Religion and Social Movements

Seven Strange Facts About Colonial Funerals

Customs at colonial funerals were quite different from today.

Early colonists paid a great deal of attention to death and funerals. Early colonial funerals were widely attended, and it would be thought strange for someone in a town not to show his respects for an upstanding citizen by attending a funeral.

Customs at colonial funerals were quite different from today.

Customs at colonial funerals were quite different from today.

Many of today’s traditions, such as giving right of way to a funeral procession, stem from the earliest days of America. Other traditions from Colonial Funerals have died away or been altered over time. Here are seven strange funeral practices that have been done away with in modern times.

Two sets of pall bearers, sometimes three. Early colonists carried the body of the deceased all the way from the funeral service to the graveyard. That was a long way for the older, more respected members of the community to carry a heavy coffin.

So there were two sets of men assigned. The younger men of the community would be assigned as under bearers to carry the bier on which the coffin rested. Older men would carry the pall, which draped the casket. In cases where the distance to the graveyard was extremely far, a second set of under bearers would be assigned to spell the first group.

Occasionally, the bier would be set down on a slab for the men to rest.

Gloves were routine parts of the ceremonies. Families would send mourning gloves to people expected to attend the funeral of a departed loved one. The gloves were worn during the funeral and at the graveside.

They were fashionable, respectful and, for ministers at least, plentiful. One minister, Andrew Eliot who was ordained pastor of Boston’s North Church in 1742, kept a careful diary of his life. In his 32 years as a minister, he received 2,940 pairs of funeral gloves.

What did he do with them? He sold them, at least as many as he could. His diary shows a steady effort to divest himself of the gloves over the years.

Rings were the thing. The families of the deceased would often create commemorative rings for their loved ones. They would be distributed to families, close friends and ministers. The rings represented a steady stream of business for gold and silversmiths.

The rings were frequently inscribed with sayings, such as:  "Death Parts United Hearts" or "Death conquers all" and "Prepare for Death." Because of the expense, the mourning rings were more common at the funerals of wealthy colonists.

The minister Andrew Eliot, in addition to collecting gloves, also had a massive ring collection, which he stored in a tankard.

Families often cherished the rings and handed them down from one generation to the next. They were not maudlin to the colonists, but rather cheerful reminders that they would be reunited with their dead family in the afterlife.

No sermons. While funerals were widely attended by the residents of a town, they were virtually silent affairs as far as services go. So concerned were the earliest colonists with appearing to be Papists, they conducted minimalist funerals that could not be confused with the Catholic ceremonies.

Sermons and eulogies were non-existent.  Instead, the body would be silently conducted to the graveyard. Mourners would attach notes of praise for the deceased to the bier and they would be compiled and published as memorials to the deceased.

Bostonian Thomas Lechford (1590-1644) offered a description of funerals in his notebooks:

"At Burials nothing is read, nor any funeral sermon made, but all the neighborhood or a goodly company of them come together by tolling of the bell, and carry the dead solemnly to his grave, and then stand by him while he is buried. The ministers are most commonly present."

At funerals for major civic leaders, a minister would say a few words at the grave about the man’s character, but for most internment was a silent affair. This custom began dying in the early 1700s, however, as popular sentiment began building behind the idea that a few well-chosen words were appropriate at a graveside.

Sober affairs, funerals were not. Funerals were a great excuse for early colonists to tie one on. Lucius Manlius Sargent, in his collection of newspaper columns about the history, Dealings with the Dead, noted that at early funerals, the custom called for guests to view the body and then proceed to a nearby table – always provided – and choose from a well-stocked bar the liquor of their choice. People then generally proceeded outside and gathered to chat until it was time for the coffin to be carried to the burial ground. Though rarely were funerals a cause for drunkenness, the idea of not serving liquor would have shocked. And the bar tab could grow quite large. The following listing represents the funeral expenses for David Porter, of Hartford, who was drowned in 1678, and booze was the biggest outlay.

A pint of liquor for those who dived for him. – 1 shilling

A quart of liquor for those who brought him home. – 2 shillings

Two quarts of wine & 1 gallon of cider to jury of inquest.               -- 5 shillings

8 gallons & 3 quarts wine for funeral. – £1, 15 shillings

Barrel cider for funeral. –16 shillings

1 Coffin. –12 shillings

Winding sheet. — 18 shillings

Sargent noted a great many of the older citizens were saddened when the practice of serving alcohol at funerals finally petered out.

Mourning got out of hand.

As the colony grew wealthier, rings, scarves and gloves began being distributed to more and more mourners. It could become a statement to highlight the wealth or popularity of a person to have more gifts distributed and to have the funeral bell rung for long periods.

The showiness and expense were offensive to the leaders, and several efforts had to be made to limit the practices. In 1741, the Massachusetts government ruled declared it would fine a person 50 pounds for distributing wine or rum and funeral rings, and gloves were restricted to pall bearers and the clergy.

In Salem, the government hoped to curb excessive bell ringing and grandiose funerals by limiting what undertakers could charge for bell-ringing and limiting the number of times a bell could be rung, as well as limiting the overall cost of organizing the funeral.

Objects, even houses, were draped.  People weren’t the only things decorated for funerals. In some places, objects were also draped with black crepe.

In Hartford all wall decorations, mirrors, and pictures were covered with black cloth. Window shutters were closed and sometimes tied together with black ribbon or sash and kept that way for a year-long mourning period.

Following the death of Sir William Pepperell of Kittery, his entire house was draped.

Again, the prominence of the figure general dictated how large the funeral show was and how much black bunting would be spread about.

Hat tip to Customs and Fashions in Old New England by Alice Morse Earle for some of the information contained in this article.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Emma Vansomeren

    Emma Vansomeren

    January 11, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    Very interesting

  2. Pingback: Funeral traditions in Colonial New England | Buddy's Blog

  3. Pingback: This Week's New History Highlights for March 19, 2016 - New England Historical Society

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