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St. Augustine Bell Tower

The death of a St. Augustine resident was announced to the people by the tolling of the church bells at six in the morning, twelve noon, and six in the evening. On the next afternoon, about four o'clock, the funeral procession came out of one of the streets branching off the plaza. Six men carried the coffin, panting as they struggled through the heavy sand in the heat. Ahead of them marched six more pall bearers, carrying a rude stand, made for the coffin to rest upon; when the coffin-bearers could carry their burden no further, they changed places and carried the lighter stand. The mourners brought up the rear. Women dressed in black saw their mourning clothes grow gray as the dust from the shell-paved streets around the church settled on them.

Since in the early days of the 19th century no daily paper was published, the friends and relatives of the dead were notified by a messenger who carried a notice of the time and place of the funeral from door to door. At the house where the deceased had lived, a carpenter was called to put together a rough pine coffin. The womenfolk laid out the body of a woman, and men performed this traditional service for a man.

Only once was the ceremony of the tolling bells omitted, and this was during the yellow fever epidemic of 1885. In that terrible time the practice had to be stopped. There were so many lying ill themselves for whom the sound of the bells was too hard to bear.

When the services were over, the pall bearers carried the coffin from the church to the cemetery for burial with the priest walking ahead. Four pall bearers sufficed to carry the coffin of a child, but on one notable occasion there were 12 handles on the grave box. It was the funeral of the keeper of a boarding house, who loved her own cooking and at her death weighed over 400 pounds. It took 12 men to carry her and the coffin was reinforced with steel to make sure it did not burst open.

All this changed when Mr. T. Bunting added ready-made caskets as a side line to his furniture business and imported a small hearse. He became St. Augustine's first professional funeral director, and when he died in 1901, Mr. R. A. Ponce, who had been serving as his assistant, took over as the town's undertaker. He soon introduced more modern methods and his services were greatly appreciated by the bereaved families who were quick to use and appreciate newer methods of burying and mourning their dead.

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