Funerary Practices in Early and Modern America
Loretta M. Alirangues
The early American
colonists believed that the grave was familiar as the cradle, and accepted death as natural and inevitable.
In Dutch New Amsterdam, inviters were hired to go door to door to inform friends and relatives that a loved one had passed on, and to invite them to the funeral. In Pennsylvania, these people were called warners. Along with the invitation, they delivered a bottle of wine, a pair of gloves and two dead-cakes. These cakes were actually large cookies that were not eaten but kept as a memento of the person who had died.
Southern funerals were major social events in the nineteenth century. Because plantations were so spread out, in the event of a death, the family contacted four friends, each of them contacted four friends, and so on. When the guests arrived, they were served cake and hot West Indian rum punch. After the funeral service, the mourners followed the coffin to the place of burial with sometimes as many as 500 people on horseback.
In the early to mid-nineteenth century, coffins were usually made of poplar, mahogany, walnut or cherry. They were lined with muslin and had no padding or handles. The pall was the cloth that was laid over the coffin. It was usually black and had fringes. A white pall was used for children and for women who had died in childbirth. By the late nineteenth century, coffins were being made out of all kinds of materials. Patents had been issued for experimental coffins made of iron, potters clay, glass, vulcanized rubber, aluminum, and papier maché.
In the earliest colonial days, a body was carried to its final resting place on a frame of planks. Later, an open sleigh or wagon would serve as a hearse. The first real hearse carriages that were developed were painted black for adults and white for children. The chassis was plain, but there were usually ornaments such as urns or wooden torches with eternal flames on top. The windows did not contain glass but were just left open. Hearses became more elaborate during the next decades. By the late nineteenth century, coinciding with the Victorian Age in Britain, they were much larger, had fancy gilded carvings, and plate glass windows with draperies inside. By the early twentieth century automobile hearses were used.
Receptions were held after a burial in the home of the deceased, and often they became very spirited parties. All kinds of delicious foods were served, barrels of wine were drunk, and pounds of tobacco were smoked. Often, the cost of the feast was the largest expense of the entire funeral. Typically gifts such as handkerchiefs and gloves were given to all the mourners, but this custom was abandoned by the late eighteenth century because the expense was overwhelming. It was customary to give one or two silver spoons to a neighbor or relative who had nursed the deceased during their last days. These were referred to as coffin spoons and were then put to practical use by being hung on the post of a cradle for an infant to teeth on.
Mourning etiquette was not given much consideration by the early colonists, but with the Victorian era came many customs. Proper mourning clothing was essential. Men wore flowing black cloaks, white scarves and gloves. Widows were expected to grieve for two years and wore solid black clothing with no trim except crepe collars and cuffs. They also wore bonnets with a long, thick, black crepe veil. During the second year of mourning, the veil was shortened and white or violet flowers were added to the bonnet. The garments were allowed to be trimmed with gray, violet or white. Children in mourning wore white in summer and gray in winter. Special mourning jewelry was common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gold lockets were worn by both men and women. They contained tiny black and white mourning pictures showing figures weeping over tombs beneath willow trees, or they contained a likeness of the deceased. Rings with typical mourning scenes on them, beads made of jet and worn in strings as necklaces or bracelets, were also common.
Memorials were very popular in the nineteenth century. These took several forms. Wreaths and jewelry were created from the hair of the deceased by weaving it over fine wire. Having a portrait painted of the family, which included the deceased in his or her coffin, was also popular. These portraits became photographic upon the creation of cameras. Mourning pictures were another popular custom. These scenes were similar to those painted on lockets, but on a larger scale. They were paintings, drawings, lithographs and embroidered hangings that showed family members by the grave or tomb of the deceased, often in beautiful surroundings. Sometimes favorite pets were added to these scenes.
American cemeteries have changed considerably since colonial days. They began as simple churchyards or small family plots on farms. When large cities began developing, large tracts of land were set aside outside the cities to be used as cemeteries. Elaborate family tombs that held many coffins began to be built. In the south, most notably in New Orleans, above-ground tombs were necessary because of the low water table. In many cemeteries, cement enclosures similar to gates, surrounded a single grave. Iron fences, stone walls, brick walls, and hedges surrounded small family plots.
Grave markers were also simple in the early days. Sometimes just a pile of stones was used. Usually a small boulder was crudely carved by a family member, with the deceaseds name and date of death. When commercial stonecutters began offering their services, they often used slate because it is soft and easy to work with. The headstones became more elaborate and had different types of symbols were carved on them. Skeletons, winged hourglasses, and shattered urns were more gruesome symbols of death that later gave way to symbols such as cherubs, wreaths, and weeping willows. Very often an occupational symbol, an emblem from a fraternal organization, or a portrait of the deceased was used. Many different types of epitaphs were also carved on the headstone. They took the forms of short prayers, beautiful odes written by a loved one, biographies, or humorous rhymes.
In the nineteenth century, American funerals were intensely gloomy and distressing for the bereaved. As a result, there emerged a desire to provide a beautiful setting to experience grief, and that eventually lead to the development of park-like cemeteries. During this period, grave markers became even more ornate and emulated those of the Victorians.
American undertaking began to evolve when certain community members became expert at laying out the dead after having done it several times. These people then felt it was their responsibility to help fellow neighbors out and offer their services when a family member died. By the late eighteenth century, undertaking had become a specialty in large cities and with it came bureaucratic elements that led to the impersonal handling of funerals.
Undertakers were immediately called upon someones death, and generally came to the home to direct the funeral and carry out the embalming. Liquid tints had been developed by the embalming fluid companies and attempts were made to restore the faces of the dead. A crepe badge was hung on the front door, and by the end of the nineteenth century it was replaced by a basket of flowers. Religious services were held at the home or in the church, and then concluded with a procession to the cemetery. During the procession, the undertaker removed all signs of the funeral from the house so that the family had no further tasks to bear.
Because of a growing need for more funeral equipment, funeral establishments with large rooms appeared in cities, while barns and the back room of the undertakers stores were used in rural areas. Since this replaced the home parlor, these establishments became known as funeral parlors. The undertaker supplied the casket, carriages, memorial cards, flowers, chairs, robes, pillows and crucifixes. Embalming became more sophisticated and required more equipment that needed a special laboratory. Needing all these different rooms is what led to the development of present-day facilities.
Modern funeral customs in the U.S. vary due to geographic region, ethnic background, religious affiliation, and economic and social class. Depending on where, how, and when death occurs, it is common to notify a physician or the police. Then, the cause of death is certified by a physician, coroner, or medical examiner. After the family chooses a funeral director, the director removes the body to the funeral home where it is embalmed, or if it will be cremated, it is sanitized. On rare occasions, a body is cryogenically suspended. (See sidebars for full descriptions of embalming, cremation, and cryonics.) The family must make other decisions such as: the time and location of the funeral service, whether to publicize it, who will give the eulogy if one is to be said, and the place of burial or cremation. Garments must also be chosen and should be something the deceased enjoyed wearing in life. Unfortunately, many funeral directors persuade the family to purchase clothing from him, and they choose something the deceased wouldnt have been caught dead in! (Sorry for the pun.)
The family must also choose a casket. The word casket originally meant jewel-box, and a jewel-box holds something precious. There is a difference between a casket and coffin. Coffins are six-sided, and are rarely used in the U.S. today. Caskets are rectangular in shape and are usually made of thin metal or a hard wood such as oak or mahogany. They are also available made from simple plywood or pine, or can be made of fiberglass, stainless steel, copper or bronze. Beware of the most popular type the thin metal casket. These are so-called sealer caskets with a rubber gasket around the edges that is supposed to seal out air and water. They are not leak-proof as the funeral director will claim.
Viewing the dead body is widespread in the U.S., occurs in all social class levels, and is almost always done at the funeral home. Black clothing does not necessarily need to be worn (although I know most of you reading this wear black all the time!). However, guests should wear something modest and with a neat appearance. There is a guest book just inside the door of each funeral chapel, and guests are encouraged to sign it. In front of the casket is a kneeler upon which visitors may stop and say a prayer while looking at the deceased. Depending on the religion of the deceased, there may be a pedestal near the casket upon which are prayer cards. These cards have a religious picture on one side, and a prayer, the name of the deceased, and date of death on the reverse. In some cases, the funeral director will pass out these cards to the guests. Flowers are commonly sent by friends and relatives to the funeral home and later transported to the grave site. Many families now prefer a donation be made to a favorite charity in lieu of sending flowers. Also varying according to religious practices is the custom of bringing a mass card to give to the family. These cards state that a mass will be said in honor of the deceased by whatever church or organization the card has been purchased from.
Before the casket is sealed, jewelry should be removed from the corpse so it can be passed down to future generations. It is at this time that family members may place items inside the casket that they wish the deceased to be buried with. They can include a favorite book of the deceased, a handwritten poem, or a childs drawing. A wake usually lasts for two nights, with the funeral being held on the third day. If religious funeral services are being held, there is a short service at the funeral home on the last night of the wake, and then a full service at the church the next day.
With few exceptions, there is little active participation other than attendance by family and friends at the funeral. This is a uniquely American custom, whereas the family fully participates in other countries. One of the few ways in which Americans do participate in a funeral is if family members or friends are pallbearers. The casket is transported to the cemetery by the funeral director in a hearse, and the immediate family is often transported in a limousine with other family members and friends following behind in their cars with their headlights on. At the cemetery there are a few religious committal rites, and the family leaves with the casket still above ground. I have read though, that the reason the family doesnt witness the actual interment is that the cemetery personnel dont want them to. Occasionally, the casket is dropped, stood upon, and even broken while being lowered into the grave. Have a family member remain behind to watch the interment! After the funeral, the family usually has a reception at home for the guests.
Modern cemeteries are operated by the government, by churches, or by private corporations. They may be classified as perpetual care or non-perpetual care. In perpetual care cemeteries, a certain percentage of the payment for each plot is set aside in an endowment fund. The fund itself remains intact, but the accrued interest is used for maintenance and improvement of the cemetery. A non-perpetual care cemetery has no endowment fund and assesses lot owners for cemetery maintenance and improvement.
Most cemeteries are laid out in rows of burial plots for earth interment. Some permit the erection of large family monuments. However, in so-called park cemeteries, only grave markers that are flush with the ground may be installed. This practice is becoming more and more common, and I know many of us mourn the demise of elaborate monuments. Modern tombstones are usually made of granite and carved by mechanical means. They rarely include more than the name and dates of the deceased.
Many cemeteries now have facilities for burial either in-ground, or burial above-ground in a mausoleum, and have a crematory as well as a columbarium where cremated remains may be placed. A number of cemeteries have become wildlife preserves, and some have installed jogging and biking paths, and picnic areas.
There are approximately 15,000 funeral homes in the United States today, and operating one can be a lucrative business. Only 30-50 years ago, most Americans died in their homes surrounded by family members, and funerals were community events. Now more people die in institutions instead of in their own homes, and funeral directors take charge of the entire funeral. Americans have lost the desire to be active participants in funerals so we have very little exposure to the dead. I think that if we were to witness the peaceful death of a loved one and play a larger role in their funeral proceedings, Americans would be less afraid of death and more at peace with themselves.
American Academic Encyclopedia
The Bedside Book of Death
, Robert Wilkins, 1990, Citadel Press, NY
Death in Early America
, Margaret M. Coffin, 1976, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN and New York, NY
Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice
, 1990, Appelton & Lange, E. Norwalk, CT
The Funeral Book
, Clarence W. Miller, 1994, Robert D. Read Publishers, San Francisco, CA
Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective
; Paul C. Rosenblatt, R. Patricia Walsh,
Douglas A. Jackson; 1976, Human Relations Area Files Press