|Anna-Lisa and David Pruitt dressed in 19th century mourning clothes. She fashioned these |
outfits for their participation in the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's funeral in Springfield, IL in 2015. (Photo by Paul Anderson)
“Simplicity to the point of starkness, the plain pine box, the laying out of the dead by friends and family who also bore the coffin to the grave…these were the hallmarks of the traditional funeral until the end of the nineteenth century.” Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death
This column covers ways in which Americans, generally and local folks, specifically, have dealt with the ceremonies of passage that accompany death.
Early area residents lived in constant fear of illness or accident. Death was an ever present and intensely personal experience for early residents. Many agreed with the English writer Horace Smith that death was “the sleeping partner of life.” Individuals generally died at home and families often controlled the entire process of caring for the ailing to preparations for burial.
Death was not something that happened just to the elderly as many families experienced the loss of a child or adult in their productive years. Local cemeteries were filled with the victims of both epidemics and endemic diseases that sometimes wiped out whole families and even depopulated neighborhoods.
The average life expectancy in 1850 was under 40 years of age, brought low by high infant mortality. Poor sanitation practices spread many diseases. Those responsible for the care of the decease were often overwhelmed by the number killed in war.
Many believed that illness was a punishment for sin. Believers relied on prayers for God’s intercession as a cure. This was especially true in the face of epidemics when days of fasting and prayer were observed. Governors often proclaimed statewide fast days to combat contagious disease.
Puritan attitudes toward death forced many Protestants to look at I with some ambivalence, since it was viewed through the lens of both punishment and reward in the afterlife. Because one could never be sure about their personal status regarding eternal damnation, there was a sense of helpless insecurity.
Other religious groups provided a greater promise of salvation to their believers. The religious revival of the Great Awakening after the 1730s offered an alternative view of God as a deity of love and mercy, thus lessening to some degree the fear of death. Among early residents there were also a number who viewed death as the natural close of life with no existence beyond.
Until the temperance movement of the 19th century it was expected there would be “ardent spirits” provided at funerals. One observance was complete with “a barrel of rum set out before the house, for all to help themselves, and it was gone before night.”
Attitudes toward death during much of the 19th century reflected a more romanticized and sentimentalized view, thereby muting some of the fears. Many saw dying as an escape to a better world, there to be reunited with loved ones who had gone before.
In most situations the body of the decrease was prepared in the home for burial and was displayed in an open casket with friends and family sharing in the mourning. But as attitudes and behaviors changed there was more prolonged periods of seclusion during the bereavement, more elaborate funerals, mourning clothing, poems, hair wreaths and even vials for the tears of sorrow.
William Cullen Bryant’s 1812 poem Thanatopsis captures this attitude as it admonishes one to go to the grave “sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust.”
Other ethnic groups approached death differently. The Irish wake, held in the home of the deceased, was a time of recollections complete with refreshments and even humor. The growing French-Canadian population had their own particular forms of ceremonies surrounding death. For both of these Roman Catholic groups emphasis was placed on both the religious ceremonies and on the support of the extended families.
Among Jews there were observances surrounding death and mourning that included special rules for the caring of the body of the deceased, behavior during the period of mourning and emphasis on the memories of the deceased that were similar and at the same time quite different from other ethnic groups.
A contrast to these religious and ethnic groups can be found in the spiritualists of the mid-19th century who had a strong belief that the deceased remained close in spirit allowing communication between the living and the dead. Reports of “spirit-rappers” began to appear in Vermont newspapers in the 1850’s.
Soon after settlement each town established one or more cemeteries. These were often neighborhood burial places, sometimes adjacent to the local church. Some individuals preferred to be buried on the home place in a small family burial ground.
Early on, coffins were made by family members or local carpenters. Wells’ Newbury history mentions that it was “not unusual for people of some wealth to have their coffins made while they were yet living, and upon such, considerable expense was sometimes lavished.” He added: “Not in Newbury was this practice known.”
Caskets differed from coffins in shape and ostentation and were more likely to be used in the later 19th century. The custom of enclosing the coffin or casket in an outer box for burial came into general use about 1860.
Several local towns purchased burying cloths, decorated heavy black material large enough to cover the coffin while it was being transported to the graveyard. Towns also secured a horse-drawn town hearse to replace the use of a private wagons.
Corinth purchased one in 1869 and hired a sexton to maintain it, supply the team and attend all funerals for $10.75 per year. Groton paid $275 for a hearse in 1871. The service of their sexton was put out to bid.
Towns also maintained a hearse house for the storage of this ornate vehicle. A news item from Thetford Center in 1894 mentioned that the Methodist Society had repaired the hearse-house. In 1898 the Bradford Town Meeting voted to build a hearse-house in the Upper Plain Cemetery.
Towns also maintained a receiving vault for the storage of remains during the winter when burial was difficult. These were often built into the side of a slope and faced with granite and an iron door.
In 1912 Edward Sawyer left a bequest to build a memorial chapel and receiving vault in Bradford’s Upper Plain Cemetery. It provided a space for funeral services for families from away who were returning a deceased family member for “a final resting place beneath our sod.”
Until the Civil War most bodies were not embalmed. During that war Dr. Auguste Renouard began embalming Union dead so that their bodies could be shipped home. Following the war Renouard began a school to teach the practice to other undertakers. It was about this time that the term “mortuary” began to replace the term “dead-house” previously used in Vermont newspapers.
As local furniture makers expanded their offerings to include furniture imported by rail, they began to offer a wider variety of coffins and caskets. In 1867, Bradford’s National Opinion carried the following advertisement for George Butler: “Those wanting anything in the line are respectfully invited to call and examine coffins and caskets of various styles and prices, neatly trimmed to order on short notice. Also ready-made grave cloths, coffin trimmings, plates etc.”
Funeral managers who would undertake to arrange funeral and provide necessary merchandise became known as undertakers. In 1888, the Grafton County Gazetteer listed one undertaker each for North Haverhill, Haverhill Corner, Orford and Lyme. Warren had “three undertaker shops.” The Orange County Gazetteer of that year listed one each in Bradford, Wells River and Union Village-Thetford. In East Topsham, town clerk J R. McLam also served a local undertaker.
One undertaker whose name is familiar was that of Arthur Hale of Bradford. Announcements in local newspapers in 1900 described him as a furniture dealer and undertaker. “He is a scientific embalmer and his kind sympathetic manner makes him fit for the profession he has chosen.” Hale was also listed as having “undertaking rooms” at Orfordville in 1904.
Typical charges in the late 19th century, in addition to the price of merchandise, included “service at the house (placing corpse in the coffin) $1.25.” Preserving remains on ice or embalming cost $10. Generally the undertaker added a fee for being “in attendance” at the funeral. Fees for those who dug the grave were expected. As early as 1805 it was the law in New Hampshire that the costs of the funeral should come before all other debts.
Many funerals were “at the house,” with the deceased “laid out” in the parlor. For this reason undertakers began to use the terms funeral parlor and funeral home when they offered a commercial place for funerals. Other funerals were held in church. Members of the clergy often gave lengthy eulogies. Rev. Silas McKeen of Bradford was known for his presentations and they were later offered in printed booklets.
Many funerals included hymns such as “Shall We Gather at the River,” elaborate floral displays, tolling bells and numerous mourners. Members of fraternal organizations such as the Masons performed special rituals for deceased members. By the early twentieth century it was common for newspapers to include the names of mourners who attended from away.
Mourners were expected to show their respect by following the deceased to the cemetery for burial. Newspapers reported “the long and silent process of neighbors following the deceased to his long home.”
This practice may have been in decline when in 1877 Vermont historian Abby Hemenway wrote “Funeral rites were attended with more solemnity and ceremony than at present. The deceased, borne on men’s shoulders, whatever the distance, and attended by pall-bearers, was carried silently and reverently to the last resting place. At the grave, which was always closed before the assembly withdrew, it was expected that the father or husband or next friend would tender the thanks of the mourners.”
Observers often used a language of death to avoid saying someone “died.” “Dead as a doornail,” “kicked the bucket,” “asleep in Christ,” “found everlasting peace,” “passed on,” “the kiss of death,” “gave up the ghost,” “six feet under,” or “no longer with us” are just a few alternatives.
There are also many examples of superstitions and folklore about death and cemeteries. Corpses were meant to be carried from the house “feet first” lest it bring bad luck to those who remain. These are a litany of actions to ward off bad luck when passing a cemetery. Few are willing to take a walk in a cemetery, especially at night or around Halloween.
Relatively recent trends have signified a change in the attitudes toward death and dying in modern America. Changes in religious affiliation, the hospice movement, advanced directives and death- with-dignity legislation as well as changes in memorial services and treatment of the body of the deceased are examples.
If the reader is interested, I have written three other articles that complement this article. They can be accessed at this blog by searching the following titles: “ Influenza and Other Epidemics,” “What Ails You?” and “Carved in Stone,” each with the prefix of “In Time Past.”