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History Matters: Death takes a ride

“Yes, our church hearse is at your disposal, my dear, but remember, you must supply your own horse!”

The historical record suggests this scene must have played out multiple times over the years. A bereaved widow is questioning her minister regarding funeral arrangements for her recently deceased husband. As a church member in good standing, she is assured the use of the church’s communally owned funeral carriage to transport him to his final place of rest. But she also needs to be reminded that the horsepower necessary to get the job done is not the church’s responsibility.

That was true in almost all of our local churches “back in the day.”

The term “hearse,” cited here, is derived from the old English word “herse,” which originally referred to the ornate candlestand that was placed on the coffin of the deceased. It was not until the 17th century that the word would be expanded to denote a four-wheeled carriage used to transport the dead.

As we move into the 18th and 19th centuries, we find horse-drawn hearses often becoming quite elaborate affairs. As a general rule they were fully enclosed with oval or large rectangular viewing windows on oth sides.

Lavishly tasseled curtains often hung from them. Elaborate lanterns might be located on either side of a somber coachman. This usually (but not always) black vehicle was pulled by one or sometimes two horses depending on its weight and the type of terrain to be traversed. Horses chosen for the job were preferably dark in color to honor the occasion but sometimes families used whatever color horse they had available. When not in use, the carriage was typically secured in a building located on church property.

Finding the remains of just such a vehicle and just such a building became the overriding mission for my gang of 40 or so budding archaeologists in the spring anthropology class of 2008. But that was not our original focus.

I was fortunate over a 17-year period to have taught an East Lyme High School anthropology elective that featured a six-week archaeological investigation to be conducted in the local community. Working in Old Lyme, Waterford and mostly East Lyme, I believe we contributed a great deal to the historical record.

This particular dig was at the request of the East Lyme historic community with the investigation and interpretation of what remained of an old stone foundation located adjacent to the Old Stone Church Burial Ground. This unmortared stone feature measured 18 by 12 feet. It was rectangular and open on the south side.

Now, some townspeople over the years thought this had been just a farmer’s outbuilding as there had once been a farm on the property. Others thought it had to have something to do with the cemetery, perhaps a place to store grave-digging tools and other burial supplies. Still others stood by their claim that it was the foundation of a building that had earlier served as a “charnel” or winter storage place for dead bodies, bodiesthat could not be buried until the spring thaw.

Several discoveries we made during our investigation would reveal what the building was most likely used for.

At a depth of approximately 50 inches, significant artifacts began to make their appearance. Leather pieces of riveted harness, three horse bits, multiple horseshoes, wagon wheel rims, several large hitching buckles, iron pieces thought to be from the body of an old sleigh or wagon, sheet-cut 1800s nails, three rusted iron steps for ascending a horse-drawn vehicle, several brass finials, a large barn door hinge with corresponding pintle and a Suffolk style latch. The latch and the sheet cut nails were clear date markers.

In fact, all artifacts found had a 19th century pedigree and tended to suggest a transportation theme.

There had been no windows in this building as no glass shards were ever recovered. (If a building had windows and stood for any length of time, we have found over the years that it most assuredly would have left broken glass.)

This building had been fully enclosed, we concluded, with a large wooden door, or doors, opening to the south. By removing some leaves near the building, we further detected what remained of an old cart path which led from the entrance, around and outside the existing cemetery wall, and up the hill to where the Old Stone (Congregational) Church and parsonage once stood.

What did this all mean? It was time to examine any primary church documents that might be available.

Bingo! East Lyme town historian Elizabeth Hall Kuchta found this entry in the old church records: “At a meeting on the 18th day of November, 1826 … voted that in the future it shall be the duty of the Society Commission when warning of Ecclesiastical meetings to post a notification on the hearse house in this society in addition to the notices usually given.”

What does that reveal? First it tells us that there was, in fact, a building on church grounds that once housed a communal hearse for its membership. Also revealed here was that the building in question must have been somewhat removed from the main church complex if it was thought necessary to post a separate notice there so that all members might be properly informed.

In addition, let’s remember that the dated artifacts uncovered at the dig site line up quite nicely with the date of that document.

I have very little doubt we found a hearse house and perhaps parts of an early 19th century horsedrawn hearse back in the spring of 2008.

We did work diligently on tracing those iron carriage steps we uncovered. Unfortunately,they lacked the coachmakers name (which they normally would have had), perhaps because they were so rusted and compromised from being buried all these years.

Further researching possible coach and hearse manufacturers, the Crane and Breed Hearse Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, was probably the most famous and soon drew great interest. (They were the first company to later commercially develop a gas powered “autohearse” in 1909.)

Although no direct link connecting our artifacts to that company was ever found, a very interesting advertising ploy they once used did surface. In an early 20th century advertising brochure, we found they had commissioned an imaginative poet by the name of F.F. Woodall to pen the following lines, allowing this iconic vehicle to speak on its own behalf.

“I am the hearse.

In the lexicon I stand alone.

In the world I stand aloof from all other transportation.

None hire me for pleasure, nor choose me for a ride,

Yet ne’er a one objects to taking his outing.

No passenger of mine hath ever damned the road or praised its smoothness.

I am the hearse. Death’s Taxicab, the Carriage of the Dead.

None rides with me but once!”

Jim Littlefield, a longtime retired history teacher at East Lyme High School, lives in Niantic.

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