Death is an inevitable part of life, even if it hasn’t always been understood. Folks had very real fears of the restless dead and the death they could bring. Eventually they figured out which bodies were most likely to present a problem after death and developed special steps for dealing with those particular corpses. Such measures could involve some form of mutilation, were messy, even downright violent. People might hesitate to employ such drastic measures, but action could be swift when deemed necessary.
Some burial practices, usually the less drastic ones, where almost universal in their use. For instance, it’s a near universal custom to remove the deceased from their home head-first, the belief being that they would need to re-enter the dwelling in the same manner in which they left it.
Fear of the Dead vs Hesitance to Ill Treat the Corpse
Other procedures were reserved for the direst of situations. Things such as beheadings, stakings, and cremation were not lightly undertaken by villagers and townsfolk. Most areas were under a Catholic or Orthodox influence, which placed an emphasis upon the body being whole for resurrection upon Judgment Day. And understandably, the loved ones were hesitant to see a dear one’s body abused.
What drove our forebears to such extremes with respect to their dead? Nothing short of the fear of death itself. Think of all the superstitions we have surrounding death even today. Now think back even a hundred years ago – and yes, there are still cases of “vampire slayings” from just a short hop back in time. Death could come swiftly and would often linger in the form of disease and plague. We didn’t truly start understanding the nature of contagion and how to prevent it until the late 1800s. The fact that you could go to bed and not wake up, or that you could linger on painfully, frightened many otherwise rational folks. It was also widely accepted that those who died a violent death would return demanding vengeance.
What Doomed One as a Revenant?
So, some deceased could return from the grave as a revenant because of the circumstances of their deaths. Others were considered doomed because of the circumstances of either their conception or birth. Suicides, murders, and drownings all fall into the former category of violent death. Those conceived during a holy period in the church calendar, being a family’s seventh child, or being the illegitimate child of an illegitimate child are examples of the latter category. These people would be treated differently at death and they might even be administered apotropaics while alive in order to prevent their return as a vampiric revenant. Even then there was no guarantee that all potential revenants would be dealt with before taking others with them. At that point bodies would be dug up, staked, dismembered, and/or burnt in order to “kill” the vampire.
Keeping the Corpse in Its Grave
So, what sorts of measures were taken to prevent a revenant’s rising from the grave? Many strictures had to do with preparing the body for burial. Items used to dress the body for burial were also dealt with: combs were broken; pots and pans were smashed or emptied out and left upside down. Cloths used to wash the body were either burnt or buried with the dead. People believed that what was used by the dead should not be used by the living – not a bad idea if a person died from some nasty contagion.
Some of the simplest burial practices involve inhibiting the vampire’s ability to either drink blood or eat. Sometimes objects would be placed in the mouth, giving the corpse something to “chew on” should it find itself a ravenous revenant after burial. The ancient Greeks placed an obolus, or small coin, in the mouth of the deceased in order to pay their way across the river Styx with Charon, the ferryman. In all probability, it also served as an anti-revenant charm as well, since metal is often anathema to vampires. Further objects used, by various cultures, included special or broken bits of pottery, cotton, dirt, wool, jade, nephrite, or coins. All of these were to keep the corpse’s mouth busy so he couldn’t chew upon items that would prove destructive to those in the village, such as his shroud – or the villagers themselves!
Other times, the mouth would be tied shut, although some cultures would undo any bindings on a body just before burial, believing that any kind of fastening would keep the soul from leaving and the body from decaying. If the goal was to keep the mouth shut, or to keep the revenant from chewing, a nail or thorn might be driven through the tongue. We do something similar today in our preparations of the dead, although for hopefully different reasons. To keep a body’s mouth from gaping open, which can be rather disconcerting to the loved ones, a small device placed on either side of the upper and lower jaws hold the mouth shut.
If the danger was great enough, sharp objects would also be used in or on the grave. A sharpened sickle might be placed over the neck of the corpse, serving to decapitate it ii should try to sit up or leave the grave. Thorns or spikes might be driven into the grave from the surface in an effort to impale a rising revenant. For those truly believed to be returning as revenants, shafts of wood might be driven through the grave’s surface and into the body, pinning it in place and “killing” the corpse a second time.
Ancient Customs to Modern Practices
As noted earlier, the eyes of a corpse were often held shut by the use of small coins. We do something similar to our deceased today by the use of small plastic caps fitted under the eyelids. In our case it eases our discomfort by giving the dearly departed an appearance of peace and rest. Many find the unwavering stare of the dead to be more than a little unnerving, so it gives us some peace as well. The question is how much of our discomfort stems from the death beliefs of centuries past and from their fear of the dead returning for the living.
Most people fear what they don’t understand. While we today may scoff at what we view to be superstition, try to think what life was like before modern science had its way with many of life’s mysteries. Peasants of old had no concept of contagion or germs, yet they knew that when someone fell suddenly ill that there had to be a reason. Those reasons were often to be found in the realm of the supernatural. And to expect someone who’d died by violent means to demand retribution and vengeance was also perfectly in keeping with their beliefs. Vampires were a terrifying part of their lives, demanding strong and often supernatural responses.
A lot of information for this article came from Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. Other good books include The Vampire: A Casebook by Alan Dundes and, of course, the classic The Vampire in Europe, by Montague Summers.