Death and Cake: Death at St. Fagans.












I was invited to host the first-ever Death Cafe Inspired Event at St Fagans National Museum of History. 

The focus of this event was to explore mourning practices and how people are remembered in different culturesA huge thank you to Curator Elen Phillips and Youth Engagement Officer Sarah Younan for facilitating this event and letting ramble about death! 


What is a Death Cafe?

In simple terms, a Death Cafe is an event where people meet, eat cake and discuss death. It is an informal get-together and an opportunity to talk about themes that are not often discussed, rather than a grief support or counselling session.

"to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives."

The Death Cafe movement was founded in 2011 by Jon Underwood. The first Death Cafe (in the UK) was held at Jon Underwood's home in Hackney. It was facilitated by Sue Barsky Reid, Jon's mother.

"As of today, we have offered 7333 Death Cafes in 61 countries since September 2011. If 10 people came to each one that would be 73330 participants. We've established both that there are people who are keen to talk about death and that many are passionate enough to organise their own Death Cafe."

You can read more about Death Cafe and its history on their website: https://deathcafe.com/what/


'Life Is...' - Death


We visited the Death section of the new 'Life Is...' gallery. 'Life Is...' is one of three new galleries at
St. Fagans National Museum. This particular gallery showcases everyday objects and the history behind them.

The Death section lets visitors discover people across time have dealt with death and remembered their loved ones. It houses many objects including a stone coffin, burial remains mourning clothing, a horse-drawn hearse and a children's glassette. 



Horse-drawn Hearse and Children's Glassette

It was common for parishes to purchase a hearse and rent it out to the parishioners. The horse-drawn hearse was used by the parishioners of Berriew until 1910. The children's glassette (coffin carrier) dates from the early 1900s. It was used by Clarks Undertakers in Wrexham. 

The children's glassette and horse-drawn hearse. 















Death on Site

Next, we visited three of the museums most iconic buildings to explore 'Death on site.'


Kennixton Farmhouse

Kennixton Farmhouse was originally situated in Llangennith and was moved to the museum in 1952. The earliest part of the farmhouse dates from 1610, with the later parts dating from 1680 and 1750.

The iconic red painted walls, originally painted with a mixture of ox-blood and lime, were painted this colour as it was believed that red protected people from evil spirits. The two carved figures that can be seen just inside the front door were another deterrent against evil spirits. 


Kennixton Farmhouse.













Abernodwydd Farmhouse

Abernodwydd Farmhouse was originally situated in Llangadfan and was moved to the museum in 1951. The timber-framed building was built in 1678 with alterations made in 1708.

Abernodwydd houses an extremely interesting 'death-bed.' Carved on the headboard is a 'Memento Mori' to James Price, who died on the 4th of May 1658.

Detail of the 'Death-bed' photgoraphed by Geoff Charles.












The 'death-bed' is originally from Neuadd Lwyd Farmhouse in Rhayader. The Price family lived at the farmhouse for over 200 years. (I'll be writing a separate post about the history of the farmhouse and 'death-bed' in the near future.)

A crude figure of death can be seen holding a bow and arrow.Death is surrounded by hexfoils which are commonly known as 'Witch-marks'. These markings are believed to turn away, or ward off, evil.

"They are indeed hexfoils used as ritual protection marks. The marks were not just limited to buildings, but were used on objects as well. Particularly object that had a void or space that needed some form of spiritual protection. Therefore one of the most common places to find them is on chests and coffers - most particularly parish chests - but beds are also another commonplace.

You were considered to be most vulnerable to being interfered with by evil or malign spirits when asleep, so to defend the bedroom, or even the bed space itself, was simple common sense."  - Matthew Champion, Medieval Graffiti Expert.

Pen-rhiw Chapel.

Pen-rhiw Chapel was originally situated in Dre- Fach Felindre and is thought to have been built as a barn during the early-18th-century. It was acquired as a meeting place for Unitarians in 1777. It was also used as a school and when it was dismantled in 1953 various ink bottles and quill pens were found under the floorboards.

Another interesting find during the dismantling of the chapel were two Welsh Nots. The 'Welsh Not' was used as a means to eradicate the Welsh Language in schools. It came in many forms, a block of wood, a stick, and a slate.



One of the chapels funeral biers and a temporary mort-safe can be found resting on the beams above the chapel. This was a common way of storing a funeral bier and in churches, they can often be found resting on the beams above the porch.

The funeral bier was used to carry the coffin from a hearse to the service and then from the service to the graveside. Most churches/chapels had their own funeral biers but this chapel, in particular, was lucky to have more than one (including a child's bier.)

The temporary mort-safe was used to protect the grave after burial. The cage of iron would later be removed after the grave had settled. In some places, permanent mort-safes were used to protect the grave indefinitely. Before the appearance of iron mort-safes c.1816, large stones were sometimes used to protect the grave from any disturbance. One of the only surviving (permanent) mort-safes of this kind in Wales can be found in St. Cein's Churchyard, Llangeinor. It protects the grave of a young woman called Rachel.


Object Handling Session

Overseen by Elen Phillips, we held an object handling session. A huge thank you to Sarah and Abike for educating us on the Congolese Spirit Doll.

The Congolese Spirit Doll

Sarah Younan talked to us about a Congolese Spirit Doll that is housed in the collections at St. Fagans. The doll was acquired by Edward Lovett, a folklorist and collector of objects relating to folklore and community customs.

Sarah and the Spirit Doll

This spirit doll is thought to be a 'nkisi' doll from the Bakongo people who have a long tradition of metalwork. In their tradition, metal carries meaning beyond its material function – it is seen as a substance that changes from one state to another. People who knew how to work metal also acted as priests and were part of initiated societies with secret knowledge.

The doll is a reminder of the deceased and also serves a ritual function as a ‘bridge’ between the living and the dead. By upholding the memory of the ancestor and performing rituals dutifully, the living remember, stay connected to and keep the spirit of the dead peaceful.

Mourning Jewellery

Mourning rings and jewellery were worn to remind the living of their deceased relatives. As well as this, they reminded the wearer of their inevitable demise. Mourning jewellery came in various different forms including brooches, necklaces, and bracelets.

Families were able to send the hair to businesses that specialised in mourning jewellery. The hair would be woven into a pattern and incorporated into a ring or another piece of jewellery. Engraved on the back of the jewellery would be the name, age, and date of death of the loved one.

Two 'Memento Mori Rings' - The one of the right contains the hair of Dr. Price & Dr. Franklin.

















Shortly after the death of Dr. Benjamin Franklin in 1790, Benjamin Rush gave a lock of Dr. Franklin's hair to Dr. Richard Price. When Dr. Price passed away the following year, a lock of his hair was taken and along with Dr. Franklin's was fashioned into part of a mourning ring.

Memorial Cards & Plates

Memorial Cards were often given out to friends and relatives at funerals. These were usually decorated with a black bordering, a verse, and illustration. On occasion, a photograph of the deceased would be included on the card. As well as being given out at individual funerals, memorial cards and memorial plates were given out at funerals of those who died during disasters. Like the mourning jewellery, Memorial Plates were made to order and fully customisable. These plates were commonly produced after a disaster and over time became a sort of souvenir.



The Plate of a Sin-Eater. 

After a sudden death, the local Sin-eater was called upon. This mysterious custom is known to have been practiced in rural areas of Wales/Hereford and was usually associated with the poor classes.

As the name suggests, the job of a Sin-eater was to 'eat' the sins of those who did not have the opportunity to confess their sins on their death bed.

The Sin-eater would eat bread and drink ale off the body of the deceased, thus absorbing his/her sins. This was thought to ease the passage to heaven as the deceased would not be weighed down by his/her sins.


Other objects included: 

  • A sampler recording the deaths of three members of the Bowen family of Pyle.
  • Socks knitted by Eliza Lewis c.1850. They were to be worn on her death but she suffered from a condition that caused her legs to swell and at the time of her death, they did not fit her.
  • The fox-fur cap of Dr. William Price: Dr. William Price is best known for being the pioneer of modern cremation. He was a vegetarian nudist who believed in free love and herbal remedies. 
  • A boot that was discovered in 1994 behind a fireplace at a house in Llanfachreth: Many believed that that hiding a child’s shoe in a chimney breast or in the walls of a house increased a couple’s chance of having children. 

The sampler, death socks, fox-cap and child's shoe. 











Jewellery Making Workshop

We ended the event with tea, cake, discussion, and a jewellery making workshop. Based on Victorian mourning jewellery, we were given the chance to make our own! People were encouraged to bring old photographs, clothes, hair or similar reminders of loved ones. Sarah led the way by crafting some jewellery made from her hair!

Cake and jewellery making! 


















(Sources: St. Fagans National Museum of Wales - Sarah Younan - Elen Phillips - Geoff Charles) 

2 comments

  1. Great post! Have never heard a death cafes before. Will you be hosting another one?

    ReplyDelete

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