Accepted Burial Traditions of the Old West

Burial traditions of the Old West bear many resemblances to today's funeral practices, with common elements that have persisted through the centuries. While there were variations in religious practices, the overwhelming majority of pioneer burials were based on Christian traditions. The burial traditions of early 19th century America are among some of the most well-documented accounts of a practice called ""home funerals,"" where the burial rites are primarily a concern of the deceased's close relatives. While the city-dwelling populations of the East perfected elaborate mourning traditions to honor their dead, the practices of the West remained far more utilitarian due to harsh conditions, widespread poverty, and limited resources.

What caused most deaths in the Old West?

Despite Hollywood images of gun battles and lethal brawls in town squares, most deaths in the Old West occurred at home due to old age, poor health, or limited medical care. Because of this, many superstitious traditions became common practice in regards to defending the home from wayward spirits. Any mirrors in the home were covered, and windows and doors were opened to facilitate the soul's departure from the house. The eyes of the deceased were closed to shut the ""window"" it was believed they created between the worlds of the living and dead. When the deceased were carried from the house, it was considered vital that they exit feet first, to prevent the parting spirits from looking into the home and beckoning more inhabitants to follow.

Graveyards of the Old West bore little resemblance to the manicured garden-settings they are today. In most instances, they were either the hallowed ground near a church or a private family plot near the home. Grave markers were often engraved stones, typically limestone, or wooden stakes fashioned into the shapes of crosses with the names of the deceased either carved or painted across them. The local undertaker, a role often assigned to a town carpenter, would be summoned to furnish a burial coffin and to prepare the body for burial. Preparation typically involved dressing the deceased and only making cosmetic alterations, as embalming was not yet a common practice in the West.

Upon burial of the deceased, a graveside service was typically performed by the local priest to give the dead his or her final rites, without which the dead would be deemed restless and unable to transition to the afterlife. While there is some speculation that a few gravesites at that time had bells rigged to the coffin to prevent burial death due to a loved one being mistakenly interred pre-mortem, the practice was not one typically employed by the pioneers. The final religious practice offered to the deceased was to bury them with their feet towards the East. This was in keeping with the Christian belief that upon the Second Coming, the dead would rise and face Jesus' arrival in the Eastern horizon. While many of the practices of the Old West are considered superstitious today, it's clear that modern burial practices still have distinct roots in the burial rites of the 19th century.

June 4, 2016

By Annie S.