How to Plan an Early American Funeral

You are living in the 1600s and someone comes to your house and hands you a pair of gloves. Do they think your hands are cold? No, it’s an invitation!

Time for the annual Halloween post about those unique Puritans and their odd death rituals.

If you have been playing along the past couple years, you read about the gravestone art of 1600s-1700s New England. If you haven’t, please do. I will post the links at the end of this article. Here we will talk about what happens before the grave is filled. And yes, it starts with gloves.

Here is your step by step funeral planning guide if you lived in New England during the 1600s into the 1700s .

Step One: You need to get the word out. What better way then to buy up a bunch of gloves, white, black or purple, and send them out as invitations to the funeral? This was not a cheap expense for the family. And the more important a person was, you had to up the quality of the gloves. On the other end, you could go cheap for the hired help and those people you didn’t really like. If you were a popular person to invite, you could amass quite the collection of gloves, but that’s okay, you can sell them on the side.

Step Two and Three: Next on your list, order the coffin and the gravestone. The making of the coffin and the actual digging of the grave was done by someone you knew. There were no funeral directors and formal gravediggers. Let’s hope you knew someone who is willing and able. As for the gravestone, there were men who made and carved these professionally. If you study the regional stones, you will see patterns to the images and carving styles, and possibly initials to tell you who made them.

When we think of the Puritans and the early colonists of New England, we think of plain folk with plain meeting houses. They shunned away from all the fancy and complicated church practices when they came to America, and that included their funeral rituals. They decided to make their funerals civil in nature, from start to finish. Even the choices of where to bury their loved ones was far from churches, either in a town designated spot, or their own property. With these practices being out of church jurisdiction so to speak, they were free to decorate their gravestones with images not seen elsewhere and often to extremes! On those gravestones you will find hollow eyed skulls, coffins, demon looking creatures, and geometric designs. Their favorite motto for gravestones was “Memento mori” which means “Remember you have to die!” Other sayings were “Prepare be to Follow Me” and “Death Parts United Hearts”

Why they were such a Gloomy Gus society, reminding everyone that death of the flesh was not pretty, and it was scary, and don’t you forget it, will take more space to explain than I have here. All you need to remember is at that time, symbols of a fearful death were all the rage.

Step Four: Order the Mourning Rings. Yes, rings, and hand them out to those closest to you, and to those you feel were important to the deceased. They were gold with the initials and death date of the loved one inscribed inside. The early ones were decorated with simple Death Heads and are my favorite. Yale University Art Gallery on-line has some nice ones.

Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

The Mourning Rings were often advertised in local newspapers. Goldsmiths would keep a good supply on hand. If you had more money to burn, you could add a saying or even a lock of the deceased hair to a ring!

Step Five: Now to support your local printers by ordering broadsides and elegy broadsides. (According to Oxford Dictionary on-line, an elegy is “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” A broadside is just another term for “A sheet of paper printed on one side only, forming one large page.”) One broadside would be attached to the funeral carriage while others would be handed out to mourners. This large piece of paper would include the deceased’s name, when he or she died, and possibly some simple remarks on death. You would think in these small towns people would know such things and not need advertising!

The elegy broadsides were created after the funeral.

This is how the elegy broadsides worked: People would write a verse or poem, and attach them to the board the coffin would be laid on. Those items would be collected after the funeral and printed. They also wrote puns and satire depending on how much they liked or disliked the person. Families would just have to grin and bear the good with the bad when it went into circulation. Guess this was the original social network!

Just like the gravestones, these sheets of paper were decorated with scary death images such as skulls, skeletons, and coffins.

This full broadside is in the Boston Athenaeum in Boston. This one really captures all the scary images.

Worthington C. Ford, Broadsides, Ballads &c. printed in Massachusetts1639-1800, no. 310.

This one is tamer in it’s decoration. Do check out the full sized version at the link to read the poems..

This last one was printed by Ben Franklin;

The early Americans seemed to really love their death poems. They continued to add them to their gravestones!

Step Six: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”: Make arrangement for bells to be rung as the funeral procession passes by. Imagine a group of people dressed all in black, walking quietly, somberly, to the grave site with only the sound of their footsteps and the ringing of meeting house bells. That is a tad spooky.

Step Seven: Someone needs to carry the coffin. If you were not lucky enough, or your local tradition didn’t dictate the use of a carriage, you needed to arrange for men to carry the coffin to the grave site. In the present time, we call them pall bearers. What is a pall? It is actually the name of the funeral cloth draped over the coffin, which was owned by the town. Remember, these funerals were not church connected. They were all civil ceremonies, so anything related to it, was town property or dictated by the town rules and customs. It could be black, or purple.

Those who carried the coffin were called under-bearers and they were usually young strong paid men. The coffin would be placed on a wooden base called a bier that they heaved up and carried. These men would be hidden under the draping pall cloth. I’m sorry, but that to me would have looked silly, a coffin going down the street with a bunch of legs under it! If the walk was a long one, you may have to hire a second set of guys to switch off. They did have Pall Bearers. They would be older and more important men walking at the four corners holding onto the pall.

What if you could afford a carriage, or wanted to use one? Then you should dress your horses. They would have a blanket placed over them that was decorated with the same creepy symbols the gravestones and the elegy broadsides used; Death Heads, Skulls and Crossbones, or coffins with skeletons! Now that I would like to see. Though today if you saw a black horse with a black blanket with a skull symbol you would think pirates! Yes, that is where the pirates got their signage-death is coming for you!

Step Eight: Line everyone up for the procession: The closest relatives led the procession to the gravesite, followed by the coffin, then everyone else. Once there, everyone stood quiet as the coffin was lowered into the grave. No prayers or sermons were said.

Step Nine: Hopefully friends and relatives helped you clean up your house and brought gifts of food and drink for the funeral feast. If you haven’t already gone into debt buying all those gloves, rings, hiring people, this will do you in. It is expected that there will be a large amount of rum and liquor to go with the food AND to use as pay to some of your helpers. Everyone gets their fare share. If you are too poor to give it out, the town may help with those funds. These funeral expenses could set a family back for a few years. Eventually in the early and mid 1700s in Boston the giving of these expensive gifts, including the rum, was prohibited.

Step Ten: There may be a funeral service the next day and that sermon may be printed up and handed out. If you ran the printing press in town, funerals kept you in business!

Well there you have it. Death and funerals in the 1600-1700s were grim and creepy, just like Halloween!

Happy Halloween/ Blessed Samhain!



This article is copyright © Atwood/N.A.M. 2017, 2020. All content and images are copyrighted unless otherwise noted. Please do not use in any form without request of author. Links to our articles, short quotes with credit, and associated links are allowed.

To learn more about old New England Graveyards and stones, please read our article Field Guide to Early American Gravestones in New England


For a very detailed look at early American funeral beliefs and practices, this is your source: Allan I. Ludwig, Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols, 1650-1815, by Wesleyan University Press.

The Funeral Practices of the Pilgrims and the Puritans: Great Bibliography at the end. :

New England Historical Society:

Fun after thought: Gloves were also given as an invitation to weddings!!

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One thought on “How to Plan an Early American Funeral

  1. Debra

    very interesting! I am from the Midwest, now living on Cape Cod, MA.
    Here is 200 years of cemetery/funerary history that is new to me. I am a here with a cleaning crew at a lovely old cemetery. Your article is very helpful, thank you!


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