30 September 2013

For a sea burial, the last stitch goes through the nose

A post by John Farrier at Neatorama today made note of a longstanding custom for sea burials by the Royal Navy:
On one of the ships I sailed as a cadet in the Merchant Navy in the early 1960s, there was a death on board off the West African coast. As there were two doctors on the ship to sign the death certificate and no refrigerated space, it was decided to "commit the body to the deep."

The mate sent me down to assist the bo'sun to prepare and stitch up the corpse, as he said I would be unlikely to witness such an occurrence again. The bo'sun, a North Sea Chinaman (ie, he hailed from the Orkney Isles), was in his sixties and had performed the task several times before. He was a deft hand with the palm [leather glove] and needle used to sew the heavy canvas into a shroud around the body, and when he came to the final stitches around the face he pushed the large triangular-shaped needle right through the nose. I winced, and he looked up at me and said, "That's the law of the sea, the last stitch through the nose, if that don't wake him up I know he's dead." 
I found confirmation at Exeter Flotilla, with a notation that the person who sewed up bodies for burial was paid a guinea per body.

I can't help but think of how this custom might have doomed the Count of Monte Cristo.

And btw, the phrase in the citation "He was a deft hand with the palm and needle" is interesting in and of itself.  See Wherein I learn what a collarmaker's palm is.

Photo from a brief instructional on how to make bunny whiskers: "When you have several loops, remove the needle from the thread, even up the length of the loops, then use sharp scissors to cut the loops open and trim the whiskers to the length you prefer."

1 comment:

  1. This was mentioned in the movie "Master and Commander" based on the Patrick O'Brian books. But I admit that I don't really remember it being a thing in the books.


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