A Puritan funeral

Colonial New England Funerals

In 17th Century Ipswich, funeral services were without sermons or eulogies, completely silent avoiding any appearance of papistry, but extravagant outlays were often made for mourning garments, refreshments, and the coffin. In the procession to the burial ground, there could be as many as four sets of pallbearers. The weight of the casket was carried by under-bearers, young men hidden under the pall or cloth that concealed the coffin. Walking alongside them were the honorary pallbearers, men of age or dignity who held only the corners of the pall. When the distance to the burying ground was lengthy, the weight of the casket was assumed mid-way by backup pallbearers. It was customary when females were buried that women lead the procession, and when males, men did the same.

The first grave markers at the Old North Burying Ground were probably wood or simply engraved stones, but by the late 17th Century the funeral traditions and gravestones had become quite elaborate. Gravestone carvers traveled from Boston to Ipswich and Newbury, each giving their own styles to the monuments. The skull and wings and oval masks were common designs on the earliest tombstones.

The gravestone of Col. Samuel Appleton, section C190, displays the skull and wings, thought to symbolize escape from mortality.
A pair of Colonial funeral gloves

When Rev. Mr. Cobbett died in 1685, the Town of Ipswich assumed the expenses of his funeral. Payments were “not to be deducted out of the assessment of Mr. Cobbett’s account,” even though Cobbett was also one of the principal merchants of the Town.

At a meeting of the Selectmen, November 6, 1685, the following was “agreed with respect to the Reverend Mr. Cobbett’s funeral:”

  • That Mr. Rust provide funeral gloves suitable for men and Women. Nathaniel Rust’s tanning establishment was on the site of the residence of the Rogers and Brown Bed and Breakfast on County Road, which is where he made the four dozen pairs of gloves.
  • That a man be sent to Lynn to “acquaint friends with ye solemn providence here.”
  • That “the Corps be wrapt up in the Coffin in Tarr with Canvass.”
  • That “persons be appointed to look to the burning of the wine and heating of the syder, against the time appointed for ye funeral next Monday at one of the clock.”
  • Payment to Deakon Goodhue for wine 32 gallons
  • Payment To John Annable for wood for the fire.
  • Payment to Edward Dear for cider.
  • Payment to Nathaniel Lord for making the Coffin.
  • Payment to Mr. Wilson for digging the Grave.
  • To Abraham Perkins going to Newbury to inform John Cobbett of his Father’s death.
  • To Mr. Norton going to Lynn to inform friends there.
This 18th Century mourning ring contains locks of hair from the deceased.

Until 1769, no burial was allowed on the Sabbath, unless leave was granted by a Justice. If a funeral was held on Sunday, all preparation had to be done by the end of Saturday. It was decreed that “No sexton, grave-digger, porter or bearer shall be assisting at the funeral of any person on the Lord’s Day, or any part thereof, and no person shall toll any bell for such funeral, unless license be given by a justice of peace, on penalty of twenty shillings.”

Gloves and Rings

By the beginning of the 18th Century, the cost of funerals had become so extreme that it could greatly reduce the value of the deceased’s estate, and many a poor family mortgaged their farms to pay for the excesses. Mourning rings were given at funerals to near relatives and persons of note in the community, decorated sometimes with a death’s head or a framed lock of hair, upon which the initials of the deceased were engraved or fashioned. Mourning outfits included everything from long crape bands for men’s hats and cypress for women’s hoods, to shoes and stockings. The total account for the funeral of Major Ammi Wise was £420, a full quarter of his estate.

Colonial funeral ring

For the funeral of Massachusetts Gov. Burnet in Sept. 1729, the General Court ordered mourning clothes for his children, servants and slaves, funeral trappings for coach and horses, and gloves and rings for the members of the Council, Judges, Ministers, military officers and a multitude of others, and an appropriation of £1097 was needed to cover it. Andrew Faneuil, a wealthy but childless widower gifted Faneuil Hall to Boston in 1742, half a year before his death. At his funeral, three thousand gloves were distributed. The Rev. Mr. Andrew Elliot (1718–1778), pastor of the New North Church of Boston recorded $640.00 for the sale of 2940  pairs of gloves that he received over the course of his ministry.

By the mid-18th Century, public opinion had turned against such excesses. In 1741, the General Court passed a law that “no Scarves, Gloves (except six pair to the bearers and one pair to each minister), Wine, Rum or rings be allowed to be given at any funeral under the penalty of fifty pounds.” At the Salem Court, on Christmas day, 1753, Jeremiah Lee of Marblehead was fined £50 “for giving Rings and Gloves more than are allowed by law at the funeral of his father, Samuel Lee.”

Gradually this costly display disappeared and the funeral expense involved only a fine mourning dress for the widow. By the end of the century, modest mourning and simple funerals were the universal custom.

Sources and further reading:

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