The burials. That child Ellis in his hammock with the flag sewed over him looked like a little pudding, and now at the recollection his eye clouded again. He had wept, wept, his face streaming with tears as the bodies went over the side and the marines fired their volley. – Master and Commander
Our beloved series is set during a time of war, and of course we understand that people die in battle. We also know that many did not die in battle, but died of injury or disease while at sea. By all accounts a burial at sea is a solemn and beautiful ceremony, one which Jack Aubrey performs time and again to his own sorrow.
Interestingly enough, according to the Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience, burial at sea was more a matter of necessity than choice. Sailors accepted it when far out to sea because there was no other option, but bodies were apparently buried ashore whenever possible. This could be because the changeable nature of the sea denies the living a sense of the permanence of death, a way to complete the ritual of separation that a burial in the earth represents. It also denies the living a single place to go to memorialize the dead. When memorialization was considered especially important (as in the case of Admiral Lord Nelson after Trafalgar), those in command went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the body would be buried ashore.
The following articles were both written in the course of graduate studies by students seeking to understand the meaning behind the ritual. The first, Interment without Earth, is eight pages long and uses the second as a reference. It is interesting and well-written, and focuses specifically on the Age of Sail which makes it rather more manageable than the other. Rocks and Stones I’ll Fear No More is a full-length dissertation at over 300 pages, but it’s full of fascinating information for the extremely ambitious (I’m ambitious but not that ambitious… I skimmed it).
Interment without Earth: A Study of Sea Burials during the Age of Sail by Johnathan Pryor
Rocks and Stones I’ll Fear No More: Anglo-American Maritime Memorialization, 1700 – 1940 by David James Stewart
With a few exceptions, our wounded men were in a fair way to recover by the time we reached Newport. The last of them, who died of their wounds on board, was buried just before we got in. His name was Thomas Whittaker; he had been badly wounded by splinters. While he lived, he endured excessive torture. At last his sufferings rendered him crazy, in which sad state he died. He was sewed up in his hammock by his messmates and carried on a grating to the larboard bow port. There Mr. Archer, a midshipman of the Macedonian, read the beautiful burial service of the church of England. When he came to that most touching passage, “we commit the body of our brother to the deep,” the grating was elevated, and, amid the most profound silence, the body fell heavily into the waters. As it dropped into the deep, a sigh escaped from many a friendly bosom, and an air of passing melancholy shrouded many a face with sadness. Old recollections were busy there, calling up the losses of the battle; but it was only momentary. The men brushed away their tears, muttered “It’s no use to fret,” and things once more wore their wonted aspect. – Excerpt from A Voice From the Main Deck by Samuel Leeche, RN. A longer account detailing the battle between the HMS Macedonian and the USS United States during the War of 1812 can be found here.
The Ship: The sails should be adjusted so she is cokced up to the weather, some sails full of drive and some laid all a’back, so the ship is motionless.
Topgallant Yards a-cock-bill to signify a death and a buiral. Lift lines out of trim to speak grief. The entry port on the starboard gangway to windward, and open.
The Body: canvas shrouded, with two cannon balls at the feet for weight, to insure sinking. The canvas should be sewn in place, starting at the feet, with the last stitch through the nose of the corpse, to check the person is indeed deceased. The body is then placed on an 8 man mess table, and covered with a Red Ensign.
Crew Formation: Crew gathered to witness the service, under immediate command of the Bosun. Position of the crew not specified due to various diffferent ships’ deck configurations.
The Order for the Burial of the Dead
Here is to be noted, that the Office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptized, or excommunicated, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.
The Priest and Clerks meeting the Corpse [...] and going before it [...] shall say, or sing,
I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. St. John xi. 25, 26.
KNOW that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shalt stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. Job xix. 25, 26, 27.
HE brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord. 1 Tim. vi. 7. Job I. 21.
As the deceased and the burial party approach the entryway the Bosun orders: “Ship’s Company… Off hats.”
After they are come to the entry port, shall be read one or both of these Psalms following.Dixi, custodiam. Psalm 39.
In the 1700s and 1800s, often Psalm 30, or Lamentations 3:31-33 were used.
I SAID, I will take heed to my ways: that I offend not in my tongue.
I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle: while the ungodly is in my sight.
I held my tongue, and spake nothing: I kept silence, yea, even from good words; but it was pain and grief to me.
My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled: and at the last I spake with my tongue;
Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live.
Behold, thou hast made my days as it were a span long: and mine age is even as nothing in respect of thee; and verily every man living is altogether vanity.
For man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.
And now, Lord, what is my hope: truly my hope is even in thee.
Deliver me from all mine offences: and make me not a rebuke unto the foolish.
I became dumb, and opened not my mouth: for it was thy doing.
Take thy plague away from me: I am even consumed by means of thy heavy hand.
When thou with rebukes dost chasten man for sin, thou makest his beauty to consume away, like as it were a moth fretting a garment: every man therefore is but vanity.
Hear my prayer, 0 Lord, and with thine ears consider my calling: hold not thy peace at my tears.
For I am a stranger with thee: and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
0 spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
Domine, refugium. Psalm 90.
LORD, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.
Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night.
As soon as thou scatterest them, they are even as a sleep: and fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green, and groweth up: but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered.
For we consume away in thy displeasure: and are afraid at thy wrathful indignation.
Thou hast set our misdeeds before thee: and our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
For when thou art angry all our days are gone: we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told.
The days of our age are three-score years and ten; and though men be so strong, that they come to fourscore years: yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.
But who regardeth the power of thy wrath: for even thereafter as a man feareth, so is thy displeasure.
So teach us to number our days: that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Turn thee again, O Lord, at the last: and be gracious unto thy servants.
O satisfy us with thy mercy, and that soon: so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.
Comfort us again now after the time that thou hast plagued us: and for the years wherein we have suffered adversity.
Shew thy servants thy work: and their children thy glory.
And the glorious Majesty of the Lord our God be upon us: prosper thou the work of our hands upon us, O prosper thou our handy-work.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
Then shall follow the Lesson taken out of the fifteenth Chapter of the former Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.
1 Cor. 15. 20.
NOW is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all. Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead? and why stand we in jeopardy every hour?
I protest by your rejoicing, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake to righteousness, and sin not: for some have not the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body, as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body. All flesh is not the same flesh; but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from another star in glory.
So also is the resurrection of the dead: It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit, that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I shew you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump, (for the trumpet shall sound,) and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality; then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 0 death, where is thy sting? 0 grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
When they come to the Grave, while the Corpse is made ready to be [buried], the Priest shall say, or the Priest and Clerks shall sing:
MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Then, [while the earth shall be cast upon the Body by some standing by, if on land] the Priest shall say:
We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, (when the Sea shall give up her dead,) and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who at his coming shall change our vile body, that it may be like his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
Burial Party upends mess table (retaining the Ensign), while the body slips from beneath it, into the sea.
In 1700′s liturgy:
In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lour Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our shipmate ____________________ and we commit his body to the depths… Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him. The Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him. The Lord lift up his countenance upon him, and give him peace. Amen.
Then shall be said or sung:
I HEARD a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit: for they rest from their labours.
Then the Priest shall say:
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
OUR Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; But deliver us from evil. Amen.
ALMIGHTY God, with whom do live the spirits of them that depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity: We give thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world; beseeching thee, that it may please thee, of thy gracious goodness, shortly to accomplish the number of thine elect, and to hasten thy kingdom; that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in thy eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Assembled shall reply:
MERCIFUL God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life; in whom whosoever believeth shall live, though he die; and whosoever liveth, and believeth in him, shall not die eternally; who also hath taught us, by his holy Apostle Saint Paul, not to be sorry, as men without hope, for them that sleep in him: We meekly beseech thee, 0 Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our brother doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight; and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world: Grant this, we beseech thee, 0 merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. Amen.
THE grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.
Priest departs with burial party. Bosun orders: “Ship’s Company… Dismissed hats.”
Courtesy of Johnathan Pryor, David James Stewart, T. Leigh Ullrich and Sea Services. Intro and questionable analysis by your captain.
Image: Screencap from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (copyright Twentieth Century Fox 2003). Courtesy of A Gathering of Crowe.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading:
- A Brief Guide to Men and Officers in Aubrey’s Royal Navy
- Hey There, Hot Shot: A Guide to Ammunition in Aubrey’s Royal Navy
- Playing At Command: Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the Royal Navy, 1793 – 1815
- Customs in Aubrey’s Royal Navy: The Wardroom
- Customs in Aubrey’s Royal Navy: A Random Collection