or by wagon. There was no bier to hold the coffin; it was placed on the floor or on chairs arranged together.

The body was lowered in the grave by about four men on each side of the head and four on each side of the foot of the coffin. The coffin was placed on plow lines or strips of leather ropes, and the men would zigzag back and forth to work whatever they used out from under the box or coffin. Then by hand the grave was filled in.

Sometimes if a person died from a contagious disease, the graves were often covered with brick. One example of this is the graves of my great-great-grandparents Willie and Sarah Arnold. They were buried on their home place. This is how his deed reads: "My last will and testament. It is my desire that funeral and all other necessary expense be paid out of money I have on hand and my grave together with my wife be enclosed with a back wall and covered in with shingles, this day April 17, 1860." Both died within a few days of each other in 1860 of typhoid.

In later years manufactured caskets came on the market, these being in a diamond shape, and later were made in the present shape. Many merchandise stores handled them.

The history of one burial that has been handed down through the Pafford family is that of John C. Warrick who was married to Mary Pafford. They lived in the fork of the roads between the old and new cemeteries at Flatwoods Methodist Church. He died in 1930 and his body was carried by the neighbors from his house to the church where the funeral was held, then on to the old section of the cemetery for burial.

This I remember: Our neighbor Ada Phifer, her son Charley, and her daughter Maude lived about one-half mile from us. Maude was never married. She had been sick several days and neighbors would take turns sitting with Ada and Charley. When Maude died my mother and aunt (who lived between us Bivens and Phifers) were over there. Mr. Carswell Holland, and undertaker for Bivens and Lindsey Funeral Home, came out. He asked Mother and my aunt to help get her ready. This was done on the kitchen table. Mr. Holland told them not to say a word and if either got sick, to walk out, which my aunt did. After the two women calmed down, they went back in and washed an dressed her. Mother told us that was her first and last experience with help of this kind. This was in 1948.

William Elijah Bivens was Camdenís first undertaker in 1880. Mr. Bivens was a skilled cabinet maker. His son H.E. Bivens (Hugh) was born in 1891 and later he and Finley Lindsey owned the funeral home going by the name Bivens and Lindsey Funeral Home. Lindsey sold hip part to Bivens and the name was changed to Camden Funeral Home. It was run by Hugh and his wife Mrs Ervie Bivens. After Mr. Bivens' death Mrs. Ervie ran it for a time, then sold it to Bobby Wofford.

On March 16, 1945, Raymer Stockdale, Holdon King, Penick Malin, and Terry Hale founded the Stockdale, King and Malin Funeral Home. In 1948 L.R. Stockdale bought into the business. Sometime after that it went as Stockdale-Malin. In 1973 W.T. Patterson and wife bought the Camden Funeral Home from Bobby Wofford. In 1994 they sold to the Lowen Group.

Oakdale Funeral Home was established October 15, 1993, at 401 Highway 641 N. by Larry Melton, Jimmy Medlin, Jim Nolen, Jimmy and Jerry Thorton, Kenny Madrey, and Keith Arnold. In 1997 Thomas Bivens bought into this funeral home. As of this writing, the owners are Thomas Bivens, Jimmy Medlin, Jimmy and Terry Thorton, and Kenny Madrey.

I would like to thank Billy Jean Allen for permission to reprint the picture of the old receipt.

Thought for the week: Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for his wisdom and might are His. And he changes the times and the seasons. Daniel 2:20-21

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