Funeral traditions change with time and technology, so you can imagine that today’s funerals look much different than those in the Colonial New England era.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, death was ever present:
- Half of the Pilgrims died their first winter in the New World
- One in 10 children died during their first year of life
- 40 percent of children never reached adulthood
Disease, lack of food, exposure to the elements, and attacks by the natives all took a toll on early settlers. According to the site, Digital History, “The tolling of church bells on the day of funerals was so common that it was legislated against as a public nuisance.”
In the 1600s, death was a formal affair. The Puritans’ religious beliefs prevented the expensive and showy funerals that came later in the 18th century and then during the Victorian era.
Funeral traditions in Colonial New England
- In an effort to avoid what Puritans considered idolatrous Catholic rites of their European homelands, funerals had no eulogies or sermons. The funeral service was a mostly silent affair, to differentiate this event from Catholic funerals.
- Written verses or laudatory messages were affixed to the bier, later to be gathered and published.
- There were two, sometimes three, sets of pallbearers. The body was carried from the funeral service to the cemetery, which at times was a far distance away. If the cemetery was very far away, a second set of under bearers would be appointed to divide up the physical burden. The younger men – known as under bearers –carried the bier, while the older men carried the pall, a cloth spread over the coffin.
- Caskets were simple oblong boxes and gravestones were simple slabs of stones with an inscription.
- While other regions buried their dead in graveyards located at churches, most towns in New England set aside land and created common community burial grounds.
Funeral services were a gathering for all people of the town. Usually the whole community attended a funeral as people were expected to dedicate time and attention to the death of a neighbor.
The Puritans were coached to fear death. Ministers frightened young children with explicit details of Hell, which included the possibility of torment in response to any sins you committed in life. Fear of death was further instilled in the children by exposing them to dead bodies and public hangings.
Children were regularly reminded that their presumed end of life would be in Hell. A common fantasy in this period was that God would forgive your sins and send you to Heaven. Your fate was unknown, but determined at your birth.
Later in the 17th century, funerals became more elaborate. Embalming became a common practice and headstones more ornamented. Liquor – in liberal amounts – became a large part of the funeral ritual. According to “Customs and Fashions of Old New England” by Alice Morse Earle and published in 1893, the preparation for the funeral began immediately after a person died. The body was washed, embalmed, and then set out to rest in either the home of the family or the church, often up to four days while the family prepared for the big day.
Earle wrote of Londonderry, NH, and surrounding towns settled by Scotch and Irish immigrants:
“… The announcement of a death was a signal for cessation of daily work throughout the neighborhood. Kindly assistance was at once given at the house of mourning. Women flocked to do the household work and to prepare the funeral feast. Men brought gifts of food, or household necessities, and rendered all the advice and help that was needed. A gathering was held the night before the funeral, which in feasting and drinking partook somewhat of the nature of an Irish wake. Much New England rum was consumed at this gathering, and also before the procession to the grave, and after the interment the whole party returned to the house for an ‘arval,’ and drank again.
The funeral rum-bill was often an embarrassing and hampering expense to a bereaved family for years. This liberal serving of intoxicating liquor at a funeral was not peculiar to these New Hampshire towns, nor to the Scotch-Irish, but prevailed in every settlement in the colonies until the temperance-awakening days of this century. Throughout New England, bills for funerals were large in items of rum, cider, whiskey, lemons, sugar, spices.”
One custom in Colonial New England was to send a funeral invitation and a pair of gloves to each friend and relative who would attend the funeral. The gloves were either white, black or purple and often added great expense to the funeral.
For people of prominence, thousands of pairs could be sent out to their guests. The minister always got a pair, and it is said that one Boston minister, who kept a record of all of the gloves he was given, was the recipient of 2,940 pairs during his lifetime. For people of higher status in the community, they would receive scarves in addition to gloves.
It was common for families of the deceased, especially the wealthy ones, to create mourning rings and give them to family, close friends – and of course the minister.
According to Earle, the rings were “gold, usually enameled in black, or black and white. They were frequently decorated with a death’s-head, or with a coffin with a full-length skeleton lying in it, or with a winged skull. Sometimes they held a framed lock of hair of the deceased friend. On occasion, the ring was shaped like a serpent with his tail in his mouth.” Many were inscribed with a message, such as “Prepared be to follow me,” and were handed down through generations.
As the years passed, funerals became increasingly ostentatious. The money spent was upwards to 20 percent of the deceased estate. Colony leaders sought to limit the expense and ostentation by levying a 50-pound fine for anyone found distributing wine or rum and funeral rings; restricting gloves to the pallbearers and clergymen; and, in an effort to limit what undertakers could charge for bell-ringing, limiting the number of times a bell could be rung.
In preparation for a colonial funeral, people often hung black bunting on different objects, such as mirrors and pictures, and even on horses’ backs. Black bunting was also frequently hung on their houses. The notability of the deceased determined the quality of the bunting used in their honor, as well as the size of funeral.
You can learn more about the rituals and customs of Colonial New England in the public domain book, “Customs and Fashions in Old New England,” from 1893 by Alice Morse Earle.