to The History of Private Life
Death in Early
Increase Mather, one of Puritan
New England's foremost ministers and scholars, died in 1l723 at
his home in Boston. As he lay "feeble and sore broken"
upon his death bed, he faced his life's end with desperate "fear
and trembling." He was tormented by the thought that he might
be bound for Hell. John Tappin died in Boston in 1673 at the age
of 18. He, too, suffered bitter spiritual torment in the face
of deeath. Although he had been a godly youth, he bemoaned "his
hardness of heart and blindness of minde" and feared that
he was destined for eternal damnation.
For seventeenth century New Englanders,
death was a grim and terrifying reality. Of the first 102 Pilgrims
who landed at Plymouth in 1620, half died during the first winter.
Death rates soon fell sharply, until they were about a third below
those in England, France, or the colonial Chesapeake, but death
still remained an omnipresent part of life. The tolling of church
bells on the day of funerals was so common that it was legislated
against as a public nuisance. It was customary in colonial New
England to send a pair of gloves to friends and relatives to invite
them to funerals. Andrew Eliot, minister of Boston's North Church,
saved the gloves that people sent to him. In 32 years he collected
Death reached into all corners
of life, striking people of all ages, not just the old. In the
healthiest regions, one child in ten died during the first year
of life. In less healthy areas, like Boston, the figure was three
in ten. Cotton Mather, the famous Boston minister, had 14 children.
Seven died in infancy and just one lived to the age of thirty.
Bacterial stomach infections, intestinal worms, epidemic diseases,
contaminated food and water, and neglect and carelessness all
contributed to a society in which 40 percent of children failed
to reached adulthood in the seventeenth century.
Epidemics accounted for a large
proportion of deaths--sweeping thousands of people away in the
course of a few months. Diphtheria, influenza, measles, pneumonia,
scarlet fever, and smallpox ravaged the population, producing
death rates as high as 30 per thousand. A smallpox epidemic in
Boston in 1677-78 killed one-fifth of the town's population. Many
of the individuals who survived a smallpox epidemic were left
blind or pockmarked for life. Conflict with Indians also took
many lives. One Indian war, the Pequot War of 1675, killed a larger
percentage of the population than any later war in American history.
How, then, did Puritans respond
to the ever-present reality of death? A deep, underlying tension
characterized the Puritan view of death. On the one hand, in line
with a long Christian tradition, the Puritans viewed death as
a blessed release from the trials of this world into the joys
of everlasting life. At the same time, the Puritans regarded death
as God's punishment for human sinfulness and on their deathbeds
many New Englanders trembled with fear that they might suffer
eternal damnation in Hell.
From their earliest upbringing,
Puritans were taught to fear death. Ministers terrorized young
children with graphic descriptions of Hell and the horrors of
eternal damnation and told them that at the Last Judgment their
own parents would testify against them. Fear of death was also
inculcated by showing young children corpses and public hangings.
Puritans believed that even the
youngest child was touched by original sin. As Benjamin Wadsworth
put it, "their Hearts naturally, are a meer nest, root, fountain
of Sin, and wickedness." Accordingly, young children were
continually reminded that their probable destination was Hell.
Cotton Mather put the point bluntly: "Go into Burying-Place,
CHILDREN; you will there see Graves as short as your selves. Yea,
you may be at Play one Hour; Dead, Dead the next." Even their
schoolbooks repeatedly reminded Puritan children of the death
and Hell: "Tis not likely that you will all live to grow
up." "T--Time cuts down all/Both great and small."
Adults, too, looked upon death
with foreboding. Puritan theology denied that individuals had
any assurance of salvation. God had decided their fate at the
time of creation and His will was inscrutable. It was a delusion
to think that God in His mercy would forgive their sins and take
them to Heaven. Consequently, many Puritans like Increase Mather
and John Tappin suffered desperate spiritual torment and anxiety
in the face of death.
Since there was nothing that friends
or relatives could do to alter the fate of a dying Puritan, there
was no place in Puritan New England for expensive and elaborate
religious rites or ceremonies. Funeral sermons offered no individual
eulogies for the dead and funeral monuments were kept plain and
simple. The first grave markers were wooden and early grave stones
contained words but no designs because the Puritans thought that
the Second Commandment prohibited the use of graven images. Elaborate
funerals or headstones seemed like idolatry. (The original headstones
faced east, so that on the morning of the Day of Resurrection,
the bodies will respectfully face their Holy Father).
Gradually, the stark Puritan view
of death softened. After 1l650 Puritan funerals became increasingly
elaborate and expensive and tombstones less plain. Corpses began
to be embalmed in order to allow time for families to plan funerals
and for guests to gather. Especially after the Great Awakening--the
intense religious revival that swept the American colonies beginning
in the 1720s--attitudes toward death began to change. Where, in
the seventeenth century, children were told to fear death, they
were increasingly told in the eighteenth century look forward
to death as a reunion with God and their parents. Adults, in turn,
were increasingly assured that a life of active piety assured
In cemeteries, which were now
described as "dormitories," winged cherubs replaced
the grisly death's heads and winged skulls that marked early Puritan
graves. Republican symbols--such as urns and willows--began to
appear in graveyards after the American revolution and the discovery
of the archaeological remains at Pompeii. The wording on gravestones
also changed--reflecting a dramatic transformation in American
views of death. Instead of saying, "Here lies buried the
body of," inscriptions began to read, "here rests the
soul of," suggesting that while the corporeal body might
decay the soul survived. Death was increasingly regarded as merely
a temporary separation of loved ones.