Manitoba Historical Society
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A Red River Settlement Custom

by William Douglas

Manitoba Pageant, September 1956

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The lapse of time and the hand of modern life is gradually dulling our appreciation of some of the social life and customs of our pioneers. To the younger generation it is necessary to re-tell stories that were common in their everyday life. By doing so we keep alive the memory of habits and customs of our Selkirk Settlers. Our present subject may not have much appeal, nevertheless, it was important in the community when there was a death in the family though its detail is doubtless long forgotten.

Following the old Highland custom, when the day of burial arrived, a boy visited every house in the Settlement and gave the following message to each housekeeper; "You are warned to attend the funeral of ........................ at two o'clock tomorrow and God be with you."

The men donned their best clothing. All work ceased at mid-day, and the people gathered at the house of mourning. Ever since the moment of death, the body was being "watched" by relays of friends. Two to four individuals became "watchers" in turn, and generally sat in silence. Usually an elder of the church or some leading man visited the house daily and held family worship.

In those days there were no hearses, so the coffin was carried shoulder high on a bier to the grave. The custom in the Highlands was to invite all the people into the barn and give them "a dram" with biscuits and cheese. The bier was kept at the church, and it was brought to the house along with the coffin. Usually a retired sergeant or other retired military man was appointed master of ceremonies . The refreshments over, he ordered the men to "Fall in". Then the coffin was brought out and placed on the bier which the men carried "hands down". The sergeants shouted "open ranks", a lane was formed, and the men carrying the coffin passed along it. On reaching the end of the lane the sergeant shouted "shoulder high , march." Then the ranks closed and on went the cavalcade, the sergeant leading. After marching a few hundred yards, he turned around and shouted "relief". Then the cavalcade came to a stop and four fresh men relieved the bearers. As this was accomplished, he shouted "to the rear, march". Thus the funeral marched whatever distance it had to travel to the burial place.

The ceremony was picturesque and awe-inspiring,and once seen was never likely to be forgotten.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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