Happy Birthday, There’s a Corpse in Your Cake!

Last week I came across a photograph of an item that was, at one time, available for purchase on Etsy. A small, metal viewing coffin with the unnerving inscription, “Don’t talk so much.” From the viewing window a strange, pale countenance started out. 

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Unfortunately, there was no further information attached to the item, just a lot of unanswered questions. Who made this? When? Why? What’s with the mega creepy inscription that seems almost threatening in tone? I’m afraid I still don’t have any answers to these questions after a week of research. However, the little corpse in the coffin had some stories to tell. 

These are no ordinary playthings. The dolls originated in the US during the Victorian era, around 1860 and were called Frozen Charlottes, (or Charlie for males), dolls. The dolls were made in response to the enormous popularity of a song, “Fair Charlotte,” which was based on an 1843 poem penned by Maine journalist, Seba Smith, entitled, “A Corpse Going to a Ball.” 

There is some debate as to wether Smith’s poem was simply a cautionary tale or based on an actual incident. Some historians claim that Smith stated he was moved to write the poem after reading a story in the New York Observer on Feb 8, 1840 in which “A young woman… was frozen to death while riding to a ball on Jan 1, 1840.” Whatever the origins, the poem and ballad served as a cautionary tale to young ladies about the dangers of vanity and not heeding your parents.

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Young Charlotte is all dressed up to attend a New Year’s Eve ball with her beau, Charles, who picks her up in a horse-drawn sleigh. As Charlotte is leaving her mother warns her to wrap her blankets around her tightly, or else she will catch  her “death of cold.” However, vain Charlotte is only concerned with people seeing her beautiful dress along the sixteen mile journey to the ball. The rest of the story, in true Victorian fashion is a bit of a romantic tragedy:

“How very fast the freezing air
Is gathering on my brow.”
With a trembling voice young Charlotte cried,
“I’m growing warmer now.”
And away they did ride o’er the mountainside,
And through the pale star light,
Until the village inn they reached,
And the ballroom hove in sight.

When they reached the inn, young Charles jumped out,
And gave his hand to her,
“Why sit you there like a monument,
And have no power to stir?”
He called her once, he called her twice,
She answered not a word;
He called all for her hand again,
But still she never stirred.

He stripped the mantle off her brow,
And the pale stars on her shone,
And quickly into the lighted hall,
Her helpless form was born.
They tried all within their power,
Her life for to restore,
But Charlotte was a frozen corpse,
And is never to speak more.

He threw himself down by her side,
And the bitter tears did flow,
He said, “My dear and intended bride,
You never more shall know.”
He threw his arms around her neck,
He kissed her marble brow,
And his thoughts went back to the place where she said,
“I am growing warmer now.”

They bore her out into the sleigh,
And Charles with her rode home,
And when they reached the cottage door,
Oh, how her parents mourned!
They mourned the loss of their daughter dear,
And Charles mourned o’er her doom,
Until at last his heart did break,
Now they both slumber in one tomb.

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The Frozen Charlotte dolls were very small and typically made of porcelain. As they only cost a penny, most children could afford them, only adding to their popularity in Victorian households. At some point it became very fashionable to begin baking these tiny corpse dolls into birthday cakes or in the UK, in Christmas puddings, as a prize or party favor. 

If I ever bake you a birthday cake, you can be certain there will be corpse inside. You’re welcome.

 

Image Sources:

Ghost Love Jewelry 

“Happy Remains of the Day” by William Powell Firth

Resources:

Woodstock Historical Society

University of Maine

Little Gothic Horrors

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The Funeral Books of Thailand

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If you’ve been to a wedding in the past few years, chances are you’ve been handed a wedding program upon your arrival, featuring photographs of the happy couple, tidbits about how they met, details about their families or the story of their first date. Little books like these can frequently be found in Thailand as well, but not for weddings – for funerals.

In Thailand it has been a long-held tradition to give out gifts to attendees at funerals. These small memorial books called  nang sue ngam sop, are typically written by the family of the deceased. The books are not unlike the wedding programs detailing various aspects of their loved one’s life, photographs from graduations, weddings or significant events, personal stories and anecdotes and quite often their favorite recipes. 

One of the first examples of these memorial books had an especially tragic beginning, when King Chulalongkorn had 10,000 copies made to memorialize his wife and daughter:

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Recipes from funeral books have been the main inspiration for Chef David Thompson, whose now closed London restaurant, Nahm,  earned a coveted Michelin Star – the first for Thai cuisine. Chef Thompson has a collection of 500 Thai funeral books, each of them featuring a recipe. Bangkok has its own Nham location that was named the best restaurant in Asia at S.Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014. 

That’s right – the best restaurant, in the world’s largest continent sourced their recipes from funeral books.  

 

Image Sources:

Image of Funeral books by Richard S. Ehrlich

Image 2 via Wikivoyage

 

Resources:

In Bankok, 500 Funerals and a Michelin Star, Amy Ma, The Wall Street Journal

The Final Chapter: Books of the Dead, Richard S. Ehrlich

Good Food 

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Decoration Day and Dinner on the Ground

Amidst the department store sales and barbecues that are now a hallmark of Memorial Day in the US, a fascinating origin story of this day for honoring the dead and the tradition of dining with them is has been forgotten by most.

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In the years following the American Civil War the act of decorating graves with flowers began on different days and different places around the South. The first formal act of memorialization of the dead took place in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865.

When the Union soldiers finally moved into Charleston, the remaining Confederates evacuated the city, leaving the newly freed behind. These former slaves and soldiers began organizing themselves among the ruins left them.

During the war, Confederate soldiers had converted the Washington Race Track into a jail for Union soldiers. Here, approximately 260 Union soldiers died from disease and exposure and were buried in a mass grave on the grounds.

The black community in Charleston reinterred the dead and constructed around the newly formed cemetery, a white-washed fence and an archway at the entry to the grounds. On it, they painted the words, “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” When this noble work was finally completed, a parade was held with some 10,000 in attendance. Leading the way were almost 3,000 children, their small arms heavy with bouquets of flowers which they placed over each grave as they passed. Several preachers delivered addresses and the children sang American the Beautiful as well as a number of spirituals. The cemetery was formally dedicated to the dead, then family and friends dispersed to various places around they cemetery and had what may have been the first, formal instance of a Dinner on the Ground – a ritual meal held in the cemetery as part of the proceedings.

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The few folks left in the American South that are familiar with the term “dinner on the ground” or “grounds,” and still practice it for the most part, typically and according to renowned folklorist and author, Alan Jabbour who has done extensive research on the subject, incorrectly associate its origins to be exclusively associated with church suppers, or picnic meals held in conjunction with Sunday church activities. Jabbour acknowledges the term and its etymology is a matter of debate, but that “…it probably stems from the idea of a picnic-like communion on the ground at the cemetery.” He also points out that at this time most cemeteries were communal and not affiliated with a church. Jabbour says that people he interviewed during his research asserted “dinner on the ground” is the correct phrase. “It seems probable that the original sense of the phrase was a ‘dinner spread on the ground like a picnic’ in a cemetery. However, once people began building picnic tables and benches for dinners on the ground, the natural progression of the folk etymology moved away from its original origin and in modern minds became more associated with cemetery or church “grounds.” 

Dinners on the ground are of course, a social event, but they can also hold a unique spiritual aspect, with the reciting of prayers and singing. The meals are communal potlucks. Often ladies of the community are known for a particular dish that is their specialty and people in their community excitedly anticipate getting to eat these favored dishes. Tables are laden with fried chicken, green bean dishes, potatoes and there are many accounts of a very unique cake, typically associated with weddings, the stack cake. This cake looks like a tall stack of pancakes with an apple butter type spread in between each layer. In areas with poor families, each member would help out by making and bringing a single layer of the cake which would be assembled into a single stack.

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The history of Memorial Day is such a beautiful part of history and should be remembered and honored far more than it is. A perfect reading to put into practice for everyone on this day is Frederick Douglass’ speech, “The Unknown Loyal Dead” delivered at Arlington National Cemetery in 1871. The tradition of dining with our dead is a lost art and one I hope you, too, will be inspired to bring back.

Image Sources:

Image 1 Wartime devastation of Charleston, Library of Congress

Image 2 – 1865 view of Union soldiers graves at the former Washington racetrack, Library of Congress

Apple Stack Cake from The Splendid Table

Resources:

Read the Spirit

Alan Jabbour, Karen Singer Jabbour, Decoration day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians, 2010

History of the Apple Stack Cake 

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Lemuria

And the ancients closed the temples on these days,

As you see them shut still at the season of the dead.

its a time not suitable for widows or virgins to wed;

She who marries won’t live long.

Ovid, Fasti

Lemuria was an ancient Roman festival which occurred on the odd May numbered days of 9,11 and the 13th, as even numbered days were considered unlucky. This was a time when Roman homes were besieged with their spectral ancestors and steps needed to be taken to appease and exorcise them. Yes, The Beans are once again involved with all manner of high strangeness – want to know more? Start with The Evils of Beans – Part I. 

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Back to Lemuria. According to Ovid the whole thing started when Romulus killed brother Remus, (you know, the twins who escaped being buried alive and were raised by a she-wolf?) and the ghost of Remus showed up all bloodstained and angry at the foot of Romulus’ bed. As a way to appease Remus-Ghost, the feast of Remuria was created and was later, renamed Lemuria, taken from the word Lemures. Lemures were believed to be restless or vengeful souls of the dead, who did not receive the proper burial rites. 

In order to banish the lemures, the family patriarch would rise at midnight and wash his hands in water three times. Barefoot, he would walk through the house, tossing beans over his shoulder or spitting them out in various places repeating, “I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine.” Meanwhile, the rest of the family banged on pots and pans, to frighten the lemurs away calling out, “Ghosts of my ancestors, be gone!” 

In result, Romans regarded the entire month of May to be unlucky and it was especially unwise to marry. Those brides who did, would die soon after. 

 

Resources

W. Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic, 1899

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Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance

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For many there are no brunches, no flowers, no cakes, no surprise gift planning with other family members in secret on Mother’s Day. Instead, there are those who silently endure the day in pain and mourning for many reasons – the death of a mother, the death of a child, the woman who cannot conceive although she desperately tries and time is not on her side, the mother whose child is missing – all members of a secret club no one wants to join.

You may not be aware of it, but I’m willing to bet someone you know – likely someone you care very deeply for – falls into one of these categories. So, if you are one of the lucky ones – you have a mom you can call to tell her you love her, or a child to hold instead of a grave to visit on Mother’s Day, I’m asking you to please take a moment to reach out to your friends and loved ones this Mother’s Day and help them remember.

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Rosemary is an herb that has long been associated with remembrance and death. Since ancient Roman times when the herb was used in burial rites for this reason, to several accounts of funerals in England where mourners traditionally tossed bouquets of rosemary on top of coffins. In this respect, rosemary is probably best associated with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5; “Ophelia in her madness names plants that were known for their capacity to ease pain, particularly inwardly felt pain” [1] – “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.” 

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As human beings we have always honored important events and occasions with food and I want to honor your losses, your memories and your feelings of grief on this day, too. Here is a tea bread, you can take to a friend or make for yourself, incorporating rosemary with apples and lemon.

Rosemary, For Remembrance Bread

(Adapted from Nigella Lawson)

Apple mixture:

  •  1 large apple – Pink Lady or Fiji is what I use
  • 1 small sprig plus 1 or 2 long sprigs of rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons granulated or Baker’s sugar
  • juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Cake batter base:

  • 2 sticks of softened butter
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar plus more for sprinkling over top or casting sugar if you have that
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

 

Preheat oven to 325˚F. Butter or grease a loaf pan.

Peel, core, and chop the apple and put in a saucepan with the small sprig of rosemary, the 2 teaspoons of sugar, the lemon zest and juice, and 1 tablespoon butter. Cook on low heat for approximately 10 minutes until the apple is soft. Set aside to cool, removing the rosemary sprig once the mixture has cooled.

Put the cooled apple mixture into a food processor and puree. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Cream together the butter, sugar and eggs. Combine the butter mixture with the dry ingredients then pour into your prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the surface with about 1-2 tablespoons of granulated or casting sugar and then lay the rosemary down along the center.

Bake the cake for 45 minutes, checking at the 35-minute mark to see how it’s going. When your cake tester comes out clean, remove from oven and cool. I refrigerated mine once it was cooled, although if you can’t wait, I’m sure it’s good warm as well!

 

Image Sources

Cinderella at her mother’s grave illustration by Liga Marta

Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance by Floriography

Rosemary, That’s For Remembrance Bread by Nourishing Death. Our Darling, funerary necklace made by Bloodmilk.

Resources

1. Folger Shakespeare Library

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Death By Easter Egg

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For a number of years one of my favorite blogs has been Misc. Tidings of Yore, a time machine of sorts which delves into newspaper archives to bring its readers a glimpse of the often bizarre, unusual and morbid stories of the past. Last year, the wonderful mistress who unearths all these marvels collected a series of newspaper accounts of unfortunate souls who perished by Easter Egg. 

The Easter Egg is a deadly menace indeed, as evidenced by the above example from The Sun [NY] 8 April 1912. Read on, at Misc. Tidings of Yore, Death By Easter Egg.

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Many thanks to my dear friend, The Dead Bell, for allowing me to share this with you, Dear Readers. No doubt, you’ll love all her endeavors:

The Dead Bell – featuring cemetery architecture, mourning customs, mortuary history, & the micro-histories of the interred.

The Dead Bell on Facebook and on Twitter

 

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Hot Cross Buns at St. Bartholomew the Great Church

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Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the second annual Death Salon in London at the truly incredible Barts Pathology Museum. As part of the closing day event, we attended a walking tour led by Guided Walks in London and learned some of the more sinister history of Smithfield. Things we had been encountering on a daily basis on our way around Barts had remarkable tales to tell, all revealed by our wonderful tour guide.

One of them is a ceremony which occurs on Good Friday known as the Butterworth Charity at St. Bartholomew the Great church that dates back hundreds of years. Originally known as the “Widow’s Sixpence” to distribute charity to the poor, a trust was created in 1887 by Joshua Butterworth, which stated: “On Good Friday in each year to distribute in the churchyard of St. Bartholomew the Great the sum of 6d. to twenty-one poor widows, and to expend the remainder of such dividends in buns to be given to children attending such distribution, and he desired that the Charity intended to be thereby created should be called ‘the Butterworth Charity.’”

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The tradition of distributing hot cross buns at St. Bartholomew the Great every Good Friday continues, decades later.

Hot cross buns are said to date back to the 12th century. The icing cross on top of the bun is intended to signify the manner in which Christ was crucified, the bread itself, his body and the spices, typically cinnamon and nutmeg symbolize the embalming preservatives his burial shroud was coated with following his death.

According to John Ayto, in An A-Z of Food & Drink, states “The English custom of eating spiced buns on Good Friday was perhaps institutionalized in Tudor times, when a London bylaw was introduced forbidding the sale of such buns except at Good Friday, at Christmas and at burials.”

At St. Bartholomew the buns are served off of this grave.

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Of course, yesterday I spent the day making hot cross buns. If you’d like to try them yourself, I used The Pioneer Woman’s recipe, which you can find here. Mine certainly aren’t as pretty but they taste great. Just a warning the recipe makes far more than we could eat, so plan on sharing or storing the dough in the refrigerator to bake a second, fresh batch, for Easter Sunday.

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Image Sources 

Archive images courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

All other photographs were taken by the author, Sarah Troop

 

Resources

John Ayto, An A-Z of Food & Drink, 2002

Guided Walks in London 

http://spitalfieldslife.com

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