Monday, October 27, 2008

an unusual lesson

One of my passions is studying architecture. I have been known to be somewhat of a Nancy Drew of old homes as I drive through old neighborhoods. I was thrilled when I discovered these two almost identical homes in the same neighborhood one day and just had to snap some photos.

This day all started as a quest to find old homes with what is known as a
coffin door or casket door.

My fascination comes from my genes---my Great Grandfather was a real life grave digger. He even is buried in the same grave yard where he buried so many others!

My great Grandfather

Let me pull the pieces of the puzzle together for you. In doing genealogy research about my great grandfather I learned about grave digging and that turned into learning about funerals or more specifically wakes held in the home -in the parlour. Without modern medicine and technology there were many unfortunate (sometimes early) deaths that our ancestor's families had to deal with.

Before there were funeral parlours (funeral homes) there was a time of visitation-they were called wakes- held in the home of the deceased. Window drapes would be drawn closed and mourning wreaths were hung on the doors. Family members could pay their respects during a short enough time before nature made things unpleasant to the nose (before embalming became the norm) and long enough to make sure they would not wake... thus making sure that sicknesses that were mistaken as death would not cause a person to be buried alive. Really and truly.

Some people were so afraid of mistakenly being buried alive they even planned to have complicated rope contraptions rigged up going from inside the buried coffin through a pipe for air to above ground with a bell at the end. Really and truly.

Anyway....back to the coffin door. When you see a very old home with a small narrow side door off a side parlour area, it is probably a coffin door. Sometimes now they are bricked or sided over and there is no longer a working door. Sometimes there are vines covering the door that has long been unused. It is just exactly what it sounds was a door to allow a coffin to be easily brought in and out of the house to allow a family wake in the parlour. This eliminated having to possibly maneuver through the rest of the house and make tight turns in narrow halls, around staircases or around other furniture. This side small parlour room was usually only used when the minister or priest came to call and for wakes.

I think it is probably unusual to find two houses with this feature still intact within blocks of one another like I found. Keep your eyes peeled as you travel and you may find one too!

These houses will be referred to as house A and house B.

House A has a coffin door on the right with the darker stone cornice above it. You can also see the ghost of a removed front porch= see the dark stripe at the base of the second story windows?

Here is another angle of House A showing the coffin door and the ghost porch line.

This is House B located just a few short blocks away. This one has the porch still intact and you can see the coffin door ( back in the shadows of the porch) in the same position as on House A!!

Here is House B showing the side opposite of the coffin door.

And then House A from a similar angle.

Pretty cool , huh?!


Jennifer Conway said...

Wow - that is really cool! I wonder if I'll be able to find houses like that around my neck of the woods. I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open from now on!

Angie Hall Haviland said...

OHHHH How interesting, Amy. I enjoy these short of things also. Researching my family history lead me on many interesting adventure...yep I'm the wacky type that walks around the cemetary reading every head stone to see who I can find :)

Lori said...

How very interesting! I have an elderly aunt who still lives in the original great, great grandmothers home which had a special mourning room, hence now the wall was opened for a larger tv room! Thanks for sharing the info, I'll have to check it out in a very old district in my town! Lori

The Urban Chic said...

Amy, I have actually been to a home wake and I am only 59. It was my greatgrandfather's and I remember it like it was yesterday. He died in the winter so it wasn't so bad. I love stories of old homes and the one that we rented behind us here, was one I wanted so bad, but got held up in estate. Thanks for the tour. Hugs, Pat

She'sSewPretty said...

Oh my gosh! I've seen those doors on houses and always wondered why they had put exits right around the corner from the "front" door. Now, I'll have to look for the coffin doors and impress my hubby with my new found knowledge! LOL

Shelley said...

Hi Amy, I found your post very interesting. I will be looking for those coffin doors on the old houses I see.
Have a safe and happy Halloween..


Mary Isabella and Kiley too! said...

Happy Halloween...m..

Mad Red Hare said...

Thanks for that little history lesson. Now I will be looking for the "coffin" door. My grandpa was an undertaker too!