Settin’ Up With The Sick

sick bed

“When a member of the family become ill, no matter how minor, family members “set” up with that person all night. Since doctors were not handy to diagnose the seriousness of an illness, families feared the worst in any illness. Often neighbors set up, to give the family some relief from care giving.

Lamps were turned down low, and if there happened to be an electric light bulb suspended from the ceiling, there was a paper shield wrapped around it to dim the room. That was done to protect the sick person’s eyes from the bright lights.

If the sick person was “up in age” and almost sure to die, family, friends, and neighbors came and set up. Voices were kept low and the sick person was checked often. Nearing the end was called the “death watch.” The elders knew when the end was near for their loved ones, by the “death rattles,” a rattling sound made by the sick when breathing.

Men sat up with sick males and women took care of their own and children.

Everyone was interested in the condition of his or her sick neighbors, and information spread by word of mouth.”

—Betty Riddle – “Reflections on Mountain Heritage” published by the Gilmer County Genealogical Society, Inc.

Setting up with sick people is hard and troublesome. It leaves one wishing they could take away the pain and suffering of the sick person and struggling with the need and duty of being there fighting with the desire to be elsewhere.

I remember when Papaw Wade was sick there was a time that we thought it was the end and everyone was called to come and set and wait like the death watch Betty describes. The house was full, but Papaw didn’t die that night. When his time came, there was only four of us and there was no time to call for everyone else to come.

If you’d like to pick up your own copy of “Reflections on Mountain Heritage” you can find it here for a very reasonable price.


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  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 11:10 pm

    My earliest memory of funerals and people sitting up with the corpse was when my grandfather died. I was about four and he told me I would need to learn to read the comics myself because he was going to die and wouldn’t be able to read them to me anymore. I too remember where the casket was placed in the house. As I got older I helped dig graves at both the Baptist and the Methodist cemeteries.
    When I was about fifteen I had an accident and was in the hospital for three days. The last night there the doctor told me I could go home the next morning. I was so happy to hear this that I got dressed to go and kept going out to the nurses’ station to see the time. (The only clock on that floor} Another doctor came to check on a patient, saw me and asked a few questions. He said if I planned to stay up all night waiting to go home he had a job for me. He asked me to sit with a man who was dying and come tell the nurse when he stopped breathing. I had seen many dead people in caskets but this was the first of many times to actually watch someone die. I was with my wife’s dad and mother as well as two of her sisters when they passed away. I had an elderly friend in poor health for a year or so before she died. She and I talked often about angels coming for us when it was time to go. I visited on her last day in the hospital and we both knew her time was very short. I prayed with her and asked God to send His two most gentle angels for her when He was ready for her. After the funeral I was talking with her sister and mentioned that prayer. Her sister said, “That explains what was going on just before she died. She was saying something and I leaned close to hear.” She said, “I see the angels.” and breathed her last. These are just a few of my experiences that were at sad times but I feel I was able to give comfort to all of them and to their families later. I am glad I could be there for them.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 19, 2020 at 6:58 pm

    When my father-in-law was in the hospital after one of his heart attacks one time we didn’t ask if somebody could stay overnight with him. They told us that they wouldn’t keep him if somebody didn’t stay with him at night. He wasn’t in his right mind and wouldn’t stay in bed. They put up rails but he climbed over them. He harassed the nurses. They told us they would have to restrain him (restrain sounds better that strap him to the bed) if one of us didn’t stay at night. It was that or put him in the geriatrics ward at Broughton Hospital. At that time that wasn’t a pleasant thought. Strangely he was fine in the daytime.
    Speaking of Broughton Hospital it is considered to be one of the most haunted places in North Carolina. Recently they have built a new facility, moved the patients there and are tearing down most of those historic old buildings. I’m wondering of the haunts moved into the new place. If I was a haunt I would. It’s a nice place! I don’t know that first hand though. I have seen it from the street, I haven’t actually been in there. At least not yet!

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 6:16 pm

    One of the most troubling tales I have ever heard till this day was a real good Brother in Christ helped set up with his Wife’s Uncle when death was near and the Man had lived a very awful life and was mean to everyone, my Friend said all night he would holler get me out of these flames and settle back down then later scream out get me away from these flames, this still troubles me to this day to hear of this man’s suffering.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Sad post today Tipper. I know all to well about this. My mother, my job is this. I’m a caregiver. I love my job but it also is sad when that time comes. Especially for the family. Myself also because you grow atatch to the people you take care of. The one I’m with now is 89. Sweet woman. Mrs Elizabeth. Bless her heart.

  • Reply
    harry adams
    August 19, 2020 at 3:02 pm

    I was with my father in a VA hospital and sister and mother in a Hospice when they died. My mother was taken to the Hospice from the hospital, but they said she wasn’t really sick enough to be there. We were required to pay for her to be admitted. I think she lived 3 days there. I am not sure how sick you have to be. My brother and I felt if she returned to the nursing home, she would be sent back to the hospital the next day. There was a brochure in the hospice room on the death process. It fit my mother exactly. My younger brother commented that if he had read that he would not have tried so hard to get Mom to eat.

    It would be nice to have a life course in school to teach us about life and dying. A lot more important then English literature. I read a book one time titled “all the things they failed to teach in school” One of the most useful courses I took in college included how to fill out an income tax form.

    In the good old days the women did not work outside the home. Not to say they didn’t work in the home, but it was easier to look after someone. At least they didn’t have to get off work or quit a job. Now days look at what a turmoil everyone is going through to find someone to take care of their children since the schools and day cares are closed.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 9:29 am

    I remember going with the older members of my family wben I was a teenager. We also went when the casket was at the home sometimes the night before the burial.
    Now everyone just signs in a memory on the funeral home websites,

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 9:21 am

    I sure remember sitting up with the sick from my parents age. Even when I married and one of your loved ones was really sick or injured you thought you had to be there night and day. When my Father was dying my son and I happened to be there and we took turns one sitting all day and the other all night. My Father would be 105 if he was still living and I sure miss him still as I do my Mother. I remember my Father telling me when his grandfather died he went to the house with the rest of his family. His grandfather was laying on a table in the parlor and candles were lit around the room but it was dim lit – no electricity at that time. My Father said family and friends would take turns sitting up with the deceased person until the day of the funeral. Today some hospitals will let you stay overnight with a sick loved one, others want you to leave at a certain time. I have always felt If I had a loved one in the hospital, I needed to be there from sun up to sundown to make sure they were being taken care of properly:)

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 9:18 am

    Settin’ up with the dead was also a common practice in my hometown. They were left at the church or in the home for several days. I thought those folks settin’ up in the old church in a remote location was the scariest thing I had ever heard. My mammy died in our house when I was just twelve years old. Some of Mom’s family was settin’ up with her while Mom slept. Mom had a dream that Mammy had died and got up to check on her. She had just died. I was so glad someone else was there to help console us.

  • Reply
    Randy Pruitt
    August 19, 2020 at 8:58 am

    Tipper, this hits real close to home. My 90 year old mother in law passed away last week and at least one of her 4 children were with her at all times during the last 2 months. She had 5 girls, no boys, one of the girls passed away a few years ago. I also remember sitting up with the dead when bodies were brought back home instead of being left at mortuary. Her and my father in law were the finest salt of the earth old time country people you could ever wish to meet

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 19, 2020 at 8:30 am

    I have a very distant memory of my grandmother’s sister being at her house in the bed dying. Family was there with her. That is my only experience of sitting with the dying.
    The thing about it is everyone, almost, died at home. There was no option. There were not the hospitals and nursing homes like we have today.
    People took care of each other.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 8:15 am

    Tipper, this hits real close to home for me. My mother in law passed away last week, she was 90 years old. Her 4 children all girls were sure that at least one of them was with her at all times for the last several months. I also remember when a person died and the body was brought home and not left at mortuary, neighbors, friends, and some members of the family would sit up at night with the dead.

    My mother in law asked her children not to put here in a nursing home, and with God’s heip, they were able to grant this request.. Her and my father in law were old time country people and were some of the finest people you could ever hope to be around.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 19, 2020 at 7:50 am

    This is one of those mountain traditions that was raveling out about the time I was a boy. It hadn’t gone but it had begun to be more likely seriously sick people would be in the hospital. It was still a common thing though for people to be returned home for a time before the funeral. My step-grandpa was returned home. Probably my earliest dated memory was of him ‘lying in state’.

    There was a book written about folkways of the Upper Cumberland River country. But I have never gotten ahold of a copy.

    • Reply
      aw griff
      August 19, 2020 at 9:57 am

      Ron I agree, as you say it was raveling out when I was a boy but many were brought home before the funeral. I had a younger brother die in 1957 and brought to our house. Although I was only 9 years old the memory is etched in my mind. I can remember the room, window, direction of the casket, and color. This also brought back memories of a Great Grandfather that was brought to my Mamaw’s house and where it was placed in the house. The wood casket was made by Papaw and Mamaw lined it.
      It appears to me that many people are dying at home again with the vigil of the family and hospice.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    August 19, 2020 at 7:47 am

    I remember it well when Aunt Sarah died, she was Old as the hills. She cried out a few times, and then she was gone. We had moved from Tucker Branch down to Trim Cove and a fellow and his wife from Indiana by the name of Lenox had bought our old place. Aunt Sarah Hardin was Beaula’s Mama. Ted and his wife Beaula was the ones that convinced Daddy and Mama to go to Church with them.

    Like most boys Me and Harold was real young, and had to have our Heads Peeled on the Porch from being Roudy. But we weren’t use to being quiet, we Learned.

    At the Funeral, Preacher Adams from Robbinsville done the Service, and on a quiet day, I can still smell those Red Roses. Perhaps it’s because the Ambulance driver of either Townson or Ivy funeral Home asked me to get Out the flowers after Sarah had been taken out. There’s No Way I would have done it with a Dead Person still Inside. I ain’t that Brave. …Ken

    • Reply
      Margie Goldstein
      August 19, 2020 at 7:57 am

      As a RN, the set up would still be a good idea. It showed genuine caring and concern. People were happier and more content in the good old days because they may not have much in material wealth, but they had each other’s back and loved thy neighbor. The death rattled are real. It’s called the RALES and is a good indicator you’re lungs and heart are filling up with congestion. If a hospital staff parked their big high opinions of themselves, humbling themselves to admit they don’t know it all and actually have very few answers, then maybe medical care would be care….

  • Reply
    August 19, 2020 at 7:46 am

    That was a common practice, and big families would sometimes take turns settin’ up with the sick. My Mom had a close call in the early 1990s, and family members even from out of state came in to alternate nights at the hospital.

    What I remember well, was the all night vigils or wakes before burial. They were always brought home and kept until transported for burial. There would be children and folks you rarely ever seen there. It stays in my memory that an ole time preacher cautioned the children and others to be quiet walking through the house at my grandmother’s vigil. He said it would disturb her and cause her to “die all over again.” Much like doctors were once the main authority on any health question, the preacher was looked to as an authority on eternity and dying.

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