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Funeral Customs in Early Charlton County

---Lois Barefoot Mays

Rites of Passage following the loss of a loved one have changed in many ways in our area over the past century. Rev. W.O. Gibson, one of the most respected of the local pioneers, recalled that near Coleraine on the St. Marys River was a place called the Sawpit Landing. Many years ago a pit was dug there for the sawing of lumber, mostly for making coffins. The pit was about ten feet long and four feet wide with a depth of about five or six feet. Across this pit friends or relatives of the recently deceased person placed two logs. Then the log to be sawed rested on these, lengthwise the pit. Two sides of the log had already been hewn with an axe, and its length was the size of the coffin to be built. With a “straight edge”, a line was made with a piece of chalk where the saw was to cut to make the board. If chalk was not convenient, charcoal was used. One man stood on a frame above the log and another stood in the pit and with a crosscut saw, a board was made. “It was slow, hard work, but it was better than to have no lumber,” said Rev. Gibson. The boards produced by this primitive effort were then taken to the community carpenter who, with the help of the women of the family, produced a coffin with a lid.

Mrs. Helen Mizell Sarbacher once recalled the manner her family was told of a death in the community of Kings Ferry. A horse bearing a young boy galloped up to the Mizell’s front gate and the child quickly handed a card to the person who met him. It told of the sudden death of a friend and the time of the funeral at the cemetery the next morning. The boy then rushed away with the card for the next home in the community, to alert them of the sorrowful event. Miss Helen remembered too, that if infants were taken to the funeral, they usually wore little black dresses.

Another way of communication news of a death in a village such as Traders Hill, was the ringing of the church bell, recalled Miss Annie Keene, Dr. Willis Keene’s aunt. It was tolled once for each year the person who died, had lived.

Recalling events of her childhood, Mrs. Doris Wright Askew, one of Dr. J.C. Wright’s granddaughters, told of the flowers that often covered the grave. She remembered that women of the community cut pieces of cardboard, punched small holes with an ice pick and inserted wild flowers, or fern and flowers picked from their own yards. When the cardboard was covered completely, it was carried to the funeral.

An unusual use of the coffin boards was revealed when V.A. Hodges, popular Roadmaster of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad who lived in Folkston, visited his elderly uncle Mr. John H. Smith of Clinch County in the early 1930s. Mr. Smith and his father had made boards of hand-drawn cypress lumber in 1879. Mr. Hodges remarked that on their last reunion, when the family all gathered, a table was made under the oak trees from these boards.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith both died on the same day soon after that and the boards were used for their coffins.

Sources:    Charlton County Herald, February 19, 1932 and April 27, 1934; Interviews with Miss Annie Keene, Mrs. Helen Mizell Sarbacher and Mrs. Doris Wright Askew;

from DeBrahm's Report
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