Home Page John Wilson Related Sites Acknowledgements Send a message Email about the diary Start from January 1st

July 30th 1631

Previous day Next day

The price of a Kirk burial

The early Christians followed the Roman custom and buried their dead outwith the city. But with the erection of churches generally beside the graves of saints and martyrs, pressure grew among the kings and nobility for their own burial to take place in hallowed ground.

It was a privilege granted only to the rich and powerful, the common people buried their dead as before. The church frowned upon the practice of burial within the church but could not quite bring themselves to forbid the practice absolutely.

Archbishop Lanfranc in 1076 could say categorically “Let no bodies of the dead be buried in churches.”  but even this edict was hedged about with special exceptions. The trouble was that the rich were prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege of kirk burial and the church found it difficult to resist such a handsome source of revenue. At the same time it became the practice to set aside land beside the church as a place for common burial.

In Perth the old burial ground beside St John’s became seriously overcrowded, and in 1580 the Kirk Session decided to appropriate the graveyard which had belonged to the old Greyfriars monastery.

The Session made their views quite plain “that in all times coming the yard in the Greyfriars to be burial,”  also for “an duty of those who departs for upholding of the burial dykes (walls).” 

In spite of these ordinances there was still a very utilitarian attitude towards the graveyards. The old graveyard became something of a refuse dump for the whole town. One ordinance from the Session prohibits “men or women laying middens in the churchyard.” 

Even at Greyfriars it was found necessary to prohibit the grazing of cattle there and at the same time order the removal of stables that had been set up. There was in fact a marked reluctance everywhere to provide for the continuous upkeep of graveyards and as late as 1767 in a pamphlet published in Edinburgh mention was made of “a kirkyard with high walls and strong gates where the incumbents horse, after a heavy rain, stamped into a green grave as into a bog, till his feet touched the coffin.” 

In another kirkyard without fences “the bones of the dead were in such numbers above ground, that one can hardly walk, particularly on the floor of the kirk, without trampling them underfoot.” 

One of the consequences of the Reformation was that all the decadent relics of Catholicism were to be swept away. The first Book of Discipline was quite specific. “We think it not seemly that the kirk appointed for preaching and ministration of the sacraments shall be made a place of burial, but that some other secret and convenient place lying in the most free air be appointed for that use, which place ought to be walled and fenced about and kept for that use only.” 

So that was that, kirk burial was out.

The General Assembly in 1582 underlined the edict “That burial in parish Kirks by Act be discharged and ane special punishment be appointed for transgressors.”  In 1598, there was a message from James 6th himself to the General Assembly. “Anent Burrialls. His Majesty thought good that ane supplication should be given in to the next Parliament, craving that for the avoiding of burials in Kirks, every nobleman should bigg ane sepulchre for himself and his family.” 

Could it be that kirk burials were still taking place? Well, yes they were. If the inducement was sufficiently generous the operation could be and was allowed:

July 12th 1603 “The Laird of Ballandene, quha was slain in Dundee was buried in the kirk of Perth, be east the Council house door.”  The Duke of Atholl asked for this privilege and offered as inducement “fifty merks money, to be employed either to the use of the poor, or to the reparation of the kirk. The Session condescended to his suit.” 

July 30th 1631 The Session was asked by the Laird of Moncrief for permission to bury his wife within the kirk. “They thought it expedient that the Laird himself should come in before them and propone the said ground and what he would offer for the said license.”  He was prepared to offer forty pound Scots which was considered to be sufficient.

February 25th 1637 Lady Stormonth asked if her mother might be buried within the kirk and was prepared to offer one hundred pounds Scots. Lady Stormonth herself died a year later and was buried beside her mother. Again one hundred pounds was paid to the kirk to be used for the buying of a communion cup.

And so it went on throughout the 17th Century. There was never a great rush for kirk burial but every so often one of the great or the good or the wealthy was prepared to pay handsomely for this privilege.

By the 18th Century the practice had died out.

Previous day Next day

Perthshire Diary Home | Author | Perthshire Links | Reference | Contact Us | Tell a friend | Browse