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funeral customs, bells, wheat, tongue twisters, ashes, William Frey, Cinderella, bees, Reading Eagle
A handwritten letter from Norman A. Smith addressed to Alfred L. Shoemaker, dated April 9 and April 20, 1948. Within, Smith provides Shoemaker with stories of funeral customs and feasts as well as other information on topics such as ashes and tongue twisters.
Norman A. Smith
Alfred L. Shoemaker
Packet 232-9 to 232-12
April 9, 1948
Mr. Alfred L. Shoemaker
“Curator” The Historical Society,
Of Berks Co., 940 Centre Ave.,
Dear Mr. Shoemaker;
I received your letter today, and am indeed sorry that I wasn’t home when you were here. I had hoped, that if you ever intended to visit us again, you would send us a card, so that someone would be home.
I don’t remember whether “Gudenboch” was on my clock or not, I can’t read German script. There is a German working at the mill near home who might know, of a town or village, by that name. He was born in Germany.
You are welcome to look over my notes on Dutch riddles, rhymes tongue-twisters, and stories at any time, I am sure that I missed some, when I read them to you. I have them interspersed with other notes. I would like to visit your building again, soon. I might bring the note book along.
In one of your columns you had mentioned tongue twisters. Here is one my Grandfather, and mother used to tell us. “Druvva luf am blow barig lide en bly gledd’sel.” This is the one mom was talking about when you were at our place, in English this would read like this. Up on the blue mts. lies a small lead log. Maybe, “bly gledd’sel”, was the Dutch, for lead ingot.
In one of your columns you ask whether anyone in Reading remembers “striclers”, did you ever find out what they are? In your column you say that there is no English equivalent, for the word, “Eschepudl”, I believe that there is, what about “Cinderella”. Cinderella was called Cinderella, because she puddled around in the ashes or cinders according to the Story. Esche means ash and pudl means to play in water or dirt and to get yourself real dirty. We don’t get the daily Eagle - my sister cuts out your columns and brings them over. We get the weekly or Sunday Eagle. There is where I read that you are going to Europe. I was sorry to hear this because I am afraid that, if Will Frey, is still living, he might be gone by the time you get back. He is the man from Albany Eck. Who used to know all those interesting hex and ghost stories. If “Will” is still living, and his mind is still clear, it would be a pity to risk losing forever those interesting old stories. They were all supposed to have been “true” and all had Albany Eck as their locale.
I also know several Ola real old German riddles, but these are rather smutty or vulgar. And I do not like to repeat anything that casts an unfavorable light on our ancestors, and what little that is remembered of their culture or way of life.
We had talked about Dutch box makers. The one whose name I couldn’t think of was named “Yeager.” In English it would probably be Hunter. I had never heard his first or Christian name. I had asked my grandfather’s cousin, and she also said that an old man named “Mard” Wetzel had been a box maker, and had lived or made his home at my great great great grandfather, John Dietrich’s place for many years.
When she mentioned Mard Wetzel I was very much surprised as I had never imagined that Mard or rather Martin Wetzel, had ever been a living person, the reason for my surprise was that the name Mard Whetzel, figured in a “rather” derogatory, doggerel or verse, I had often heard repeated in our family. Did I show you my old German cake pan, shaped like a five pointed star?
April 20, 1948
Here are some old fashioned funeral customs. Some are very strange and haven’t been mentioned in your column.
Old Fashioned Funerals
As soon as someone, had passed away, the sexton would be notified, and then he would start tolling the day of the funeral, then there would be a pause, after that he would begin tolling the age of the dead.
One toll for each year of the departed, person’s life. If the person who died, had owned bees, the hives were draped with big pieces of black cloth, to keep the bees from swarming, or mourning till they died, or just to keep them from dying. These are the answers I received for my curiosity as a child. The cloth draping the hives covered each hive and hung to the ground. If part of the services were held at the home, all the mirrors were draped with white cloth completely covering the mirror and frame.
At the funerals the near relatives wore mourning veils, which were so long and voluminous, that when they walked they kicked them up in front to keep from treading on them and they often dragged in back.
When the funeral cortege came in sight of the church, the sexton began to toll again, till the casket was put in the church vestibule. When safely in the church, a small neat sheaf of wheat, was placed in the coffin, and the departed soul’s hands clasped around it. Sometimes the birth and baptismal certificate, was rolled up and clasped in the hands in place of the small wheat sheaf. Usually the certificate was placed under the pillow, in the coffin.
The sheaf of wheat, I believe was our symbol of resurrection.
After the services in the church, and before internment, several songs were sang.
Of course there was also the funeral feast. With its usual raisin, or funeral pies, the feast was for the near relatives, and people who had come by train. Some families butchered especially for the funeral feast. If the family of the departed person were rich, everyone was invited, if they weren’t, just the relatives were invited to the feast. Some families provided such a lavish feast that they went bankrupt. I heard tell of one family who butchered a bull three pigs and twenty chickens. And baked dozens of pies and tarts, and cakes and loaves of bread. Not to mention various other dishes that were included in the meal. This was supposed to have been the most stupendous feast that had ever been in our section.
There was also the person who was unofficially known as the chief mourner. Also the usual persons who never missed a funeral, some for the meals others for the excitement and gossip. Most of these customs have been discontinued for twenty years. These customs were considered very archaic, even then. My great grandmother, and we children used to watch the funerals from the Eastern gable window of our house.
I hope you will find some things that interest you in this letter.
Norman A. Smith
English and Pennsylvania German
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Smith, Norman A., "Letter From Norman A. Smith to Alfred L. Shoemaker, April 9, 1948" (1948). Alfred L. Shoemaker Folk Cultural Documents. 181.
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