A History Lesson in American Funerals

A History Lesson in American Funerals7 10“The grave was as familiar as the cradle, and the New Englander never saw any reason to ignore or disguise it.”

The Fourth of July has traditionally been a time to take a break from our hectic daily lives, spend time with family and friends, and admire the hard work of those who have come before us. From the birth of America to those fighting for our freedom today, we reflect on the lives of those who have sacrificed for our country.

Death has always been part of day-to-day living for those who have gone before us. As Zephine Humphrey puts it in A Book of New England, “the grave was as familiar as the cradle, and the New Englander never saw any reason to ignore or disguise it.” Death was natural, inevitable, and commonplace.

The earliest New England burial practice was a quiet and reflective occasion. The mourners would simply accompany the body to the grave and witness the burial in complete silence. It was not until the end of the 1600’s that the clergy began to eulogize in the presence of the deceased.

Once funeral sermons gained acceptance, the entire social structure surrounding death and burial changed. Eulogies of the rich were embellished. Criminals’ confessions were made an example of. And many sermons and eulogies were sent to the printing press and obtained a wide distribution.

In a typical funeral in the 1700’s, family members and neighbors would wash and lay out the body of the deceased. A local carpenter or cabinet maker would be commissioned to build the coffin. A minister would say prayers and preach over the pall-covered body. A procession to the grave would follow with the under-bearers carrying the coffin. And, just like today, those who attended the funeral ceremony needed to be fed. The feast that followed the burial tended to include generous amounts of food and copious amounts of liquor.

These funerals also saw the first examples of “memorial tributes.” Gifts such as rings, books, and scarves or other needlecraft were given to the family of the deceased as tributes to the dead. However, tradition required that the family give the attendees gifts in return. The cost of funerals became so expensive that in 1737, Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting “Extraordinary Expense at Funerals.” Well into the 18th century, funerals were commonly perceived as very expensive affairs.

Funeral practices in America continue to evolve. Some would say that natural or green burial is the latest step in this evolution. But, as we can see, natural burial has its roots—pardon the pun—in America’s earliest history.