Death and Funerals in the Old Days

From long boxes to being buried alive, life – and death – was far different on homesteads in the old days.

Content Tools

My grandmother, whose life spanned more than a century, told me of laying out the dead in the parlor of their homes and putting pennies on the eyelids to keep them closed. It was an old English custom, she said.

She also mentioned a few people who were so dishonest as to steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes.

In a time before doctors were required to sign death certificates, some persons were buried before they were dead. Grandmother remembered a man who was saved when a young team carrying his casket shied on a bridge and dumped the body into the creek. The water revived him.

In another case, a doctor attending the funeral of a young woman noticed a red mark under her wedding ring. He took immediate care of her and brought her out of a deep coma.

Many farmers built coffins for members of their family. They were called long boxes.

Neighbors came in to sit with the sick and the dying, and often they brought food for families in trouble. Funerals were large, often overflowing the church. 

Robert Bishop
Nora Springs, Iowa

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.