O whilst I live this grace me give,
I doing good may be,
Then death's arrest I shall count best,
because it's Thy decree;
Bestow much cost there's nothing lost,
to make salvation sure,
O great's the gain, though got with pain,
comes by profession pure.
The race is run, the field is won,
the victory's mine I see;
Forever known, thou envious foe,
the foil belongs to thee.
— “Upon a Fit of Sickness” by Anne Bradstreet
Death is an unfortunate side effect of life. The Puritans of seventeenth-century New England experienced death quite regularly. The harsh seasons, manual labour, disease, lack of hygiene and medicines, and attacks by Native Americans contributed to a shorter life expectancy. Despite being a common and often sudden occurrence, the Puritans were not indifferent to death. In fact, they feared it. The Puritans lived a life of toil for God, and hoped to reach salvation thereafter. Death was the great uncertainty. Did the deceased go to heaven? Was the death a punishment or warning to those left behind?
Ritualized funerary practices helped Puritans deal with death and its spiritual uncertainties. Not only did funerals help the living grieve a lost loved one, but they also served as a place for them to channel their fear and uncertainty into Puritan devotion. Some old English customs followed the early settlers across the pond. Mourning rings cast out of silver or gold were often passed down through families. These rings carried inscriptions, symbols of death, and sometimes a lock of hair from the dead. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, watches, brooches, and other mourning jewelry became in fashion. Even today, New Englanders sometimes craft keepsake jewelry and memorial ornaments with which we remember our loved-ones.
The Puritans, having left England and its religious oppression behind, also carved out new rituals and customs of their own to mourn the dead. For example, when a person died, loved ones would write poems or messages for the deceased. It was not uncommon for the funeral bier to overflow with lines of verse written by neighbours and family members. Sometimes, these notes were gathered up and compiled as a keepsake book of mourning for the deceased. Other times, these poems remained with the casket and were buried with the body. Anne’s poems, “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild, Elizabeth Bradstreet,” “In Memory of My Dear Grandchild, Anne Bradstreet,” and “On My Dear Grandchild, Simon Bradstreet,” are several examples of poetic elegies for her lost relatives. Though we encounter these elegies in book form, they would have looked very different in the context of a New England funeral.
These poems were heartfelt, but they were also almost certainly written in haste. Bodies needed to be buried within a couple of days of death because embalming wasn’t practiced until the late 1600s. According to the Vital Records of [North] Andover, Anne died on September 16, 1672 and “was buried the Wednesday after.” Five days would have elapsed between her death and burial, longer than usual. We speculate this delay was necessary to allow her friend and visiting minister John Norton to attend her funeral from a greater distance.
At a typical Puritan funeral, pallbearers would carry the simple wooden coffin through the town in a silent procession. Sometimes, bearers would have to take it in shifts if the burial plot was a goodly distance from the residence. The funeral, likewise, would be completely silent. Unlike funerals in England, eulogies, prayers, and songs were not indulged at these early Puritan gravesides. Silence was a defining feature of the procession and burial. The loved-ones would be buried, in church cemeteries, town cemeteries, or in designated areas on private property, and condolences were made at a later time. Funerals were so frequent, and preparations so time consuming, palls were considered property of the church and were recycled instead of personalised for each burial.
As the century progressed, and with the influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants, funerals began to resemble the practices we are familiar with today. Eating and drinking became quite popular at funerals, along with songs, prayers, and a general celebration of the life of the deceased. In fact, drinking basically became the main purpose for funerals. According to nineteenth-century historian Alice Morse Earl “This liberal serving of intoxicating liquor…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." The staunch Puritans were likely increasingly offended at the carousing that followed funerals.
List of expenses at the funeral of David Porter of Hartford, who died of drowning (quoted in Alice Morse Earle's Customs and Fashions in Old New England):
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.
Usually weeks after burial, colonists would place a headstone to commemorate the deceased. Stone from Wales was imported and used to make headstones, but most graves were marked by simple wooden markers or slate. When a woman died, her name was added to her husband’s marker. When a woman predeceased her husband, she was buried in a marital plot, with her family, or with with her children. Since Anne Bradstreet preceded Simon, her husband, to the grave, she could be buried anywhere.
Today, funeral services can be as varied and individualized as the people they are honoring, but many of the rituals and practices the New England Puritans developed are still in observance. Silent funeral processions, often carried out in vehicles, minimal graveside speaking, and the business of remembrance artifacts are all legacies of mourning passed down to us from the Puritans. Religion still can play a crucial role in funereal practice today, but Anne Bradstreet’s generation taught us that it is acceptable to break from tradition and forge new ways to cope with death and its uncertainties. We may not be able to fully comprehend the struggles that came with living in seventeenth-century New England, but our shared grief at the loss of a loved one and our efforts for commemoration transcend time.
Rochelle Brothers is an English and creative writing major at Merrimack College, and she is accompanied by her guide dog, who is majoring in English as a second language. They are avid readers, reading between five and seven books a week, and Rochelle writes fiction short stories and hopes to become published some day. These two like to travel together, whip up delicious dog treats in the kitchen, play enthusiastic games of hide and seek, and spend lazy afternoons cuddled up with an audiobook. Rochelle plays cello in her spare time, and her dog is honing her skills of sniffing out elusive 17th-century poets.