26 January 2012

Colonial America Funeral Customs

The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford, 1996

The cemetery as a moneymaking proposition is new in this century. The earliest type of burial ground in America was the churchyard. This gave way in the nineteenth century to graveyards at the town limits, largely municipality owned and operated. Whether owned by church or municipality, the burial ground was considered a community facility; charges for graves were nominal, and the burial ground was generally not expected to show a profit.

From colonial days until the nineteenth century, the American funeral was almost exclusively a family affair, in the sense that the family and close friends performed most of the duties in connection with the dead body itself. Until the eighteenth century, few people except the very rich were buried in coffins. The “casket,” and particularly the metal casket, is a phenomenon of modern America, unknown in past days and in other parts of the world. Funeral flowers, today the major mourning symbol and a huge item of national expenditure, did not make their appearance in England or America until after the middle of the nineteenth century, and only then over the opposition of church leaders.

The major Western faiths have remarkably little to say about how funerals should be conducted. Such doctrinal statements as have been enunciated concerning disposal of the dead invariably stress simplicity, the equality of all men in death, emphasis on the spiritual rather than on the physical remains. The Roman Catholic Church requires that the following, simple instructions be observed: “[1] That the body be decently laid out; [2] that lights be placed beside the body; [3] that a cross be laid upon the breast, or failing that, the hands laid on the breast in the form of a cross; [4] that the body be sprinkled with holy water and incense at stated times; [5] that it be buried in consecrated ground.” The Jewish religion specifically prohibits display in connection with funerals: “It is strictly ordained that there must be no adornment of the plain wooden coffin used by the Jew, nor may flowers be placed inside or outside.  Plumes, velvet palls and the like are strictly prohibited, and all show and display of wealth discouraged; moreover, the synagogue holds itself responsible for the arrangements for burial, dispensing with the services of the “Dismal Trade.” In Israel today, unconfined burial is the rule, and the deceased is returned to the earth in a simple shroud.


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