A hatchment is a funeral escutcheon or armorial shield enclosed in a black lozenge-shaped frame which used to be suspended against the wall of a deceased person's house. It was usually placed over the entrance at the level of the second floor, and remained for from six to twelve months, after which it was removed to the parish church. The practice developed in the early 1600s from the custom of carrying an heraldic shield before the coffin of the deceased, then leaving it for display in the church. In medieval times, helmets and shields were sometimes deposited in churches.
Hatchments have now largely fallen into disuse, but many hatchments from former times remain in parish churches throughout England.
If for a bachelor the hatchment bears upon a shield his arms, crest, and other appendages, the whole on a black ground. If for a single woman, her arms are represented upon a lozenge, bordered with knotted ribbons, also on a black ground. If the hatchment be for a married man, with a surviving wife, his arms upon a shield impale those of his wife; or if she be an heiress they are placed upon a scutcheon of pretence, and crest and other appendages are added. The dexter half of the background is black (the husband being dead), the sinister half of the background is white (his wife still being alive).
For a wife whose husband is alive the same arrangement is used, but the sinister background is black (for the wife) and the dexter background is white (for the surviving husband). For a widower the same is used as for a married man, but the whole ground is black (both spouses being dead); for a widow the husband's arms are given with her own, but upon a lozenge, with ribbons, without crest or appendages, and the whole ground is black. When there have been two wives or two husbands the ground may be divided in a number of different ways. Sometimes the shield is divided into three parts per pale, with the husband's arms in the middle section and the arms of each of his wives to each side of him. Sometimes the husband's arms remain in the dexter half and the two wives have their arms in the sinister half, divided per fess, each wife having one quarter of the whole shield, one half of the sinister half.
Colours and military or naval emblems are sometimes placed behind the arms of military or naval officers. It is thus easy to discern from the hatchment the sex, condition and quality, and possibly the name of the deceased. In Scottish hatchments it is not unusual to place the arms of the father and mother of the deceased in the two lateral angles of the lozenge, and sometimes the 4, 8 or 16 genealogical escutcheons are ranged along the margin.
Hatchment originally meant, in heraldry, an escutcheon or armorial shield granted for some act of distinction or "achievement," of which word it is a corruption through such forms as atcheament, achement, hathement, etc. "Achievement" is an adaptation of the Fr. achievement, from achever, a chef venir, Lat. ad ca put venire, to come to a head, or conclusion, hence accomplish, achieve.
In the Netherlands hatchments (in Dutch, rouwbord, literally meaning "mourning shield") with the word "OBIIT" (Latin:"deceased") and the date of death were hung over the door of the deceased's house and later on the wall of the church where he was buried . In the 17th. century the hatchments were sober black lozenge-shaped frames with the coat of arms.In the 18th century both the frames and the heraldry got more and more ellaborate.Symbols of death like batwings, skulls, hour-glasses and crying angels with torches were added and the names of the 8, 16 or even 32 armigourus forebearers (sometimes an invention, there were a lot of "nouveaux riches") and their genealogical escutcheons were displayed. The British tradition of differentiating between the hatchments of bachellors , widdowers and others is unknown in the Low Countries. The arms of a widow are sometimes surrounded by a cordelière (knotted cord) and the arms of women are often, but not always, shaped like a lozenge. There were no Kings of Arms to rule and regulate these traditions.
In 1795 the Dutch republic, recently conquered by revolutionary France, issued a decree that banned all heraldic shields. Thousands of hatchments were chopped to pieces and burned. In the 19th. century the hatchments were almost forgotten and only a few noble families kept the tradition alive.
In Flanders, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church have kept the tradition of putting up hatchments alive to this day.