At Feltwell, in the centre of the village and surrounded by houses, stands the Parish Church of St. Mary. The oldest part of the building is the Chancel, and, being of the Decorated Style of Architecture which prevailed about 1275 to 1375, we know that St. Marys is 600 years old or more; while around the Church people lie buried, not by the score, nor by the hundred, but by the thousand. To give some idea of the number of burials, the registers belonging to St. Mary's commence with the year 1562, and during the following 100 years, 681 people, were buried there; most of them in the Churchyard though some were inside the Church itself; the worst year being 1638 when 26 were buried. In looking back to ancient times we find that people were buried in fields, in caves and in places away from human habitation. Rachel was buried "in the way to Ephrath which is Bethlehem." Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried in the cave at Machpelah. The old Roman Law would not allow either burial or cremation within the city. As time went on Bishops and Martyrs began to be buried in the Cloisters of Churches, and then inside. Later on still, anyone could be buried in Cloister, Church or Chancel, according as their money or position could be turned to advantage. And it would be no exaggeration to say that bodies have been buried by the hundred inside Feltwell St. Mary's Church. The Moundeford family and the Clough family lie buried beneath the floor of the Church; many other people also lie buried there, of whose names a few only are known to us. And there can be little doubt that this wholesale burial inside Churches has been the cause of some of the disastrous plagues of past years.
In London, at the beginning of the 19th century, it occurred to some adventurous persons to start a private burial-ground as a speculation. It met with success, and by 1835 there were at least 14 burial-grounds in London, run by private individuals for the purpose of profit; lower fees than in Churchyards were charged and those who officiated were not clergymen but merely someone attired in a surplice; in one case a porter; in another case a shoemaker, at £20 a year. In one of these private burial-grounds, strange to say, people could be buried on lease in the vault beneath the Mortuary Chapel; a fee of £1 was paid for the coffin to be deposited there for a period of 6 months; after which no inquiries were to be made. In another private burial-ground, of moderate dimensions, many thousands of bodies were disposed of by using vast amounts of quick-lime or. by burning them; and the grave-stones were moved about from time to time, to give the appearance of space available for further burial. In 1852 an Act of Parliament was passed putting an end to these abuses of over-burial which were said to have been responsible for out-breaks of Typhus Fever and other terrible scourges.
A very old custom connected with burial still exists, especially in the country; it is the custom of looking into the grave after a funeral. It dates back to the time before coffins were used, when the mourners took one last look at the shrouded body. The general use of coffins came into being during Queen Anne's reign. The Book of Common Prayer directs that earth be cast upon the Body, not on the coffin, of which no mention is made; in fact objection was at first taken to coffins and Lord Stowell, a well-known judge of his day, pointed out that while every parishioner had a naked right of burial in his parish churchyard, it was by no means clear that he has any right to bury a big box as well. Another custom, more peculiar than important, which exists in country places, is the custom of informing the bees of a death in the family, otherwise they desert. Most people explain it as a superstition rather than a custom; but whatever explanation is given, the fact remains that it happens time and again. Some thirty years ago I buried a parishioner, a Mrs. Alcock, where I was rector; there were bees in the garden, and her husband, as he afterwards admitted, failed to tell them of her death or to drape the hives with mourning. After the funeral there were no bees; all had gone.
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