When I collected ghost stories in my current hometown, I ran across one of the most unusual tales I’d ever heard. I included it in Bethlehem Ghosts and decided to offer it here in my blog as a pre-Halloween treat. The stores already have trick-or-treat candy on the shelves, so why not indulge in some ghost stories? It’s never too early for this holiday! Here we go:
Over in Hellertown, PA, just off exit 67 on I-78, walks “der Ausleger,” a phantom undertaker who reportedly liked to steal bodies. This story originated in the 19th century, just as the first undertakers were being utilized for burials. People looked to men who owned businesses in carpentry and furniture-making for this service, because they already made the coffins.
One version holds that a father and son team would help with burials and they became a bit too eager to take on the task. One or the other became der Ausleger. Another account features this entity as a man paying an eternal price for robbing Native Americans graves.
We asked an artist to give us a rendering of der Ausleger, which is posted here at the top. Reportedly, a pair of run-down gray steeds pulls his wagon as he searches for unprotected corpses. Try as we might, we could not find any tales that describe what he did with the bodies once he had them.
So, this ghostly (ghastly) undertaker roamed around the countryside, visiting families where someone had died to assist with washing the body, digging the grave, and driving the death wagon. He might even remove the “death water” that was used for corpse cleansing. In fact, mourners soon learned not to pour the death water down a hole on their property, because it would attract him to those spots. He might actually get on his hands and knees to lap it up. Thus grew the ritual of taking it to the cemetery to discard.
(This is possibly why some people think that cemeteries are haunted – because der Ausleger is skulking around the little pools of water discarded there.)
One time, according to a story, a living undertaker was traveling along an isolated country road, his team pulling his hearse with a body inside. Der Ausleger drove up behind, startling him, and he took off. But he couldn’t lose the fiend. They raced together along the road, the live undertaker keeping his lead, until finally der Ausleger just up and disappeared. Afterward, the frightened man had stories to tell. He did hang on to the corpse.
At times, der Ausleger was spotted robbing graves, and sometimes he’d show up prematurely, before a person had died. Supposedly, you could hinder der Ausleger from disturbing a grave if you buried certain documents (Laadpapers) with the body – a birth certificate, a Himmelsbrief (heavenly letter), or a pow wow charm from a Native American ceremony.
Der Ausleger might also appear at funeral dinners, which back then were often great feasts to celebrate the decedent’s life. He’d help himself to some funeral pie, typically made from meat or raisins. In fact, people say that he still attends such functions to this day, ‘though the pickings are much diminished (which annoys him). He’s not there to cause any harm, apparently. He just mingles with the living as a reminder of what we can all eventually expect. If you look hard, the folklore goes, you can spot him from the way he looks just slightly out of place.
Psychologically, this entity is an interesting metaphor. Putting activities once done by family into the hands of others had an unsettling effect that accounts for the creepiness of the legend. Giving loved ones' remains over to strangers probably provoked considerable guilt and anxiety over losing control.