Monday, February 23, 2009

Graveyard Rabbits Carnival, Manly Family Coffin Plates

The topic for the premier edition of the Graveyard Rabbits carnival is "exceptional finds. So I thought I would share my 3 favorite coffin plates from my collection. I started my collection of coffin plates after my mother gave me one that had been handed down in our family for over 100 years.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the subject. Coffin plates are decorative adornments attached to the coffin that contain genealogical information like the name and death date of the deceased. Generally made of a soft metal like lead, pewter, silver, brass, copper, zinc or tin. The different metals reflect the different functions of the plates, or the status and wealth of the deceased.

In North America in the 1840s the practice of removing the plates from the coffin before burial as mementos started to become common. This practice was particularly popular in the North Eastern United States, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The farther you get from the Northeastern U.S. the less common the practice becomes. This practice peaked in the late 19th century (1880~1899) and by the 1920s it had all but stopped.

I have many coffin plates in my collection, several hundred in fact, but my 3 favorite plates are rare as the come from England. The English never went in for the North American practice of removing the plates before burial. They preferred to leave the plates attached to the coffin when it was buried so as you can imagine the English coffin plates are a little hard to get.

English coffin plates were also different from North American plates in that the English plates were often much larger. In north America most coffin plates are only about 4 to 6in wide. However in England they often used much larger plates called breast plates. Breast plates can be as much as 12in wide and 18in tall and are often shaped like a shield.

This set of three brass coffin depositum plates are all from the Manly family. These items were removed with the family's permission upon the deconsecration of the church and clearing of crypts etc. The two from 1875 are in classic Gothic shield style are professionally manufactured by Ingali Parson whilst the 1893 piece is heavily influenced by Arts & Crafts movement but has no makers mark. All three plates are brass with hand engraved lettering.

The plates read
William Manly Died Oct 25 1893 Aged 84 years.
Martha Manly Wife of William Manly Died April 26th 1875 Aged 62 years.
George Frederick Manly Died April 8th 1875 Aged 28 years.

Many people are a little surprised when they first see my collection of coffin plates. A lot of them ask me why I collect something that to them is kind of creepy or morbid. To me they are works of art. The beautiful engraving was all done by hand in the days before machines took over that job. The designs of the plates themselves reflect the styles of the period in which they were made. They also represent the growing industrial skill of the metalworking industry. And of course as a genealogist I love the way they connect me to the past. When I read the names on the plates I think about who the person was, what their life was like. I often try to do a little research on the family to see if I can learn any thing about them. I feel in some small way like I am keeping the memory of that person alive. I may not be related to that person but in many cases I am probably the only person who ever thinks about them, or in some cases is even aware they ever existed. And I think everyone deserves to be remembered.

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