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Question in almost EVERY version I have seen of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol", the ghost of Jacob Marley is shown with a cloth bound tightly around his head, keeping his jaw shut.

My question is was that just a case of artistic freedom from either the people making the movies or from Charles Dickens side, or was that actually something you did at that point in time.

If so why, where does the tradition originate from and what does it mean?

Also at least in the 2009 version of A Christmas Carol, we see the body of Jacob Marley with coins in his eyes. I know the origin of the tradition being in Greek Mythology of paying the ferryman to cross the river Styx.

But was that something that was still done in the 19th Century or is it just a chase of artistic liberty on the producers of the movie´s part?

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    I don't know whether all people know, so I'll put it as a comment. When a person dies, after some time the muscles stiff and can't be moved anymore. So that cloth is put to close the mouth (is more aesthetic, less odor and no fluids comming out from the mouth). After some time, when the body is already stiff, you can remove the cloth and the mouth won't open. You can bury or cremate a body without removing the shroud.
    – Santiago
    Mar 3, 2022 at 12:37
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    I use a CPAP machine when I sleep and I wear a chin strap to keep my mouth closed so the air pressure doesn't escape out of my mouth. I suggest the ghost was wearing a hcin strap to keep its mouth closed after death.
    – MAGolding
    Mar 3, 2022 at 20:08

3 Answers 3

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Since there are several distinct questions within the original query, and other answers/comments seem to be focused on the aspect of funerary practices, this answer will focus on the OPs' question of artistic license by "the people making the movies".

The OP mentions the source of their question being 'EVERY version I have seen', we may be able to address whether this is

...a case of artistic freedom from either the people making the movies ...

by looking at the original text of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843).


All citations below are from a copy found in the 1883 publication of Charles Dickens's Complete Works. (all emphasis mine)

From the early description of Marleys Ghost

No nor did he believe it even now Though he looked the phantom through and through and saw it standing before him though he felt the chilling influence of its death cold eyes and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin which wrapper he had not observed before he was still incredulous and fought against his senses

This item reappears more importantly in a later section, described then as a bandage, which the spectre removes to illustrate its dire condition in rebuttal to Scrooges' indigestion jest:

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise that Scrooge held on tight to his chair to save himself from falling in a swoon But how much greater was his horror when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head as if it were too warm to wear in doors its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

This particular plot device makes one more appearance, as the Ghost is preparing to depart after having imparted its warning. This time the 'wrapper's function is spelled out clearly:

When it had said these words the spectre took its wrapper from the table and bound it round its head as before Scrooge knew this by the smart sound its teeth made when the jaws were brought together by the bandage He ventured to raise his eyes again and found his supernatural visitor confronting him in an erect attitude with its chain wound over and about its arm

We can see from these passages that it was not merely artistic license by the movie makers, but was integral to the original story as written by Dickens himself.


We can even see a depiction including the bandage illustrated in artwork by John Leech which appeared in the first edition in 1843(Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham.):

enter image description here

So we can see that the aspect of the original query as to whether or not the movies depiction of this item is 'artistic license' by the movie makers is unfounded. The cloth around the head of Jacob Marleys' Ghost has been present since the story was published in 1843. It only is described as a kerchief, wrapper or a bandage; its purpose is implied in the text as holding the lower jaw in place. It is not artistic license 'by the people making the movies'.

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    This doesn't answer the question of whether this was Dickens' invention or something people actually did at the time.
    – Barmar
    Mar 4, 2022 at 11:11
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    @Barmar - the tying-up of the chin to prevent the cadaver being presented to viewers (usually close relatives) with a gaping mouth was done at the time, before that time (it's trivial to find the practice documented for Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, for example), and to the present day. These days, a discrete chin-pad is often used initially, followed by strapping after the deceased's relatives have viewed the body. In Dickens' time, bodies were often on display for up to a week prior to interment and strapping was used as a matter of course.
    – Spratty
    Mar 4, 2022 at 11:32
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    @Spratty Perhaps you should post that as an answer.
    – Barmar
    Mar 4, 2022 at 11:36
  • @Barmar This does answer half of the OP's question. Are partial answers bad? Mar 4, 2022 at 23:10
  • I don't think that's the main point of the question. The question is whether it's artistic license or something real, not whether the license was taken by DIckens or the filmmakers. See the second paragraph of the question, where this is made clear.
    – Barmar
    Mar 4, 2022 at 23:15
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"Litten notes that by the early 17th century, for the first time, faces, once shrouded, were now far from concealed. In fact, the norm was for men to be dressed in a cap, shirt and then wrapped in a winding sheet, or if female, a shift, ruffle-edged cap and winding sheet. In both cases, the face fully visible. " Coffinworks.org

The remainder of that article strongly supports the notion that the face covering shroud is anachronistic.

None of the sources I found mention coins on the eyes. Impossible to prove a negative, but the absence of any evidence, plus the presence of the anachronistic shroud makes me very skeptical.

@Justcal points to some illustrations depicting winding sheets - further research seems prudent to determine whether those illustrations are more informed by art or by evidence. I'd also like to see some sources that would support coffinworks.org.

  • Victorianmonsters contains several images showing the faces of the deceased; while it is possible that the shroud is wound under the chin, the illustrations - to my eye- support the coffinworks assertion that the deceased were buried in clothing representing their lives. (It is also possible, albeit unlikely, that one set of clothing was used for the image and a shroud for burial; I'd want evidence to support that hypothesis).

  • morbidoutlook lists a funeral with "full worked glazed cambric winding-sheet,"; it is possible that burial clothing differed by class, but the site emphasizes less the clothing of the deceased, and more the customs of the procession.

  • In dressing the remains for the grave, those of a man are usually "clad in his habit as he lived." For a woman, tastes differ: a white robe and cap, not necessarily shroud like, are decidedly unexceptionable. For young persons and children, white cashmere robes and flowers are always most appropriate. thefuneralsource.org

  • No longer does the gruesome and chilling shroud enwrap the form. The garments worn in life have taken its place, and men and women are dressed as in life. Victoriana.com

  • “To see them in their coffins you would think they were completely dressed, but really all their finery is on top. Even the men’s solid looking black coats and smooth shirt fronts can go on and off without removing the corpse. What I am making is for a young girl who died yesterday, and will be buried to-morrow. She was to have been married next month, and her trousseau was begun at Mme. X___’s before I left there. She will look just as sweet in this robe I am making for her as she would have done in her wedding dress. VictorianBookOfTheDead.com

This appears to be a rich and well researched source - worth further attention

  • In the larger manufactories from which the undertaker gets his supplies, from seventy-five to one hundred different styles of shrouds for dead women are shown, and fifteen or more for dead men. The materials chiefly used are merino and lawn. The trimmings are satin, plain, stamped, or quilted; gimp, in folds, puffings, bows, edgings, box plaits, ruches or crepe lisse and of other material, embroidery and raised flosswork representing flowers, vines, tendrils, and in mottoes. The styles of cut and making follow to a considerable extent the prevailing modes of dress for the living. IBID

Which suggests some middle ground - the term "shroud" was still used, but referred not to a winding sheet but to custom made outfits intended to display the deceased in the manner of life.

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Follow the attached link to see the (slightly ghoulish) exhumed frozen corpses of three of the sailors on the doomed Franklin expedition to find the north west passage.

In this case one of the three corpses does appear to have a cloth bound under his chin, presumably to smarten him up a bit for his ship-mates to pay their last respects.

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