18th Century Funerals

Hi all.  Did some research on 18th century funerals since it’s October and we’ve set up a coffin in the second parlour at the museum!  Since I’ll need to know what to talk about, I researched and decided to share what I found… enjoy?


In the eighteenth century, wealthy American colonists were well aware of the fashions set in France and England.  Strong ties remained between the New World and the Old, but an ocean lay between sophisticated colonists and the newest designs.  The rigors of life in the colonies also demanded moderation.  A high mortality rate meant that colonists felt a strong pull to memorial symbols, and a tradition of social and religious conservatism led to sobriety in American costume.  However, as the century progressed colonists began to indulge in a wider range of jewelry forms made of more expensive materials and elaborate designs.

The traditional practice of giving and receiving sentimental jewelry, notably memorial and love tokens, was embraced by the men and women of the American colonies.  The custom of distributing gold mourning rings originated in Europe, where it first gained popularity after the execution of Charles I in England in 1649.  Most American mourning rings of this period were a variation on the engraved gold band.

Symbols that now seem macabre to the modern eye, including coffins, skulls, and crossbones enameled with black or white, were frequently incorporated into mourning rings.  These served as a constant reminder of the wearer’s mortality, while the circular band suggested eternity.  Scrollwork designs influenced by Rococo motifs were also popular decoration for mourning rings, and were highlighted with enamel or colored stones.  Bands were inscribed with personal information of the deceased, usually the name accompanied by the dates of birth and death.

Mourning or funeral rings were made to distribute at the funeral to friends and relatives; the quantity depended on the prominence of the individual.  While wealthier colonists commissioned their rings from London jewelers, they were also produced by American goldsmiths.  Early goldsmiths and jewelry makers utilized trade cards to establish their business and advertise the variety of their products.  The high demand for memorial jewelry was the foundation of the American jewelry industry.


From Old Sturbridge Village’s website:

Today the physical and ceremonial realities of death are dealt with by specialists in hospitals, nursing homes and funeral parlors.  But at a time when almost all deaths took place at home, families themselves—with the assistance of kin and neighbors—dealt with the corpse and the rituals of mourning.  Without embalming, the body needed to be dealt with quickly once a death occurred.  The corpse was “laid out” and washed by relatives or neighbors, men for males and women for females.  In some communities certain individuals were known as particularly adept and sympathetic in the care of the dead and were often called on to assist at such times.  Customarily (in early America as in Britain and Western Europe ) the body was wrapped in a loose garment called a shroud.  Shrouds were usually made of white cotton (linen in the eighteenth century) and fashioned with long sleeves and an open back.  A simpler but equally traditional burial garment was a “winding sheet,” a long piece of sheeting fabric wrapped around the body and frequently used by poorer families.  A few families were beginning to break with tradition by burying their loved ones in their own clothes—the practice that Americans follow today.  Meanwhile, a local woodworker or neighbor was at work on the quick construction of a coffin. 

The coffin usually lay open in the parlor as family, friends and community came to pay their respects. Often, it was supported by wooden sawhorses or a pair of ladderback chairs.  The paintings and looking glasses throughout the house were themselves shrouded with white fabric out of respect.  Herbs such as rosemary and tansy would be set out in the room to counteract the smell of the corpse.  It was customary for the minister of the family’s church to come to the house to console the mourners and officiate at the funeral.  He would pray and sometimes offer a sermon.  After the coffin was closed and the lid nailed down, it was covered with a black cloth pall and carried to the graveyard. Over short distances it would be carried on the shoulders of the pallbearers; for longer ones it was conveyed on a hearse.  The mourners, with the family at their head, would usually walk in procession behind the coffin.  They would then approach the freshly dug grave, listen to a final prayer, and watch while the coffin was lowered and covered with earth. After the burial, the mourners would return to the deceased’s home for food and drink.


Please note that in the 18th century Congregational ministers would not have offered prayers for the soul of the deceased. That soul was already in God’s hands and had been judged.  (This contrasts with historic Catholic view.)  Prayers would have been offered for the strength and comfort of the living.



Up until the early 18th century, both American Northerners and Southerners observed the English custom of the deceased’s family providing each of their funeral guests with a black scarf, a mourning ring, and a pair of black gloves–or at least as many of these that they could afford.  In 1721, laws were passed limiting such gifting to the six pallbearers and the officiating minister.


Regarding the use of black fabric, from An Introduction to 18th Century Printed Textiles:

By 1700, English calico printers learned to block print cotton and linen fabrics in a limited range of colors — brown, black, red, and purple — and merchants in the American colonies were importing English printed calico and chintz by the first quarter of the century (see Montgomery, Printed Textiles, pp. 16 – 25.)


According to primitiveways. com:

A deep, black dye can be created using water, tannins, and iron. Any natural material can be colored a black tone by first soaking the item in a tannic acid solution. Then the material is immersed in a second solution of iron salt to give it the permanent dark pigment.  (They say to start with acorns and tree galls.)



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