It is an often-repeated
phrase: women left behind in various Southern states had to adapt, often
performing a wide range of tasks beyond the normal status quo of taking care of
the home and children. But the idea of 1860s women adopting the role of the
clergy may seem farfetched to today’s readers.
most cultures, women were intrinsically involved with the processes of birth,
life, and death. This concept is clear from the mythical triptych depiction of the
female: maiden, mother and crone. In a practical sense, nearly every activity
connected to being born, nurturing life, and caring for the dead was conducted
and supervised by women. Only in more “modern” times have men become the primary
figures in these practices, with the advent of medical and funeral practices
conducted by professionals, men trained in facilities that often did not even
permit the training of women. However, in the past, particularly in rural
areas, women delivered babies, cared for children, treated the sick, and, when
a person died, it was women who often cleaned and dressed the body, while also
making a shroud. Men typically built the coffin and dug the grave. After the
family sat up with the body overnight (embalming was not really in practice,
except for the rich), the deceased was transported to the cemetery and a few
words were spoken. Then the grave was filled. High churches, like Catholic, Episcopal,
Lutheran, etc., had a proscribed liturgy that was to be read over the deceased.
Exclusively male clergymen conducted these funeral rites and services
There are many
stories of women burying dead soldiers, both North and South. The pregnant
Elizabeth Thorn at Gettysburg is one of the best known. But some women went
further, and due to the absence of men, assumed the role of a cleric, performing
the service for the dead, and challenging traditional gender roles as they took
on one more aspect of caring for human beings departing this life.
Palmer was the wife of Col. John B. Palmer (58th North Carolina
Troops). In 1858, they moved from Detroit, Michigan, to western North Carolina,
building a home on the banks of the Linville River. (Francis’s brother was
Capt. Edmond Kirby, US Army, promoted to brigadier general on his deathbed.)
With Colonel Palmer away in the army, Episcopal missionary and teacher William
West Skiles came and stayed with Mrs. Palmer, her young son, and niece. Skiles
was already ill at the time, and his health continued to deteriorate. After
being confined to his room at the Palmer house for three months, Skiles died on
December 8, 1862. A rough box was constructed, and Skiles was buried in Mrs.
Palmer’s rose garden. According to a biography of Skiles, “Mrs. Palmer herself
put on his surplice, unwilling that a hireling should perform that service for
him.” A surplice is a type of liturgical vestment, usually a white tunic maybe
reaching to the knees. It is to be worn at all times while the minister is
performing his ministration. Mrs. Palmer put on the surplice and read the
burial service over his body.
The ritual itself largely
contains Scripture readings, many from the book of Psalms, and several from the
New Testament as well.
There is a second
reference to a woman performing the Funeral Liturgy. This one occurred a few
months earlier. In May 1862, the Texas brigade had its first taste of battle at
Eltham’s Landing in Virginia. Among the mortally wounded was Lt. Col. Harvey H.
Black, 1st Texas Infantry, dying on May 7. According to a couple of
different accounts, Lieutenant Colonel Black, and another soldier, Private
Bush, were buried at Cedar Hill, New Kent County, Virginia, on the property of
Dr. John Mayo. One Texas soldier wrote that Black was buried “in a private
graveyard on the hill, and the burial service of the Episcopal church was read
at the grave by a lady to whom the premises belonged.”
The 1864 painting of The Burial of Latané depicts a
similar scene of a burial being conducted by women, but the painting is an
artistic interpretation, since the service was actually conducted by a Methodist
minister who arrived shortly before the service and burial were conducted.
These two stories,
and there are undoubtedly more waiting to be discovered, provide illustrations
for several different important points. Women were willing to ensure that men
were to have proper burials in a time of increasing hardship. These women were
willing to provide the last stages of that “Good Death” so often discussed in
historical literature of the past twenty plus years. Women were willing to
assume roles not typically perceived by society as being roles for women. While
women were often involved in the burial process, these women were willing to go
beyond tradition. For Mrs. Palmer, William West Skiles was a family friend who
had lived with them for a short amount of time. For those in New Kent County,
Lieutenant Colonel Black was a stranger from Texas. Yet the norms of the era
dictated that he also deserved a proper burial. With no ordained minister at
hand, these women were willing to see that the prescribed customs of the time
were followed. Were there repercussions for their actions? Were they criticized
or praised? It is hard to say.
While there was discussion of starting an Episcopal church
close to the Palmer home, the closest church was more than twenty miles away
over poor mountain roads, so Mrs. Palmer’s decision seems to have been
influenced by both geography and by circumstances. There was a church, St.
Peter’s Episcopal Church, in New Kent County, but it is unknown if the woman who
buried Colonel Black and Private Bush was a member. In any case, what we do
know is that these women understood the importance of proper rituals and burial
practices, and they were willing to take on unexpected roles to ensure those practices
were completed for friends and strangers.