Early New England Funerals

Old Plymouth Colony, National Geographic, photo by David Shettleroe

I found the following a fascinating read; it is a copy of Customs and Fashions of Old New England, by Alice Morse Earle, published in 1893. Enjoy!   -Tapho

The earliest New Englanders had no religious services at a funeral. Not wishing to “confirm the popish error that prayer is to be used for the dead or over the dead,” they said no words, either of grief, resignation, or faith, but followed the coffin and filled the grave in silence. Lechford has given us a picture of a funeral in New England in the seventeenth century, which is full of simple dignity, if not of sympathy:

“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.”

As was the fashion in England at that date, laudatory verses and sentences were fastened to the bier or herse. The name herse was then applied to the draped catafalque or platform upon which the candles stood and the coffin rested, not as now the word hearse to a carriage for the conveyance of the dead.

Sewall says of the funeral of the Rev. Thomas Shepherd: “There were some verses, but none pinned on the Herse.” These verses were often printed after the funeral. The publication of mourning broadsides and pamphlets, black-bordered and dismal, was a large duty of the early colonial press. They were often decorated gruesomely with skull and crossbones, scythes, coffins, and hour-glasses, all-seeing eyes with rakish squints, bow-legged skeletons, and miserable little rosetted winding-sheets. (-the Calvinistic nature of this period; see TaphoTribes post, Anatomy of a Gravestone)

1667   –Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.  Click to enlarge
1702   –Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.  Click to enlarge
See a further dissertation on these two broadsides here.

A writer in the New England Courant of November 12, 1722, says: “Of all the different species of poetry now in use I find the Funeral Elegy to be most universally admired and used in New England. There is scarce a plough jogger or country cobler that has read our Psalms and can make two lines jingle, who has not once in his life at least exercised his talent in this way. Nor is there one country house in fifty which has not its walls garnished with half a Score of these sort of Poems which praise the Dead to the Life.”

“Beneath this Ston’s
Int’r’d the Bon’s
Ah Frail Remains
Of Lieut Noah Jones”
“Here lies cut down like unripe fruit
The wife of Deacon Amos Shute.”

Funeral sermons were also printed, with trappings of sombreness, black-bordered, with death’s-heads and crossbones on the covers. These sermons were not, however, preached at the time of the funeral, save in exceptional cases. It is said that one was delivered at the funeral of President Chauncey in 1671. Cotton Mather preached one at the funeral of Fitz-John Winthrop in 1707, and another at the funeral of Waitstill Winthrop in 1717. Gradually there crept in the custom of having suitable prayers at the house before the burial procession formed, the first instance being probably at the funeral of Pastor Adams, of Roxbury, in 1683. Sometimes a short address was given at the grave, as when Jonathan Alden was buried at Duxbury, in 1697. The Boston News Letter of December 31, 1730, notes a prayer at a funeral, and says: “Tho’ a custom in the Country-Towns ’tis a Singular instance in this Place, but it’s wish’d may prove a Leading Example to the General Practice of so Christian and Decent a Custom.” Whitefield wrote disparagingly of the custom of not speaking at the grave.

We see Judge Sewall mastering his grief at his mother’s burial, delaying for a few moments the filling of the grave, and speaking some very proper words of eulogy “with passion and tears.” He jealously notes, however, when the Episcopal burial service is given in Boston, saying: “The Office for the dead is a Lying bad office, makes no difference between the precious and the Vile.”

There were, as a rule, two sets of bearers appointed under-bearers, usually young men, who carried the coffin on a bier; and pall-bearers, men of age, dignity, or consanguinity, who held the corners of the pall which was spread over the coffin and hung down over the heads and bodies of the under-bearers. As the coffin was sometimes carried for a long distance, there were frequently appointed a double set of under-bearers, to share the burden. I have been told that mort-stones were set by the wayside in some towns, upon which the bearers could rest the heavy coffin for a short time on their way to the burial-place but I find no record or proof of this statement. The pall, or bier-cloth, or mort-cloth, as it was called, was usually bought and owned by the town, and was of heavy purple, or black broadcloth, or velvet.

Richly-draped catafalque or bier, Victorian period

It often was kept with the bier in the porch of the meeting-house; but in some communities the bier, a simple shelf or table of wood on four legs about a foot and a half long, was placed over the freshly filled-in grave and left sombrely waiting till it was needed to carry another coffin to the burial-place. In many towns there were no gravediggers; sympathizing friends made the simple coffin and dug the grave. (Note: There are two surviving Hearse Houses in New England today)

In Londonderry, N. H., and neighboring towns that had been settled by Scotch-Irish planters, 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 funeral baked meats were large in items of rum, cider, whiskey, lemons, sugar, spices.

Silver coins, abt.1700 – British Museum

To show how universally liquor was served to all who had to do with a funeral, let me give the bill for the mortuary expenses of David Porter, of Hartford, who was drowned in 1678.

“By a pint of liquor for those who dived for him………………..        1s.
By a quart of liquor for those who bro’t him home…………….        2s.
By two quarts of wine & 1 gallon of cyder to jury
of inquest ………………………………………………………………        5s.
By 8 gallons & 3 qts. wine for funeral……………………………  £1 15s.
By Barrel cyder for funeral ………………………………………..       16s.
1 coffin………………………………………………………………….       12s.
Windeing sheet …………………………………………………………….18s.”

Even town paupers had two or three gallons of rum or a barrel of cider given by the town to serve as speeding libations at their unmourned funerals. The liquor at the funeral of a minister was usually paid for by the church or town — often interchangeable terms for the same body. The parish frequently gave, also, as in the case of the death of Rev. Job Strong, of Portsmouth, in 1751, “the widow of our deceased pasture a full suit of mourning.” (Note: See rum in New England)

Hawthorne was so impressed with the enjoyable reunion New Englanders found in funerals that he wrote of them: “They were the only class of scenes, so far as my investigation has taught me, in which our ancestors were wont to steep their tough old hearts in wine and strong drink and indulge in an outbreak of grisly jollity.

Look back through all the social customs of New England in the first century of her existence and read all her traits of character, and find one occasion other than a funeral feast where jollity was sanctioned by universal practice. . . . Well, old friends! Pass on with your burden of mortality and lay it in the tomb with jolly hearts. People should be permitted to enjoy themselves in their own fashion; every man to his taste — but [Puritan] New England must have been a dismal abode for the man of pleasure when the only boon-companion was Death.”

This picture has been given by Sargent of country funerals in the days of his youth: “When I was a boy, and was at an academy in the country, everybody went to everybody’s funeral in the village. The population was small, funerals rare; the preceptor’s absence would have excited remark, and the boys were dismissed for the funeral. A table with liquors was always provided. Every one, as he entered, took off his hat with his left band, smoothed down his hair with his right, walked up to the coffin, gazed upon the corpse, made a crooked face, passed on to the table, took a glass of his favorite liquor, went forth upon the plat before the house and talked politics, or of the new road, or compared crops, or swapped heifers or horses until it was time to lift. A clergyman told me that when settled at Concord, N H , he officiated at the funeral of a little boy. The body was borne in a chaise, and six little nominal pallbearers, the oldest not thirteen, walked by the side of the vehicle. Before they left the house a sort of master of ceremonies took them to the table and mixed a tumbler of gin, water, and sugar for each.”

It was a hard struggle against established customs and ideas of hospitality, and even of health, when the use of liquor at funerals was abolished. Old people sadly deplored the present and regretted the past. One worthy old gentleman said, with much bitterness: “Temperance has done for funerals.”

As soon as the larger cities began to accrue wealth, the parentations of men and women of high station were celebrated with much pomp and dignity, if not with religious exercises. Volleys were fired over the freshly made grave — even of a woman. A barrel and a half of powder was consumed to do proper honor to Winthrop, the chief founder of Massachusetts. At the funeral of Deputy-Governor Francis Willoughby eleven companies of militia were in attendance, and “with the doleful noise of trumpets and drums, in their mourning posture, three thundering volleys of shot were discharged, answered with the loud roarings of great guns rending the heavens with noise at the loss of so great a man.” When Governor Leverett died, in 1679, the bearers carried banners. The principal men of the town bore the armor of the deceased, from helmet to spur, and the Governor’s horse was led with banners. The funeral-recording Sewall has left us many a picture of the pomp of burial. Colonel Samuel Shrimpton was buried “with Arms” in 1697, “Ten Companies, No Herse nor Trumpet but a horse Led. Mourning Coach also & Horses in Mourning, Scutcheons on their sides and Deaths Heads on their foreheads.” Fancy those coach-horses with gloomy death’s-heads on their foreheads. At the funeral of Lady Andros, which was held in church, six “mourning women” sat in front of the draped pulpit, and the hearse was drawn by six horses. This English fashion of paid mourners was not common among sincere New Englanders; Lady Andros was a Church of England woman, not a Puritan. The cloth from the pulpit was usually given, after the burial, to the minister. In 1736 the Boston News Letter tells of the pulpit and the pew of the deceased being richly draped and adorned with escutcheons at a funeral. Thus were New England men, to quote Sir Thomas Browne, “splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave.”

Many local customs prevailed. In Hartford and neighboring towns all ornaments, mirrors, and pictures were muffled with napkins and cloths at the time of the funerals, and sometimes the window-shutters were kept closed in the front of the house and tied together with black for a year, as was the fashion in Philadelphia.

Hawthorne tells us that at the death of Sir William Pepperell the entire house was hung with black, and all the family portraits were covered with black crape.

The order of procession to the grave was a matter of much etiquette. High respect and equally deep slights might be rendered to mourners in the place assigned. Usually some magistrate or person of dignity walked with the widow. Judge Sewall often speaks of “leading the widow in a mourning cloak.”

One great expense of a funeral was the gloves. In some communities these were sent as an approved and elegant form of invitation to relatives and friends and dignitaries, whose presence was desired. Occasionally, a printed “invitation to follow the corps” was also sent. One for the funeral of Sir William Phipps is still in existence — a fantastically gloomy document. In the case of a funeral of any person prominent in State, Church, or society, vast numbers of gloves were disbursed; “none of ’em of any figure but what had gloves sent to ’em.” At the funeral of the wife of Governor Belcher, in 1736, over one thousand pairs of gloves were given away; at the funeral of Andrew Faneuil three thousand pairs; the number frequently ran up to several hundred. Different qualities of gloves were presented at the same funeral to persons of different social circles, or of varied degrees of consanguinity or acquaintance. Frequently the orders for these vales were given in wills. As early as 1633 Samuel Faller, of Plymouth, directed in his will that his sister was to have gloves worth twelve shillings; Governor Winthrop and his children each “a paire of gloves of five shilling;” while plebeian Rebecca Prime had to be contented with a cheap pair worth two shillings and sixpence. The under-bearers who carried the coffin were usually given different and cheaper gloves from the pallbearers. We find seven pairs of gloves given at a pauper’s funeral, and not under the head of “Extrodny Chearges” either.

Of course the minister was always given gloves. They were showered on him at weddings, christenings, funerals. Andrew Eliot, of the North Church, in Boston, kept a record of the gloves and rings which he received; and, incredible as it may seem, in thirty-two years he was given two thousand nine hundred and forty pairs of gloves. Though he had eleven children, he and his family could scarcely wear them all, so he sold them through kindly Boston milliners, and kept a careful account of the transaction, of the lamb’s-wool gloves, the kid gloves, the long gloves — which were probably Madam Eliot’s. He received between six and seven hundred dollars for the gloves, and a goodly sum also for funeral rings.

Various kinds of gloves are specified as suitable for mourning; for instance, in the Boston Independent Advertiser in 1749, “Black Shammy Gloves and White Glazed Lambs Wool Gloves suitable for Funerals.” White gloves were as often given as black, and purple gloves also. Good specimens of old mourning gloves have been preserved in the cabinets of the Worcester Society of Antiquity.

At the funeral of Thomas Thornhill “17 pair of White Gloves at £1 15s. 6d., 3 1/2 yard Corle for Serfs £3 10s. 10 1/2d., and Black and White Ribbin” were paid for. In 1737 Sir William Pepperell sent to England for “4 pieces Hat mourning and 2 pieces of Cyprus or Hood mourning.” This hat mourning took the form of long weepers, which were worn on the hat at the funeral, and as a token of respect afterward by persons who were not relatives of the deceased. Judge Sewall was always punctilious in thus honoring the dead in his community.

gloves; Mourning Ring, 1779

Rings were given at funerals, especially in wealthy families, to near relatives and persons of note in the community. Sewall records in his diary, in the years from 1687 to 1725, the receiving of no less than fifty-seven mourning rings. We can well believe the story told of Doctor Samuel Buxton, of Salem, who died in 1758, aged eighty-one years, that he left to his heirs a quart tankard full of mourning rings which he had received at funerals; and that Rev. Andrew Eliot had a mugful. At one Boston funeral, in 1738, over two hundred rings were given away. At Waitstill Winthrop’s funeral sixty rings, worth over a pound apiece, were given to friends. The entire expense of the latter-named funeral — scutcheons, hatchments, scarves, gloves, rings, bell-tolling, tailor’s bills, etc., was over six hundred pounds. This amounted to one-fifth of the entire estate of the deceased gentleman.

These mourning rings were of gold, usually enamelled 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. Sometimes the ring was shaped like a serpent with his tail in his mouth.

Many bore a posy. In the Boston News Letter of October 30, 1742, was advertised: “Mourning Ring lost with the Posy Virtue & Love is From Above.” Here is another advertisement from the Boston Evening Post:

“Escaped unluckily from me
A Large Gold Ring, a Little Key;
The Ring had Death engraved upon it;
The Owners Name inscribed within it;
Who finds and brings the same to me
Shall generously rewarded be.”

A favorite motto for these rings was: “Death parts United Hearts.” Another was the legend: “Death conquers all;” another, “Prepare for Death;” still another, “Prepared be To follow me.” Other funeral rings bore a family crest in black enamel.

Goldsmiths kept these mourning rings constantly on hand. “Deaths Heads Rings” and “Burying Rings” appear in many newspaper advertisements. When bought for use the name or initials of the dead person, and the date of his death, were engraved upon the ring. This was called fashioning. It is also evident from existing letters and bills that orders were sent by bereaved ones to friends residing at a distance to purchase and wear mourning rings in memory of the dead, and send the bills to the heirs or the principals of the mourning family. Thus, after the death of Andrew, son of Sir William Pepperell, Mr. Kilby, of London, wrote to the father that he accepted “that melancholy token of y’r regard to Mrs. K. and myself at the expense of four guineas in the whole. But, as is not unusual here on such occasions, Mrs. K. has, at her own expense, added some sparks of diamonds to some other mournful ornaments to the ring, which she intends to wear.”

It is very evident that old New ‘Englanders looked with much eagerness to receiving a funeral ring at the death of a friend, and in old diaries, almanacs, and note-books such entries as this are often seen: “Made a ring at the funeral,” “A death’s-head ring made at the funeral of so and so;” or, as Judge Sewall wrote, “Lost a ring” by not attending the funeral. The will of Abigail Ropes, in 1775, gives to her grandson “a gold ring I made at his father’s death;” and again, “a gold ring made when my bro. died.”

As with gloves, rings of different values were given to relatives of different degrees of consanguinity, and to friends of different stations in life; much tact had to be shown, else much offence might be taken. I do not know how long the custom of giving mourning rings obtained in New England. Some are in existence dated 1812, but were given at the funeral of aged persons who may have left orders to their descendants to cling to the fashion of their youth. A very good collection of mourning rings may be seen at the rooms of the Essex Institute in Salem, and that society has also published a pamphlet giving a list of such rings known to be in existence in Salem.

As years passed on a strong feeling sprang up against these gifts and against the excessive wearing of mourning garments because burdensome in expense. Judge Sewall notes, in 1721, the first public funeral “without scarfs.” In 1741 it was ordered by Massachusetts Provincial Enactment that “no Scarves, Gloves (except six pair to the bearers and one pair to each minister of the church or congregation where any deceased person belongs), Wine, Rum, or rings be allowed to be given at any funeral upon the penalty of fifty pounds.” The Connecticut Courant of October 24, 1764, has a letter from a Boston correspondent which says, “It is now out of fashion to put on mourning for nearest relatives, which will make a saving to this town of £20,000 per annum.” It also states that a funeral had been held at Charlestown at which no mourning had been worn. At that of Ellis Callender in the same year, the chief mourner wore in black only bonnet, gloves, ribbons, and handkerchief. Letters are in existence from Boston merchants to English agents rebuking the latter for sending mourning goods, such as crapes, “which are not worn.”

A newly born and fast-growing spirit of patriotic revolt gave added force to the reform. Boston voted, in October, 1767, “not to use any mourning gloves but what are manufactured here,” and other towns passed similar resolutions. It was also suggested that American mourning gloves be stamped with a patriotic emblem. In 1788 a fine of twenty shillings was imposed on any person who gave scarfs, gloves, rings, wine, or rum at a funeral; who bought any new mourning apparel to wear at or after a funeral, save a crape arm-band if a masculine mourner, or black bonnet, fan, gloves, and ribbons if a woman. This law could never have been rigidly enforced, for much gloomy and ostentatious pomp obtained in the larger towns even to our own day. “From the tombs a mournful sound” seemed to be fairly a popular sound, and the long funeral processions, always taking care to pass the Town House, churches, and other public buildings, obstructed travel, and men were appointed in each town by the selectmen to see that “free passage in the streets be kept open.” Funerals were forbidden to be held on the Lord’s Day, because it profaned the sacred day, through the vast concourse of children and servants that followed the coffin through the streets.


– Text (except parentheticals) from Customs and Fashions in Old New England, Alice Morse Earle, 1893


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