“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The first line of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel “The Go-Between,” often comes to mind when one is perusing newspapers from another time. It’s fascinating to try to imagine what captivated people throughout history. According to one staff writer for the St. Croix Avis, January 6th, 1865 “sudden deaths seem to be the order of the day.”

Notice printed in the St. Croix Avis, January 6, 1865.

Two sudden deaths, one by poisoning and the other unknown, occurred in Christiansted on the island of St. Croix, both under suspicious circumstances. Of the two victims, one postmortem examination was performed, and no obvious cause of death was found. With no immediate cause of death, the writer reasoned, how could anyone be absolutely certain that the person was dead? This was apparently a common concern at the time: a quick internment could result in the unfortunate victim being buried alive. The remedy proposed here is the construction of a “dead house.” A dead house, also known as a corpse house, is a structure used for the temporary storage of a human corpse before burial. Dead houses were common to certain religious groups, such as the Moravians, also known as Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of Brethren. They were also much more common before the mid-20th century, especially in areas with very cold winters where grave excavation in the frozen ground would be impossible. Of course, now we have modern refrigeration to preserve the dead.

But why would a dead house be suggested in the local newspaper as a solution to the problem of mysterious deaths, especially in a place where the year-round heat and humidity are abiding? How practical is it to place a dead person in a building in the tropics for several days?

1917 Census of the U.S. Virgin Islands, which includes a note about average temperatures between 1843 and 1851.

And furthermore, how did a relatively isolated community of Danish Lutheran colonists on a small island in the Caribbean learn of the existence of dead houses?

The answer is that the Danes were not the only people inhabiting the Danish West Indies. In fact, for such a small area, these islands had a relatively diverse population including Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, Scottish, Swedish, Irish and English nationals (Krigger, 2017). The first Moravians, two to be exact, arrived with the blessing of the King of Denmark on the island of St. Thomas in 1732 and in 1733 made their way to St. Croix. The Moravians came to the Danish West Indies with the sole purpose of improving the lot of the enslaved, but clearly, they held some influence with others.

What can be deduced from this anachronism? Moravian missionaries on St. Croix must have described their customs to others– a dead house would be a solution, despite the weather. What is interesting is that any cultural or religious practice, like a dead house, may be adopted in any place, no matter how incongruous it seems to researchers in hindsight.

Citations and additional sources:

Blouet, H. C. (2013). Interpretations of Burial and Commemoration in Moravian and African Diasporas on St. John, Virgin Islands. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 17(4), 731–781. doi:10.1007/s10761-013-0241-2 

Hartley, E. F. (Ed.). (1918). Census of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Government Printing Office.

Krigger, M. F. (2017). Race Relations in the U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, a centennial retrospective. Carolina Academic Press, LLC.

The Leichenkapelchen–Corpse House. Lititz Public Library. (2021, September 21). Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://lititzlibrary.org/.

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