Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The History of Funeral Practices in America

I believe it is important to know why we do the things we do, especially when we’re examining whether or not we want to continue with traditional expectations. What happens when we turn those thoughts to how we dispose of our dead? To how we wish our remains to be disposed of upon our own death? Throughout history man has discovered and created rituals to bid farewell to those who died.
That is a through-thread that has not changed, even as our beliefs and religions altered. The idea of saying farewell in a respectful way to those we loved was a fundamental constant. In many ways, how we dispose of our dead says a lot about how we perceive death.
Death was a common occurrence in early American colonies. Indeed, out of the five of my ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower, three of them died the first winter, buried in an unknown mass grave. Their bones lay somewhere on the Massachusetts coastline, their bodies food for a new and unexplored land. Dying was seen as a common end to those settlers who believed that the “grave was as familiar as the cradle.”
The Puritans scoffed at the pomp of the Catholic funerals they had left behind and saw their dead to the burial plot in a silent procession with little ritual. Puritan law forbade the use of imagery on headstones so their grave markers were often inscribed with a few simple words. Many Puritans felt it was obscene to bury their dead in the churchyard and instead, buried them in community grounds. After Governor Winthrop died in 1649, funerals became more elaborate. In the 1650s, funerals grew into social gatherings, with feasts at the home of the deceased. Short Puritan prayers turned into eulogies with the occasional psalm and markers began to be engraved with more eloquent prayers such as this one: Remember me as you pass by, / As you are now so once was I. As I am now you soon must be. / Prepare for death and follow me.
When a loved one died in young New Amsterdam, Dutch “inviters” would travel door to door to alert relatives and friends to the news. They were often hired for such a task, and would extend an invitation to attend the funeral to those they visited. Just a bit away, in Pennsylvania, these same people tasked with such news were called “warners.” They often delivered a bottle of wine and a pair of gloves to the recipient, as well as two dead-cakes, cookies meant to be kept as a memento of the deceased. They were not meant to be eaten.
From the 17th century book The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying, the shutters of the home of the deceased lay closed. Mourners gathered in the home and processed solemnly into the burying ground, after which they would take a funeral cake home in remembrance of the dead. In this time period, caring for the dead was a family task. Once death was confirmed, the family had to prepare the corpse, ready the home for a funeral, gather provisions for a large meal, and get together the gifts. Gloves were commonly given to attendees because it was believed they would keep the spirit of the deceased from entering the body of the living. Andrew Eliot, a North Church minister collected almost 3,000 gloves over the course of 32 years.
Religious beliefs often dictated the shape of the burial, but the idea of “waking the dead” has been practiced all over the world throughout history and was employed in early times in North America. It is partly where the tradition of holding viewings came from, as it was a time to watch the body to be sure the deceased was actually dead. There are stories of cases of bodies coming to after they were believed to have died, people who were most likely unconscious before we understood what that was.
Holding vigil with the body to be certain of death was common. Wakes stood apart from religious funerals as sometimes wild and unrestrained social gatherings that should be ‘fit to wake the dead.’ The other purpose of these events, were to imbue the dead spirit with life that they might continue on with their consciousness to whatever awaited them.
During the nineteenth century in the South, funerals were also social events. Friends of the deceased would spread the word of their death like a phone tree, with each person responsible for contacting a few people. This was mostly due to the size of plantations and how removed they were from each other. Guests were served hot West Indian rum punch and cake. They would follow the coffin to the burial site on horseback. A procession which sometimes numbered five hundred people.
Coffins were made of walnut, poplar, cherry, or mahogany wood, lined with simple muslin. There were no handles or padding added to the box. The term pallbearer comes from the pall itself, which was the cloth laid over the coffin. For adults, the pall was black with black fringes. If the funeral was for a child or a woman who died in childbirth, the pall was white with white fringes.
A coffin is a hexagonal shaped box with six-sides. A casket is the rectangular box that is more commonly used today. The term casket was another term for a jewel-box; a box that held something precious.
Families cared for their own dead until the mid-1800s but many communities had a group of women who had seen enough deaths, who would come and help lay out the deceased. Visitations were held in the front parlor of the home, followed by a procession to the church and cemetery yard. Early homes did not have parlors in them, but as funeral standards grew, parlors were included in new builds or added on to existing homes. The family’s finest possessions, furniture, portraits, and silver were placed in the parlor, and it was often where the piano lived if the family could afford one. These formal rooms were kept pristine and closed off to everyday use. In the nineteenth century, grander homes even had a death door built into the formal room so that the dead body would never have to pass through the front door.
Black was often worn for funerals but it was not a standard practice until the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria wore full mourning dress for him, which she called her “widow’s weeds,” until her own death in 1901. Following her royal lead, black became the standard for death, but black that had no shine. A black silk gauze, called crepe, was the fabric most desired and saw an industrial boon in the Victorian age.
The traditional mourning period was two years. For women, dresses went unadorned, hairstyles and bonnets were severe, and often veils were worn. Personal appearance was unimportant during this period and any decoration was case for scandal. After the first year, black trims and ruffles could be added to the mourning wardrobe, as well as black jet buttons and jewelry, including cameos. At this time, the severe bonnets were replaced with hats. In the final month of mourning, grey, purple, lilac, and steel blue could replace black in the wardrobe.
During the Civil War, death counts were so high that many women began to dye their existing wardrobe in large outdoor vats, since most of their dresses were hand-sewn and they could not wait for a mourning dress to be made. After World War I, the traditional mourning period of dress faded as a custom. Everyone was suffering a loss. It was still believed that wearing a color other than black to a funeral was disrespectful.
Sleighs and wagons were used to transport the coffins to the burial site. Early hearse carriages were black for adults and white for children. They were mostly plain with simple décor like urns and black bunting. By the end of the century, patents were issued for coffins made out of clay, rubber, glass, aluminum, iron, and even papier maché. Wood was still the standard. By this time period, hearses were larger, with fancy gilded carriages, plate glass windows, and fancy draperies. Automobile hearses began to be used in the early twentieth century.
After the burial, receptions were held in the home of the deceased for all the mourners. Food and spirits were served, tobacco flowed. Usually the cost of the feast was the largest funeral expense. Into the late eighteenth century, gifts were still given to invited mourners, like handkerchiefs as well as gloves. This practice was eventually abandoned because of the cost. Another side custom was to give a silver spoon to anyone who helped nurse the dead in their last days. These ‘coffin spoons’ were hung on cradles for infants to chew when they were teething.
Cemeteries initially began as churchyards or small family plots. Tracts of land were set aside to be used as cemeteries when city planning began, usually on the outskirts. Over time, many small family cemeteries of wealthy landowners were lost and remain unknown. In lieu of home burials, families began to set aside plots or build tombs within the cemetery for their use. Some religions dictated that burials must be on consecrated ground. People used to be buried inside or very near the church, in churchyards, but that was abandoned as cities grew except for those held in high community esteem.
Grave markers began as a simple pile of stones. Later, small boulders would be carved with a name or date. When industry boomed, commercialized slate stones were used; it was soft enough to cut. Eventually they became more elaborate, with symbols that began as skeletons and shattered urns but became cherubs and weeping willows. Later,  in addition to the short prayers and poems carved on the stones, some even included short biographies. I happened upon one in an old cemetery in NYC. It was written in Latin but I translated most of it, the story of a soldier who fell, though none of his companions knew any of his history or whether or not he had family or where he hailed from, they felt his death deserved to be honored and it be remembered that he lived.
I believe some ‘undertaking’ began when a family in the community had seen enough death that they became practiced with laying out the dead. They either felt it was their responsibility to aid grieving friends or their help was sought out. Others came to undertaking through the trade route, seeing it as a merchant would, like cabinet makers and livery men. For a time, men who made their living through the death of others were seen as necessary, but stood just outside of society’s circles as people removed themselves from touching death. By the late eighteenth century, it had become a specialty in large cities. Still, it says something to our culture that undertaking became a profession, almost removing from death its rite of passage and turning it into a third party industry that handles death so the living doesn’t have to.
Initially, undertakers were called when there was a death. If embalming was desired, they would carry it out or employ someone who had taken the required course to do it. They would hang a crepe badge on the door of the grieving home where services might be held before burial. During the procession to the cemetery, the undertaker would remove all sign a funeral had occurred in the home, leaving the family free from death-related tasks, leaving them free to grieve.
It was believed that women’s modesty would be offended by learning the mysteries of the human body, as well as being exposed to the dissecting rooms and other ghastly sights of death, so undertaking was left to the men. One man said in 1893, “It is remarkable that there should be one [woman in the undertaking business]. Women are peculiarly susceptible to their environment, and that any one of the sex should surround herself with all the paraphernalia of death for a life occupation seems almost incredible.”
As the funeral industry boomed, a need for larger gathering rooms and places to store bigger equipment resulted in the building of funeral establishments. These places replaced the use of home parlors and became known as funeral parlors. In these facilities, undertakers supplied caskets, carriages, chairs, robes, pillows, flowers, memorial cards, and crucifixes. When funerals began to be arranged and provided in outside facilities, the formal parlor rooms in the family home began to be called living rooms, and became a place for the family to spend time together leisurely.
Funerals once focused on the death of the person, but now they seem to be more focused on celebrating their life. Funerals are as much about honoring our dead by releasing the vessel that held their spirit, as they are for the people left behind. A good funeral or memorial service will include both aspects. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring other details of the funeral industry and the many ways we send our dead to their afterlife, in exploring the choices available to us today.
While doing my research I came across an interesting fact and truth. According to the World Health Organization, only corpses that carry an infectious disease require burial. There are obviously many laws in place today that tell us what we must do with our dead but I prefer to think outside the box. Once I know that a rule is in place because of things that were believed to be true, that we now know are not, I like to challenge those rules.
If you could choose any manner of your sacred body being disposed of, in a way that honored your life and your beliefs, what ritual would that include? Where would your bones or ashes spend eternity? How would you choose to be laid to rest?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hi! I'm using this as a reference for an essay, and i know it's rather old, but do you have a link to the source used for the first part concerning the puritans? Let me know, my email is


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