At Death’s Door

Our mailbox today has an interesting comment from Jackie:

“Can you tell me what they call the window/door that was used to move the dead body from the home? I have heard it called “death’s door” hence the expression of one being at death’s door. There is some superstition about moving the dead through the front door.”


I am aware of some superstitions surrounding the removal of a body from the home. The deceased was always taken out feet first in the coffin so that the dead could not look back at its home and the spirit remain inside the house.  Many houses of the mid-to-late Victorian period have a special niche called a “coffin corner” cut into the stairwell so that the coffin could make the turn in the flight of stairs by fitting the head of the coffin into this little niche shelf.  Some old homes also have a showcase window in the front of the house, a sort of bay window where the deceased could lie in state for people to pass by on the street and pay their respects.

The expression “at death’s door” is applied to someone so ill as to be at the very brink of death. In funeral statuary in cemeteries, a door is often used as the symbol for passing through the portal from Life to another state.  Arches, windows, and portals carry the same meaning.  Sometimes in remote rural homes, a door was used to lay the body upon when carrying it downstairs (as most died in upstairs bedrooms).  Boards made of wide planks of wood or caned surfaces were used as “cooling boards” to lay out the body during autopsy or embalming before placing the deceased in a casket or coffin. Please write and tell us if you have more information on this expression!

The custom of Maidens’ Garlands

In the mailbox today we received a query about Maidens’ Garlands- a custom which seems to have originated, or else was extremely popular in 19th century Great Britain.  When a maiden lady passed away, especially a very young, unmarried girl, it was a custom for young Funeral-Garland-Matlockladies of the parish to construct garlands which were solemnly carried before the casket by two maidens on the way to the cemetery.  These garlands were constructed of white paper, and after the cemetery service were hung in the church.  Also crowns of white living flowers were made which would be borne to the grave by maidens in flowing white dresses, generally processing in pairs.  Statuary in Oak Grove frequently makes use of the symbolism of a crown of rosebuds, lilies, and garland swags for the grave markers of maidens.


A Maiden’s Garland still hanging in a church in England


Holding Tombs

Long before the backhoe, the six-foot deep hole for the coffin had to be dug by hand with pickaxe and shovel.  In the nineteenth century, during the iron cold winters in New England, sometimes it was necessary to store the coffin until the January thaw or Spring when the frost was out of the ground.  There are several of these Egyptian Revival style holding tombs which were built into hills or mounds, each containing shelving on either side of the interior to hold 6-8 coffins.  Today this particular tomb houses lawn mowing equipment.  This holding tomb, which is at the west side of the cemetery near the main entrance, housed the two coffins of Abby and Andrew Borden for a week while city medical examiner, Dr. Dolan, arranged for a complete autopsy on the bodies to be held at Oak Grove in the Ladies Comfort Station.  It was there that the two skulls were removed and held for trial evidence on August 11, 1892.



n. pl. mau·so·le·ums or mau·so·le·a 1. A large stately tomb or a building housing such a tomb or several tombs. 
There are three mausolea built in the favored classical Grecian style at Oak Grove and one in a distinctly Gothic Revival mode. 
 The Turner Mausoleum can be found near the main entry , slightly to the center behind the Civil War obelisk and cannon memorial.
(west facade)
Typical triangular pediment (south facade)
 The Sears and Charlton Mausolea are quite close together in the south end.
 Earle Perry Charlton became a Vice President of Woolworth’s dimestore chain, a position he held until his death in 1930.  Charlton Hospital, just down the street from Oak Grove is named in his honor.  Mr. Charlton was a great  philanthropist and benefactor to the city.
 The Gothic Revival Mausoleum

Symbolism in Stone


Oak Grove is a non-denominational city cemetery. The majority of burials here could be classified as Protestant-affiliated. Saint Patrick’s cemetery in the north end of the city as well as several Roman Catholic church cemeteries within the city contain the remains of most of the city’s Catholic population. So it is not surprising that saints, angels and crosses are very few within the walls of Oak Grove. Tablet-shaped stones and obelisks are the favored shapes to be found, even among the stones from the 1855-1900.


The only figural madonna at Oak Grove

Granite, marble and the very durable metallic monuments compose the majority of markers. The great beauty of Oak Grove lies in the landscaping of the grounds and the intricate carvings and symbolism on many of the older stones. Although there are sections of contemporary, fairly nondescript markers in the northeast end, the great majority of grave markers in this cemetery are from the golden age of monument carving when hand tools were used and artistry and pride of workmanship were the key elements of the craft. The Fall River area was famous for granite, especially pink granite, and this ready resource is much-evident in use.  The slide presentation above contains many of the symbols associated with fraternal orders and particular Victorian sentiments and virtues.

Anchor- Steadfastness, Hope, a maritime career

Bellflower-Constancy and gratitude

Calla lily- Majesty, Beauty, Marriage

Daisy- Innocence, grave of young child, the “day’s eye”

Fern- Frankness, Humility, Sincerity

Laurel (wreath) Victory, Immortality, Eternity

Lily of the Valley- Innocence, Purity, one of the first Spring flowers

Lyre- References a harp, heaven, angelic music, occasionally used on the grave of a poet.

Madonna Lily- Purity

Rose- Univeral symbol of Love, queen of flowers, used most often on graves of women

Wheat or wheat sheaf- Long life, the reaping of years, productive and abundant

Oak leaves- Strength, Endurance, Faith and Virtue

Open Book- Book of Life, List of St. Peter, life of the deceased as an open book, a pure  life

Tree or log stones- These could be ordered from Sears and Roebuck catalogue, and were used for the Woodsmen fraternity as well as carpenters, builders, lumbermen, or to suggest by their height as short life cut off in its prime, head of the family, and occasionally contains a nest with birds suggesting children of the deceased.

Dove- Most popular animal seen in cemeteries, symbolizes Peace, Holy Spirit

Hands Clasping- An earthly farewell, a heavenly welcome or matrimony

Curtain, Drapery, Veil- Passing from one existence to another, an ending

Hourglass- Fleeting Time, Tempus Fugit, inevitability of earthly Death

Door, arch, gateway- Passing from one existence to the next

Ship- Seafaring life, a journey, or symbol for the Chirch universal with the mast as the cross

Torch-  Upside down position has the meaning of extinguished life.

Pine Tree- Evergreen, Eternal

Coffins and Caskets

Although these two words are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between a coffin and a casket.  A proper coffin is wider at the shoulder and tapers toward the feet.  This was felt to be a prudent saving of costly wood as there was no need for width all the way to the bottom.  This style is still to be found in Europe today. Coffins were sometimes very simple pine boxes, unlined and unadorned. Fancier models were lined, had a coffin plate of brass or silver with the deceased’s name and dates and sometimes a sentiment such as “Our Darling” or “Beloved Wife”, and had three metal handles on each side for the six pallbearers to grasp on the way to the grave. Graves were sometimes lined with fir branches, and after the coffin was lowered, bricked over to discourage graverobbers or other disturbance.  It was not unusual for cabinet or furniture makers to do a brisk side trade in coffin making.


Lizzie Borden’s father, Andrew J. Borden, was a carpenter by training before branching out into farming and real estate, and although not a mortician, he did build coffins and was an “undertaker” in the sense of providing items needed for a funeral such as chairs, coffin stands, conveyance to the grave, and other incidentals. A newspaper article tells of Mr. Borden displaying a prominent Civil War casualty in the arcade window complete with bunting in the storefront  of the furniture business he owned with partner William Almy, so as more citizens could view the body and pay their repects in a time before the rise of the conventional funeral “parlor”. 

theophilus_blake_coffin_plate.jpg coffin plate

Embalming became a necessity in transporting Civil War dead from a distance back home again, but before those times, the dead were usually quickly buried and not embalmed.  For this reason, in their haste, errors were made and those in comas or showing signs of death were mistakenly buried alive.  Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story of this unsettling possibility in his 1850 story, The Premature Burial.  Many patented safety coffins were invented to prevent this by means of a bell rope tied to the hand of the buried person which would communicate with the living by means of a bell above the ground.  Sometimes a flag could be raised, or even explosives ignited by the unfortunate Undead.

Exhumations over the years have proven that premature burial did indeed take place, however the expressions “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” do NOT come from this situation. “Saved by the bell” has its origins in the boxing ring, and “dead ringer” refers to substituting a look-alike for the genuine.


A casket originally referred to a small chest for storing and carrying jewels or precious objects.  A casket is a rectangular container of the same width from top to bottom.  It is generally padded and lined, and goes into the ground after the grave has been lined with a vault. Today cemeteries still use concrete vaults or the new resin “grave liners” which also have sealed lids. Caskets usually open at the top so the head and shoulders of the deceased may be viewed at the wake, and have the customary three handles on each side for pallbearers.

For more information on Victorian safety coffins, click on the following link for an excellent article