Funeral Customs Scotland



By Liz Smith


In rural areas the undertaker was usually the local joiner. The most expensive funeral involved the use of the hearse, drawn where possible by black horses wearing plumes. Most families could not afford this and the coffin was carried by relatives and neighbours on a litter or was transported in a trap or cart.


The coffin would be covered by a mortcloth, a black, usually velvet, piece of cloth. This cloth, as was the hearse, was owned by the parish and a charge was made for it. Sometimes even a coffin was too expensive and the body was simply wrapped in a sheet.


Extract from  Inverarity Burial Records: 

On the 6th day of November Eighteen hundred and thirty one years, John Silvie was elected Church Officer. The following charges were fixed on by Minute of the Kirk Session of Inverarity of date 13th January 1838 viz.

Inverarity 13th January 1838

The Kirk Session of this Parish authorise their Officer to make the following charges for Hearse and Mortcloth viz.  
Signed David Lindsay (Session Clerk)


Type of Funeral Charge-"For     Cost L  
For Hearse   7 L    
For Best Mortcloth   4 L    
For Hearse and Best Mortcloth   9 L  
For Hearse and Old Mortcloth   7 L   6 d
For Old Mortcloth   2 6 d
For Small Mortcloth   1 L  
For Hearse when taken out of Parish   8 L  
For Hearse and best Mortcloth when taken out of Parish   12 L  
For Hearse and old Mortcloth when taken out of Parish   10 L  
Type of Funeral Charge-"For        
For Hearse   10 L  
For Hearse and Best Mortcloth   16 L  
For Best Mortcloth   5 L  
For Old Mortcloth   3 L  
For Second Mortcloth   1 L 6 d


As can be seen from the above, Inverarity had three mortcloths, the old one, a new one and a small one for children. The charge varied according to which one was chosen. The scale of charges also shows that people often returned to the parish where they had been born or brought up to be buried. In this case the charge for the hearse was increased. The hearse could also be taken out of the parish and, again, the charge was increased.



Churches usually had a special building in which the hearse was stored and often a mortuary building as well.



Inverarity Mortuary

Note the opening for the hearse has been bricked up.





A Public Roup is where the contents of a house are sold-the estate of the deceased, in order to pay for the funeral expenses.
Funeral expenses for poor persons in the parish were paid for by the church.  In 1757 the church paid the expenses for the
funerals of John and Elspeth Petrie, and conducted a Rouping.


Paid Out by Kirk Session

To Candle to John Petrie’s funerals                             4/-
To John Petrie’s Coffin                            £2   18/-
To Ale at his Funerals                                          £1   15/-
To Expences (sic) at the Rouping                              12/-
To Meat at the Funerals                                              12/-
To Two Graves making the One to
John Petrie and
the Other to Elspeth Petrie                                          12/-
To James Petrie’s Service for Attending  
his Father at his Death                                        



Not all funerals were dignified affairs. This letter from the Arbroath Guide of September 1851 is about a funeral in the parish of Kirkden. Although it is not connected in any way to our family it does give a flavour of the times.



SIR, - Though not accustomed to write for the press, I cannot but ask the favour of a corner of the Guide to give utterance to what I consider a grievance.

You are aware that country churchyards are often neglected, but I am sure there are none more so than that of Kirkden. It was but the other week that a relative of mine died, belonging to that Parish, the remains were conveyed thither by a hearse, which I believe is kept up at the expense of the heritors of Kirkden.

But such a hearse! It was indeed revolting to look upon. The nodding plumes were nearly all off, and, sorry sight! those that remained, to mark not grace a hearse, were like a hard-up painter’s old brush. The covering perhaps, had once been black, but it appeared to be as if made of guano bags, so brown and coarse like was it. The springs, too, are so bad that one is under the apprehension, as it jolts along, that the coffin must be thrown out from behind: and the harness is of a piece with the ill-looking hearse: a hearse, sir, which I would be sorry to see the body of a heathen, or, God help us, a pauper carried in.

But this is not all: there is a great want of order and arrangement in the burying-ground. When we arrived with the corpse, we were met by the old and respectable I doubt not, but infirm gravedigger, who had, of course, digged a grave. Unfortunately it was neither deep enough nor long enough for the coffin, which had therefore to lie on the ground till the grave was made sufficiently large.

Now, sir, was not this extremely horrifying to any of the onlookers, and what must it have been to the relatives? What is to be done?

Can the people belonging to Kirkden, especially those who can attend funerals in their gigs and on horseback, not get a respectable hearse, and procure some assistant to the venerable gravedigger?

I do not know if the respectable minister of the parish of Kirkden be a reader of this paper or not, but I am certain if he happen to see this, he will do his best to have the grievances I complained of remedied.

I am, Sir, your most obedient servant,


September 8th, 1851



A better example of a hearse may be seen at Glamis Museum. It is the one that was used in the parish of Glen Isla.

*Photograph of hearse – to follow


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