In the seventeenth century, death was a common visitor. In case of dying and burial of an individual citizen, neighbors played an important role. Neighbors in a given street were grouped by Town Ordnance into a "gebuurte" or neighborhood group, its members enjoying certain rights and duties, which were written in "Generale Ordonnantie op alle Gebuurten" , also known as "buurtbrieven" or neighborhood papers. As a group, neighbours took common care of order, safety, public quiet, assisting a neighbour in distress, being there as intermediary in domestic conflicts. Neighbors also had to provide help in upcoming deaths and in burials. (Haks, 62.).
What exactly happened in case of death? The corpse was undressed by neighbors and (again dressed in under garment) it was put on a separate metal bed, a ledikant* if it was available, on a layer of straw (because of leakage). Afterwards local "vrijsters", unmarried women in the neighborhood were called in to adorn the corpse with palm, laurel leaves and some flowers**.
*A loose ledikant slowly came into fashion. In the Vermeer house there was only one ; the rest of the inhabitants slept in bedsteads - in which one could only sit halway up.
**Arnold Houbraken, De groote Schouburgh der Nederlantsche Konstschilders en Schilderessen, The Hague 1752 [2nd ed.] Book 2, page 86-87.
In The Hague trespassers who did not fulfill their duty were fined - having to pay a certain sum of money or by forfeiting a ham.
In 1623 the Englisman T. Dawes reported:
Another custom in several cities was to place "a bunch of straw with some bricks on it " in front of the door of the house in which somebody had just died. It was placed on the right hand side if it was a man, and on the left if a woman." Burials took place within churches, as deep is possible, one on top of another. "They bury their dead without the least ceremony and if you hear a bell ring at the funeral, you may conclude its is a papist." See interfaith marriages.
Next to some churches there were open air graveyards in Delft. In the seventeenth century burials took place outside or inside Delft churches (dependent upon th estate of the economy some 30 to 45% of Delft inhabitants decided to spend the burial fee of 3 guilders). vdWiel, p. 53.
The continuous high number of burials within the confines of the churches caused quite some problems. The smell of decomposing corpses was ever present and when digging a new hole for a fresh coffin, the bones of a previous corpse became visible. Several paintings of church interiors show the interest of loose dogs in uprooted human bones.
Often a school master doubled as grave digger.
For Delft churches go to the yellow Delft Artists & Patrons section on Monuments.
C. Datema, 'British Travellers in Holland during the Stuart period. Edward Browne and John Locke as tourists in the United Provinces'. Thesis, Vrije Universiteit, 1989, p. 158-159.)
Donald Haks, Huwelijk en gezin in Holland in de 17de en 18de eeuw. Van Gorcum Historische Bibliotheek, nr 98, Assen, 1982, p. 62.
Kees van der Wiel, 'Delft in the Golden Age. Wealth and poverty in the age of Johannes Vermeer' in Dutch society in the age of Vermeer, Donald Haks and Marie Christine van der Sman (ed.) , The Hague Historical Museum and Waanders, Zwolle.
This page forms part of a large encyclopedic site on Delft. Research by Drs. Kees Kaldenbach (email). A full presentation is on view at johannesvermeer.info.
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