Fig. 1. Nathaniel Emmons. Samuel Sewall. Oil on canvas, 1728. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, Mass.

“Often concerned in funerals:” Ritual, Material Culture, and the Large Funeral in the Age of Samuel Sewall


WAIT STILL WINTHROP’S corpse lay silently at home for a week in November 1717, while family members buzzed with activity. They approached the governor, his predecessor, the lieutenant governor, and members of the colony’s council to walk alongside the body as it moved to the burying ground. They bought hundreds of pounds worth of rings, gloves, and clothing—as well as 32 new halberds and 16 new drumheads for the regiment that would accompany the procession. And they ordered the painting of almost fifty black lions on escutcheons bearing the family coat of arms.1

The splendid ceremony they organized was fully worthy of the Winthrop family that had produced Wait Still’s grandfather, the first governor of Massachusetts, as well as his father and brother, both governors of Connecticut. Like these eminent ancestors, Wait Still’s trip to the grave had a military escort and attracted substantial public interest. Besides the regiment, the eminent bearers, and the deceased’s horse bearing the black lion, the procession, a newspaper noted, included “the Chief Gentlemen and Inhabitants both of Town and Country.” The Boston diarist Samuel Sewall, who served as one of the bearers, recorded that “the Streets were crowded with people.”2

But Wait Still’s ceremony differed from his ancestors’. Most notably, unlike his grandfather’s 1649 and his father’s 1676 ceremonies, his 1717 funeral offered participants extensive gifts. A long (and probably incomplete) list records that the family distributed gloves, scarves, rings, and escutcheons to at least 41 individuals or families, 70 officials, 12 council members, and the entire 100-person lower house of the legislature. As a bearer (as well as part of the council), Sewall received each of these gifts. We can presume that the pious layperson went home with a prayer on his lips; we can be sure that he returned with a ring on his finger, gloves on his hands, and yards of material over his shoulders.3

With the possible exception of the weekly church service (which in these years increasingly featured funeral sermons), funerals were eighteenth-century New England’s most common, most substantial, and most highly developed public ceremony. They were also, for the region’s wealthy elites, its most expensive. Rich families spent freely on the material goods they displayed and gave away at funerals. In a year when all of Boston paid £1700 to the province for poll and property tax, the Winthrops’ ceremony cost almost £600, more than the tax payments from any other locality in the colony—and more than twice as much as all Maine put together.4

Contemporaries would have called the 1717 Winthrop ceremony a “large funeral,” a burial for well-to-do New Englanders that included extensive gifts, expanded use of mourning attire and funeral decorations, and a substantial number of participants. The large funeral of Winthrop’s time was bigger, more visible, and more elegant than earlier ceremonies, so different that contemporaries worried about the strain of these new demands. The “expence of funerals of late years . . . is become very extravagant,” Massachusetts legislators complained in 1721, leading to “the impoverishment of many families.”5 Yet despite such anxieties, and the legislative action it inspired, the large funeral remained popular until the Revolutionary era.

This paper examines the origin and significance of the large funeral. During the early years of the eighteenth century, it argues, New Englanders such as Samuel Sewall, whose diary provides the major source for this study, adapted the seventeenth-century Calvinist funeral ceremony to the needs of eighteenth-century elites, dressing up its older structures with genteel material culture. The enormous expense of Wait Still Winthrop’s 1717 funeral at first seems distant from the simple, almost wordless ritual established in the 1630s under Winthrop’s grandfather. But a closer look suggests that the large funeral elaborated upon rather than broke free from that structure, a process that created a more complex version of the earlier system rather than making it completely different. By offering room for expanding material culture, the Puritan funeral allowed wealthy New England families in the eighteenth century to employ the emerging vocabulary of gentility, an increasing emphasis upon carefully restrained self-presentation that provided a means of expanding material culture that could express both the honor and taste of the family. The large funeral dramatized the older burial service, making it more theatrical, more expressive, and more genteel.

This reshaping can be seen more clearly by looking at three major issues: what people brought to the funeral; what happened there; and what people brought from it. After examining mourning, ceremonies, and gifts, the discussion concludes by briefly suggesting how the seemingly motley elements of the large funeral disintegrated in the age of the American Revolution.

These changes have often been noticed, but they are seldom explained convincingly. A long series of works beginning with Alice Morse Earle in the late nineteenth century describe the great increase in material goods at early New England funerals. David Stannard suggests that more expansive funerals resulted from inward-turning tribalism, while Laurie Hochstetler has made the case that they carried an increasingly explicit religious content that distinguished them from earlier Puritan practice. But such discussions tend to mine Sewall’s diary and other sources for examples rather reading them closely for a range of practices and their meanings. More important, these arguments have obscured the eighteenth-century funeral’s connection with its predecessors—and given even less attention to the significance of genteel values, and to the later, more revolutionary, changes that swept away the entire structure by the end of the century.6

As these studies note, the examination of early eighteenth-century funerals must rest upon the diary of Samuel Sewall, an untiring participant in and observer of New England life and particularly of funerals. His extensive diary, the fullest diary of a mainland English colonial before the mid-eighteenth century, notes that, in the forty-five years before his 1730 death (the longest unbroken stretch of his diary), he attended more than 500 funerals, an average of one funeral a month. He served as a bearer 140 times, about once every four months. Sewall did not consider these ceremonies burdensome social obligations. He filled his diary with lovingly recorded specifics about the funerals he attended—and even many he had not. As he remarked to his fellow bearers at a ceremony almost exactly ten years before Winthrop’s death, “we were often concern’d in Funerals.”7

Fig. 2. A Neighbor’s Tears. Boston, 1710. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Sewall offers an insider’s understanding of this world. By 1717, he had long been close to nearly all the centers of power within New England, as a Harvard graduate and former tutor, a member of the council, and a respected jurist, as well as a deacon of Old South Church and a close friend of many of the colony’s ministers, including Cotton Mather. With the death of Winthrop in 1717, he became (at the age of 65) the chief justice of the colony’s highest court. Just as important, Sewall was also deeply interested in the larger issues that were at the heart of the changes within funerals. He was first a staunch defender of the region’s traditions—calling Winthrop a “a very pious. . . New-England Man” was high praise indeed. But Sewall also lived in the larger cultural and material world made possible by increased commerce and communication. Sewall himself had helped to create that expansion, as both a merchant and someone who had managed what was at the time the only press in all New England. Used with a range of evidence from the period, Sewall’s diary allows a close look at the changes and the continuities within funerals and their material culture, a series of changes that reveal the ways that Sewall and his contemporaries struggled to preserve their connections with the community within a world that operated on a new scale and according to new standards.8


Samuel Sewall found the months surrounding Wait Still Winthrop’s death particularly difficult. His wife had died three weeks before—an event that “fill’d our House with a flood of Tears.” Other family members and close associates followed. By December, he noted that he had served as bearer for half of the people who had served in that role for his wife only two months ago. He told a correspondent that he felt “the Breakers . . . passing over me, Wave after Wave, Wave after Wave, in a most formidable Succession.”9

Other people recognized Sewall’s situation—and shared it. In the church service the next day, Sewall’s son, a minister, was almost unable to read the note that Sewall had posted asking for prayer. “Our Ruffled Mind can scarcely Think, for Tears,” mourned a poet writing about Sewall’s wife’s death before describing the widower as being “in Sorrow almost Drown’d.”10

Sewall and his contemporaries, who often referred to death as “dissolution,” a dissolving, or breaking apart, understood the agonies created by the death of a loved one. But they also knew of its dangers, especially because the New England tradition had given these difficulties much thought. The first generation of settlers crafted a set of practices that sought to avoid the problems created by excessive grief. The large funeral of the early eighteenth century took shape within the context of expectations and expressions that were deeply rooted in these early experiences. The difficulty was figuring out how to take this restrictive set of burial customs and make it more expressive of the differentiated social world in which they operated. Earlier funerary activities had often been accompanied by mourning cloth, and eighteenth-century ceremonies expanded this usage. By 1717, however, these black textiles no longer seemed adequate to express the significance of Hannah Sewall and Wait Still Winthrop. The new large funeral attempted to adapt Puritan practices to a world that required more substantial and more visible expressions.

New England’s earliest settlers modeled their funeral practices upon the innovations of Continental Calvinists that had been brought to the British Isles. In each of these locations, reform was driven by distaste for the Catholic culture of death, with its belief in purgatory, prayer to and for the dead, and extensive and often emotional religious rituals. These practices “are no way beneficiall to the dead, and have proved many wayes hurtfull to the living,” declared the Westminster Assembly of the 1640s, the influential conference of British reformers. The Assembly’s “Directory of Worship” recapitulated the central elements of this larger Reformed tradition. It ordered that the body be taken directly to the burying ground and “immediately interred, without any Ceremony.” Such burial was a communal activity, not a religious rite. Ministers could encourage Christians to think about their religious “duty,” but otherwise had no specific role.11

New England Puritans, however, did not need the advice of the “Assembly of Divines.” They had already independently adopted the restrained practices of Reformation Geneva. According to an erstwhile Bostonian who had made his way back to England in 1641 (two years before the Westminster meetings began), “nothing is read, nor any Funeral Sermon made” at burial. Instead the neighbors “carry the dead solemnly to his grave, and there stand by him while he is buried.”12 The lack of other testimonies about these early occasions may indicate how successfully Puritan leaders reduced the importance of funerals. The tradition continued into the eighteenth century. Although Cotton Mather might resolve decades later in 1711 to be “exemplary in the Religion of the Funeral,” he carefully identified his goal not as proclaiming God’s word or extending spiritual counsel but exhibiting a more individual “holy Behaviour.”13

In reshaping funerals, New England reformers from John Winthrop to Mather sought to prevent sorrow from undermining the foundations of spiritual life. Such concerns were widely shared even in Sewall’s day. “Stop your Pursuing Griefs for her,” exhorted a poem published upon the passing of one of Sewall’s daughters in 1710. “Our loss,” it noted, was “her profit,” allowing her to enter a world of “triumphant hallelujahs.”14 Sewall himself had made the point more eloquently three years before, commenting to a Minster after a burial that “our Condolance for the departure of our friend, was join’d with Congratulations for her being gon to her Rest and Reward.”15

Although Puritans denied the religious significance of burial, they recognized its social significance. The Westminster Assembly explicitly noted that funerals could recognize the deceased’s “rank and condition.” The first generation of New England settlers acted in the same way. For the 1649 ceremonies after the death of Governor John Winthrop (Wait Still’s grandfather), the government provided a barrel and a half of powder for military salutes, more than had been allotted to the harbormaster for the entire previous year.16

Such expanded ceremonies for civic and religious leaders were not just a concession to social propriety. Puritan ministers argued that more extensive mourning was even commendable in such cases—a view expressed in the 1683 funeral sermon given for Sewall’s father-in-law, a man who had served as treasurer for the colony in some of its most difficult financial straits. The eminent minister Samuel Willard began by warning conventionally against wallowing in grief. But, he went on to say, the death of a church member who held public office concerned more than family and friends. It was a “publick loss”: “It is we and not [the dead] that are indangered and endamaged by it.” “We may therefore,” Willard suggested, “weep for our selves.” Sewall told a London correspondent that he felt the same sense of loss when Winthrop and other colleagues died in 1717: “We stand in aw to think what God may be about to do with us when he is removing so many of our Principal Pillars in the Civil Order.”17

The attention given to community loss in Puritan consideration of mourning as well as the provisions for social differentiation provided the justifications for the extensive freight of material goods added by the founders of the large funeral. The opening wedge of this expansion of objects came in the use of mourning, the cloth that grieving families (and sometimes sympathetic community members) used to embody their intense feelings of loss that was also referred to as mourning. “You have put me into Mourning by telling me of the Death of my Unkles,” Sewall noted to a London correspondent in 1696, showing the close correlation between the uses of the term mourning as both the loss itself and its expression in clothing.18

Mourning cloth was primarily used by the families of the deceased. They were the first (and often the only) people who wore it. When his father died in 1700 while Sewall was riding circuit as a judge, his wife “provided Mourning” for the children, leaving one of their sons at home during the funeral “because . . . [she] lik’d not his cloaths.”19 The death of a daughter in 1724 similarly led Sewall to supply (presumably with better results) all his remaining children with new suits.20 Interestingly, he gives little attention to the use of such clothing by widows, a central preoccupation of the nineteenth-century versions of the practice. He offers only his observation of the widow of late governor Joseph Dudley at church in early 1721 (ten months after the funeral). She had, he noted, “her Mourning a little turned up, that one might see her face.”21

Although mourning cloth was already a traditional part of funerals, its use grew substantially around the turn of the eighteenth century.22 The family of the very wealthy Andrew Belcher, who died two weeks before Winthrop in 1717, had suits made for some fifty people, including his first cousins and all his former apprentices.23 The funeral of Governor William Burnett twelve years later included not just “His Excellency’s whole Family,” but also “divers others . . . put into Mourning.”24 Elite New Englanders even began to don mourning to commemorate public figures. “Going into Mourning for publick persons is a new thing” in Boston, Sewall told a merchant in 1694 who had sent some mourning clothing commemorating the death of Queen Mary the previous year.25 The practice soon became more common. Sewall went into mourning for the Lieutenant Governor six years later.26 By 1738, the governor and the council, as well as other “Gentlemen,” dressed in mourning for a ceremony commemorating the death of Queen Caroline.27

Mourning cloth could be used beyond the body as well. It provided decoration in a wide range of places. Mourning cloths covered the pulpit upon the deaths of Sir Edmund Andros’s wife in 1688 and of Queen Caroline in 1738.28 Sewall in other places notes a “Mourning Coach,” “Horses in Mourning,” and “Mourning Guns” in the harbor. He even owned a “Mourning Rapir,” adding to its effect upon one occasion by also tying “a black Ribband into my little cane.”29 Wherever it was used, mourning cloth followed a distinctive visual strategy that made objects both more separate and less distinct. Covering objects (and people) with black cloth disconnected them from everyday experience, suspending normal functions. Mourning also made objects less defined, pushing them further into the background by hiding sharp edges and individual colors.

Early eighteenth-century New Englanders spent freely on such mourning. King’s Chapel covered not only their pulpit and their desk, but also their communion table when King George I died in 1727.30 Wait Still Winthrop’s family ten years earlier had bought about 140 yards of black cloth for that ceremony.

But even the most extensive use of mourning cloth did not seem sufficient by then. Boston was six times larger than at the death of Wait Still’s grandfather—New England as a whole ten times as large—and its residents, critics charged, were engaged in “Extravagant Consumption of foreign Commoditys.”31 In such a setting, families wanting to show the proper degree of mourning required larger, more theatrical display. In response they not only placed greater numbers of people in mourning; they also provided an equivalent amount of decoration, and offered more gifts from the family to people in attendance. These changes ensured that spectators would not dwarf the core group of family, that they and the coffin would be visible, and that the people in attendance would receive a token from the family.

Sewall and his contemporaries referred to a burial on this scale as a “great” or a “large funeral.” The diarist described the commemoration of two of his nephews in 1728 as “A very large Funeral, with abundance of Boys walking regularly, And a great concourse of Spectators.”32 The 1715 ceremony for the wife of Cambridge’s minister was “a great Funeral,” and “would probably have been much greater” if it had not rained.33 As the accounts make clear, the terms seem to have referred primarily to the number of people in attendance, but they also provided a useful way of denoting such ceremonies.34

Funeral activities on this scale required considerable investment in time, attention, and money. They often consumed a substantial proportion of the wealth left by the deceased—often, a 1750s account suggested, one-fourth of the entire estate.35 Wait Still Winthrop’s family spent slightly less, one-fifth of his substantial wealth, when he died in 1717, buying, among other things, nine dozen buttons, over 100 yards of ribbon, and several hundred yards of material. As a bearer, Sewall received a scarf, a ring, and a pair of gloves.36 The family of Winthrop’s brother, Fitz-John, had paid out almost exactly the same sum when he died in 1707.37 Twenty years later, the Anglican King’s Chapel allotted a smaller sum upon the death of their rector, but they still spent £169 to have him “honourably Interred”—almost two-thirds of his salary for the entire year.38 And though the colony spent £1100 upon the burial of Governor William Burnet in 1729, some of his supporters still felt that he had been treated shabbily.39

The huge sums spent on large funerals marked a dramatic shift in their gifts and decorations, helping to create ceremonies that could attract, as in the 1723 burial of Increase Mather, “a vast number of [both] Followers and Spectators.”40 But even the new objects added in the large funeral did not end the older Puritan practices. A look at burial customs in the age of Sewall suggests that their essentials remained relatively unchanged.


Almost twenty years before the death of Wait Still Winthrop, Sewall was invited to the funeral of a very different man. While Sewall idolized Winthrop as “very pious,” he considered John Ive “debauched, atheistical.” Recalling his “notoriously difficult life,” Sewall found himself “Sick of going.” But he had been invited—perhaps asked to serve as a bearer—and he knew Ive’s parents, so it was hard to stay away. Only an unexpected visit from Increase Mather as he was about to leave kept him from attending.41

Sewall did not discount the funeral’s religious significance. But his accounts again and again emphasize not prayers or pious reflections but the most public element of the ceremony, the procession. Sewall’s attraction to funerals was part of his intense desire for human connection that fed his desire to record his activities for over half a century. The perspective was not simply Sewall’s. It points to what may be the heart of New England’s funerals. By refusing to make the burial spiritual, the Puritans made it social. A close look at Sewall’s diary (and other contemporary evidence) suggests the elements of these ceremonies and helps explain why Puritan practices continued into the eighteenth century.

Cotton Mather found the slow pace of funerals frustrating. Although they probably lasted only about two hours, he complained for years about his time being “thrown away Unprofitably.” The minister was particularly upset about the first part of the funeral, when the family and funeral goers gathered in the house before the trip to the grave, the burial, and the return. In 1684, he noted the tedium of “sitting in a Room full of People . . . where they take not much Liberty for Talk.” Although he attempted to turn the experience to spiritual profit, the situation continued to rankle. He warned families in a 1713 sermon that people would attend more funerals if they did not “make us Mispend our Time.” Four years later, he resolved to petition the city selectmen about “the loss of Time.”42

Funerals frustrated the impatient minister in part because Puritan practices did not give him control over its activities. Mather was forced to accept the instructions of distressed families who lacked his extensive experience. Yet, as a Congregationalist minister, he was expected to attend funerals regularly not only for his own parishioners but also for community leaders of all sorts. And Sewall’s diary suggests that clergymen in Boston did have a significant part in this early stage of the ceremony. Their prayer at its opening seems to have been the only time that words were required. Sewall’s complaints about a 1708 Anglican service in Boston included its failure to include “Prayer at the House.”43 But even an opening prayer was not even fully accepted by all Congregationalist churches. Cotton Mather noted in 1726 that it was expected in “many,” but not all, New England localities.44

The time at the house of mourning also made another activity possible. As a 1706 poem suggests, it was “usual” to prepare elegies and other pieces upon the death of learned and prominent figures—and to attach them to what was called the hearse, meaning broadly any object that held or decorated the coffin. “It seems there were some Verses; but none pinned on the Herse,” Sewall noted in 1685 when the Rev. Thomas Shepherd was buried.45 Sewall’s mention of these elegies leaves open the possibility that they may have been read aloud at the house of mourning. Such a practice, however, seems unlikely, since the enthusiastic versifier Sewall presumably would have noted at least one such performance. These pieces could sometimes be printed later. Sewall himself published two such commemorative works and Cotton Mather found the “dreadful Elegies, or Epitaphs (or What-shall’s-call-em!)” written for Fitz-John Winthrop so appalling that he later composed one of his own for the printed version of his funeral sermon.46

The time at the house of mourning seems to have counted as preparation rather than the ceremony proper. Sewall described one clerical prayer as coming “before the Funeral,”47 suggesting that the procession itself marked the official start of the ceremony. Gloves, scarves, and escutcheons, when they were provided, must have been handed out at this point in the ceremony.48

Fig. 3. John Charmion. AE. M. S. Eximij Pietate, Eruditione, Prudentia Viri D. Ebenezrae Pembertoni. [Boston, 1717]. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Fig. 4. John Charmion. Sacred to the Lasting Memory of the Reverend, Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton. [Boston, 1717]. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Judging by the amount of attention he devotes to it, the procession that followed the time at the house seems to Sewall the most important element of the entire funeral. While he only rarely notes events at the house of mourning, he invariably includes the trip to the burying ground, and especially the pallbearers. The office of what he unfailingly refers to as simply the “bearers” was purely honorific. It required no particular physical prowess. “Porters” or “underbearers” carried the coffin itself, which in turn held up the pall covering it.49 But Sewall was not interested in practical matters. While he fails to provide the name of a single one porter, he identifies hundreds of bearers, carefully recording their names whenever he attended a funeral—and sometimes making a list when he was not there. When he did not immediately recall or could not learn a name, he left blanks to be filled in later. He even listed the bearers according to their position around the coffin.50

The bearers held such significance because they formed the most visible representation of the family’s relationship with the community. Since family members could not serve in the role and clergy served only upon the death of other ministers, the position required outsiders who could honorably uphold not only the pall but the family’s reputation. Neighborhood, church, social, and political connections all played a part in this complex calculus. The Winthrop family, of course, had access to the highest levels of colonial society. Wait Still’s bearers included both the present and the immediate past governors and lieutenant governors, as well as Sewall and another man who was similarly both a judge and a member of the council.

Few other families could attract such lofty figures. The bearers at the 1707 funeral of the widow of Deacon Jacob Eliot suggest the options open to a less significant family. Sewall, who would be placed in the least honorable position at the chief justice’s coffin, took the foremost spot at the widow’s. Across from him walked another council member. The son-in-law of a former governor took up another place. Sewall’s role in the ceremony also was connected to his position as a deacon of Old South, a post held by the widow’s late husband and perhaps all three of the remaining bearers.51

Leaders of significant organizations could expect to have the members march before the coffin. As with Winthrop, military companies appeared “in arms” for governors or high-ranking civil and military officials. Fellows and students walked first when Harvard presidents died—and parishioners led the procession upon the death of their ministers.52

Fig. 5. Upon the Death of the Virtuous and Religious Mrs. Lydia Minot. Cambridge, 1667. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Except in such unusual circumstances, however, the bearers and the coffin they surrounded served as the procession’s start and focal point. The rest of the procession was generally prescribed less carefully. One or sometimes two principal mourners directly followed the coffin, generally the closest relative of the deceased, whether parents, children, or spouse. In the tragic case of a prominent figure who fell ill the day before his wedding in 1711 and then died, what Sewall called “the most compleat. . . disappointment I have been acquainted with,” his intended served as the principal mourner.53 Widows were generally “led” by a male escort.54 Other family members followed, designated simply as the “mourners.”55 Sewall notes that he was part of a group of a half-dozen at the funeral of his grandson in 1703.56 Civic leaders in attendance sometimes were given a special place behind the family. At a 1709 funeral, Sewall recorded that he marched with another member of the Council; the president of Harvard and a third councilor walked directly behind.

Following the family came the other attendees, “those who,” Cotton Mather, suggested, “out of Respect and Good Will Accompany the Bereaved.”57 Men and women were grouped. Ministers and (when they did not march separately) magistrates walked beside the women or the mourners. Sewall went alongside the family with the governor in a 1718 funeral.58 A decade earlier, Sewall had noted that “at first I walk’d next the women” with one minister before “Mr. Cotton Mather came up and went with me.”59

This shifting about suggests that the demeanor of the participants was not strictly regulated. A passing horseman who talked with a pallbearer might bring a rebuke from a minister, but Sewall considered it normal to hold conversations along the way.60 At another funeral a week after walking (and talking) with Cotton Mather in 1708, Sewall had a more troubling encounter with his own minister, Ebenezer Pemberton. Pemberton was deeply angry with Mather for writing a contentious letter to the governor and he complained “very warmly” on the way to the gravesite.61

After writing so extensively about the funeral procession, Sewall has little to say about its ending point, what contemporaries called the burying ground. After arrival the company watched as the body was placed into the tomb or into the grave before being covered over. Sewall noted that this requirement complicated the 1707 funeral of Samuel Torry in 1707, since the group had to wait “a pretty while before any appeared to fill the Grave.”62 In “some towns,” Cotton Mather noted, a minister made a “short Speech.”63 Sewall implies that this does not seem to be the case in Boston. The few remarks he made at his mother’s 1701 funeral in Newbury began by asking the attendees to “Forbear a little.”64 Several years later, he noted the oddity of a Quaker funeral where “one spake much at the Grave.”65

The actions (and perhaps the words) at the burying ground concluded the primary part of the ceremony. Mourners and bearers seem to have been invited back to the house of mourning, as Sewall implies when he explains about a 1726 funeral where he had served as a bearer: “I went not back to the House ‘twas so near night.”66 His diary entry notes his direct observations of the procession at Cotton Mather’s funeral two years later, but only a second-hand report of a conversation that took place “when the Mourners return’d to the House.”67

Beyond such interchanges, the activities within the house of mourning remain unclear. Sewall’s diary makes no mention of the alcohol that appears regularly in funeral bills—and that Massachusetts legislators in 1742 considered so problematic that they prohibited distribution of wine and rum at ceremonies. A 1713 Cotton Mather sermon similarly condemns people who solemnly marched as mourners and then stumbled drunk in the streets.68 Although Sewall must have witnessed similar behavior, he never notes either drinking or eating. He once speaks of “a table spread,” but his entry may suggest that this was odd because food was available before the trip to the gravesite.69

Sewall sometimes also notes a concluding ministerial prayer after the return to the house of mourning. Since all three of these entries occur between 1724 and 1726, this practice may have been something new (and, given the lack of evidence after Sewall’s death in 1730, perhaps even short-lived). Sewall first remarks on such a prayer at family funerals in 1724 and 1725.70 A more detailed entry the following year suggests such prayer may have been offered directly after the return to the house and may even have been primarily for the family. Having heard that the Rev. Thomas Foxcroft of Boston’s First Church was going to pray, Sewall notes that he “stay’d and all the Bearers, and enjoy’d the Benefit of that excellent Prayer.”71

Despite an occasional impressive prayer, the funerals that Sewall attended were, to an extraordinary extent, a sequence of actions rather than a series of words. Ministers prayed (and sometimes spoke), and family members must have called together the procession, but they seem to have done so, in classic Puritan fashion, without a settled ritual of carefully prescribed and shaped phrases. Neither Sewall nor Cotton Mather, the period’s most prolific giver of funeral sermons, note any specific phrase that might have been used at the ceremonies other than Biblical phrases referring to the “House of Mourning” and the “long home” of the grave. Nor were funerals opportunities for impressive improvisation. Other than the few times Sewall noted satisfying ministerial prayers or his own speech at his mother’s grave, he does not think it worth recording anything said formally at a burial service. Even funeral sermons, which became increasingly common in Sewall’s lifetime, were kept distinct from the ceremony itself. Following Puritan tradition, they were given as part of the regular church calendar, whether at Sunday worship or (in Boston) at the Thursday lecture.

New England funerals lacked an accepted ritual because Puritans rejected the use of ritual reading and their conception of the funeral left no other group with the power to impose one. Puritans had stripped wedding services (as well as funerals) from the purview of the church, but matrimony remained under civil authority. By contrast, government had little interest in controlling funerals beyond overseeing the use of bells and the managing of burying grounds. New England burial ceremonies were regulated by custom as mediated through the families of the deceased.

But these absences did not make the New England funeral irrelevant. Freed from religious and civil authority, burials became powerful expressions of social inclusion and solidarity. The ceaseless participation in the lives of community members that Sewall shared with ministers and other leaders helped establish both the experience and the ethic of common concern and common destiny. Sewall found it difficult to exclude even the debauched Ive from this community. Widespread participation in communal mourning furthermore helped to build and maintain social capital, becoming a key element in the extraordinary solidarity that helped Boston and other Massachusetts localities first meet challenges to its charter and then throw off British authority. Perhaps not surprisingly, as a central community ritual, funerals (both real and mock) often became a means of gathering and mobilizing people for revolutionary resistance.72

The central communal role of funerals in New England helped to make its ceremonies distinct in ways that went beyond the region’s adherence to Puritan standards. New England’s funeral was not invented on its own—out of whole cloth, as it were. The same sorts of objects appear elsewhere. New England was different, taking English precedents that were varied and often localized, and adhering to them more systematically than either the mother country or other British colonial regions. Elsewhere in America, funerals put on by the well-to-do were more uncommon and more private. New England’s early development (with the largest English city in America during the early eighteenth century and the only one with a substantial intellectual life) and its relative religious unity and social cohesion gave the large funeral a presence it failed to develop elsewhere.

Even outsiders recognized the weight of these expectations. The great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts quizzed Boston minister Benjamin Colman in 1740 as to why New Englanders complained about the need for paper money when they “use so much of the metals of gold and silver in funeral rings.” Colman was forced to admit that “Boston has always been too expensive in funerals.” A New Yorker was more harsh in the 1750s; he considered the “needless and exorbitant” expense of Boston’s funerals “a romantic Affectation . . . carried to an enormous Profuseness.”73

By the time of the Revolution, the large funeral was on its way toward becoming a victim of its own success. The large funeral had earlier succeeded in incorporating older Puritan practices so well that even Sewall, ever watchful for deviations from cherished New England ways, found the ceremonies uncontroversial. The large funeral also accomplished its other goal, of creating a larger and more widely visible expression of social position. The elements of this expansion can be seen in an examination of the gifts that, more than anything else, distinguished the large funeral from its predecessors.


Wait Still Winthrop’s funeral in November 1717 required extensive preparation. His son John had to arrive from New London. And, even though invitations were not normal practice, bearers and other notables still had to be notified. But objects presented just as many problems as people. The suit worn by Winthrop’s servant Mingo in the procession presumably had to be specially made in the eight days between death and burial, as well as the clothing for the horse that he led. Even more important, the family also needed to arrange for the most extensive use of goods, the gifts to be given for funeral participants.74

To aid them in this task, the Winthrop family prepared a substantial list of the gifts to be given to participants. The list, the only one surviving from colonial New England, reveals the level of effort required for a large funeral. Besides the half-dozen bearers, the numerous civil and military officials, and the immediate family who made up the primary elements of the start of the procession, the Winthrops listed some 65 people also expected to march. All of them, from the governor as the most prominent bearer to the postmaster who walked farther back, received at least one item from a repertoire of gifts that included scarves, escutcheons, rings, and gloves. Choosing the proper combination required careful consideration. Members of the council, the upper house of legislature, received scarves and gloves; members of the assembly, only gloves. Paul Dudley (the former governor’s son) and Francis Wainwright (the former governor’s son-in-law) both received gloves, scarf, and rings. Yet Mrs. Dudley received gloves and a ring, while Mrs. Wainwright, who had been born a Dudley, was given only gloves.75

Although the list documents gifts being given on a scale that would have been almost unthinkable in New England only a few years before, the choices made by the Winthrop family were not unusual within their own context. They might even have used as their model the funeral for one of Winthrop’s fellow council members, a ceremony performed on the same day that Winthrop died. Although the Winthrop burial procession seems to have attracted more observers, the Belcher family gave out even more gifts. Such presents were the signature element of the large funeral, the characteristic that, more than anything else, defined the new practices of the early eighteenth century. Sewall noted this shift in lists that he kept of the gifts he received while acting as a bearer. In the years between 1697 and 1704 and between 1707 and 1713, he served in 66 ceremonies and received at least one gift in each.76

Funeral presents were central to these ceremonies—so important that both Sewall and the Winthrops kept track of them—because they helped convey a rich range of meaning. The gifts given at funerals were first objects in themselves; each gift held particular significances and had separate histories within the ceremonies. But gifts also operated together to shape the funeral both culturally and socially. Besides helping to make these ceremonies more genteel, they also served as a means of both drawing people to the funeral and bringing them closer together.

Sewall first mentions funeral scarves in 1686 and then does not note one again until five years later. By the time he began keeping a list of the gifts he received as a bearer in 1697, families had already begun giving them regularly. Sewall received scarves at 61 of the 66 ceremonies noted in the lists, making them the most common gift on the list.77 Scarves were so popular in part because of their continuity with mourning wear. Both used large amounts of cloth to distinguish wearers from people in everyday clothing. Donning a scarf was even more distinctive because it immediately identified a participant in a ceremony. When Sewall returned to Boston from a Salem court session in November 1711, he noted a friend wearing a scarf, and immediately asked “what funeral.”78

Scarves made particularly dramatic statements. Worn over the shoulder as what might today be considered a sash, they consisted of three to four yards of fine fabric. They seem to have been given only to the central figures in the ceremony, to family members first and then to a select group of people who played key roles in the funeral, such as pallbearers, ministers, and government officials. Wearing a glossy fabric that almost covered the torso clearly distinguished these central figures from the rest of the funeral procession. The Winthrop family gave scarves to the council but not the much larger assembly; to the three highest officers of the regiment but not the others. The family also seems to have determined that only men would receive scarves, even though Sewall often notes them being given to women as well.79

The Winthrops may have made this distinction between men and women because the expense of giving away more than fifty scarves would have been substantial. Other New Englanders certainly felt the strain. Less than four years later, the Massachusetts legislature, calling scarves “very extravagant,” banned their use. The 1721 prohibition proved successful. Scarves, the first funeral gift to become widely popular, also became the only one to be completely abandoned. “A-la-mode and lutestring scarfs were our mourning twenty years ago,” recalled a Boston minister in 1740, but “we reformed to rings which were about half the expense.”80

The escutcheon, the second major gift used in the large funeral, played a more limited role in the ceremony. Bearing the shield from a family’s coat of arms painted on cloth and stretched on a frame, escutcheons appeared less often than scarves and other gifts. They were offered only by prominent families. Sewall notes only 17 in his entire diary, with the first coming in 1707 with the death of Fitz-John Winthrop, former governor of Connecticut and elder brother of Wait Still. The family of the latter distributed about 25 escutcheons, paying 12 shillings for eight of them in silk.81 Sewall also notes them at ceremonies for Harvard President John Leverett and former governor Joseph Dudley.82 Like the more common scarf, escutcheons were closely connected to other funeral elements. They were often used to decorate the pulpit, the pall (or coffin itself), the hearse, the coach, or even the horses pulling it. Unlike mourning clothing and scarves, however, escutcheons could also be used outside the funeral. Escutcheons bearing royal symbols were placed on courthouse walls in 1690s Maryland and printed on paper money in Connecticut forty years later.83

Rings, the third funeral gift, were even more common outside the funeral. They could be used as an honorable gift in many situations. Sewall sent one to Increase Mather in 1717 “as a Token of Thankfullness and Respect,” just as he had for many years before presented a ring bearing a suitable inscription to the governor at the start of the New Year. This honorific role made them logical choices as funeral gifts as well. Rings were often given within the ceremony, presumably before the procession, although Sewall notes a 1687 ceremony where they were distributed “at the House after coming from the Grave.”84 But the separate standing of the gift meant that even rings commemorating death could be separated from the funeral itself. This seems to have been the more common usage in the years before the large funeral. They were often specified as gifts in the will or given to family members and close friends outside the confines of the ceremony. Sewall sent one to his father after the death of his daughter in 1690 and when another of his daughters died in 1696, Sewall gave gloves to the bearers at the ceremony, but handed out the rings individually outside it.85 As with other gifts, the number of rings rose over time. Sewall gave five in 1696. The Winthrops gave ten times as many and one observer suggested that Peter Faneuil gave out hundreds when his uncle died in 1738.86

Fig. 6. Mourning ring. 1766. Courtesy, Historic New England, Boston, Mass.

Gloves were the last major gifts to be adopted as part of the large funeral. Seventeenth-century ceremonies had included them only irregularly and on a small scale. One-sixth of the funerals on Sewall’s 1697–1704 list provided them. Soon, however, they became even more common than scarves. Only one of those funerals in Sewall’s 1707–1713 list failed to include them. Gloves offered an array of advantages to families planning funeral ceremonies. They were already worn not only in mourning suits, but as a ubiquitous part of elite clothing, making them a convenient emblem of elite standing. Seventeenth-century portraits often portrayed sitters with gloves for this very reason. At the same time, however, gloves were also relatively cheap and easily available in mercantile stocks. When Sewall served as an executor in 1724, the price of each pair of gloves he bought was only one-quarter that of the rings (which in turn were half the price of scarves).

Fig. 7. Gloves given at a Connecticut Funeral, 1765. Courtesy, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Conn.

Fig. 8. John Winthrop. Oil on canvas, ca. 1630–91. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.

As relatively inexpensive items, gloves could be given freely. As the large funeral developed, it became normal practice to distribute gloves to everyone who participated in the ceremony, not just the central figures. “All had gloves men women boys & girls,” noted another Boston diarist of a 1728 ceremony.87 As executor, Sewall provided twelve dozen for a ceremony in 1724, a number common by then among relatively well-to-do New Englanders. Another of Sewall’s ministerial friends, Benjamin Colman, bought the same number when his daughter died in 1735. But the wealthier (or the showier) could offer even more. The 1717 ceremony for Sewall’s (and Winthrop’s) fellow council member Andrew Belcher included 1,000. Although gloves were sometimes sent to a select few before the funeral or posted afterward to people who could not attend, gloves on a large scale could only have been given at the ceremonies themselves.

As this survey suggests, the repertoire of gifts within the large funeral was not definitively fixed until the 1720s. Scarves were central to turn-of-the-century ceremonies; rings and gloves became more popular later. Once the 1721 ban on scarves took effect, however, no other object emerged afterwards. Even hatbands, a staple of English funerals, never became part of the New England ceremony.88 Funeral gifts afterwards changed only by expansion. The largest New England ceremony on record came soon after Sewall’s death in 1730. Peter Faneuil’s extraordinary funeral for his uncle eight years later included “hundreds of Gold Rings” and gloves for the 1100 people in attendance. Another source puts the number of gloves even higher at 336 dozen, a total of more than 4000 pairs.89

While each gift, from showy scarves to widely-distributed pairs of gloves, had particular significances and uses by themselves, they also worked together to shape some of the important characteristics of the ceremony. The rise of funeral presents helped to make the ceremonies of well-to-do New Englanders both less separated from everyday life, and, in the process, more polished. Earlier funerals, symbolized by the scarf, had used a distinct set of practices, almost a separate vocabulary. Ministers and other learned men had often been celebrated by Latin poems or complex anagrams and acrostics pinned on the pall. Processions for civic leaders sometimes included carrying the different pieces of their armor.90 The new large funeral, however, moved away from these activities in favor of practices that were closer to everyday life. Gloves and rings formed part of ordinary experience, and part of the growing commerce that made consumer goods increasingly available throughout the Atlantic world. This commercial expansion allowed families to gather large quantities of goods for funerals more easily and more cheaply.

But the new vernacular funeral involved more than taking advantage of new economic opportunities. It also allowed New England elites to communicate to a broader audience. In this, as in much else, the large funeral formed a part of the emerging culture of gentility. Both relied upon carefully considered and controlled gestures that could be easily understood and that used expensive material goods as part of their fundamental vocabulary. Just as important, both gentility and the large funeral conveyed similar messages, not only about the taste, honor, and standing of its practitioners, but also about the desire to connect with, and refine, the broader community in which they operated.

Presents shaped the large funeral socially as well as culturally, drawing people, ordering them more clearly, and bringing them closer to the family. Gifts first helped attract people to the ceremonies. This was particularly true for ministers who attended funerals as part of their professional duty and considered rings and gloves part of their payment for their service. One of the clergymen who participated in the procession for council member Andrew Belcher in December 1717 noted to his father that he wished that another minister had attended “so he might have carryed home, a scarf for his wife.”91 Even the wealthy Sewall felt the pull. Although he was glad that Increase Mather’s visit had kept him from attending the funeral of the immoral Ive, he could not help noting in his diary that he had therefore “lost a Ring.”92

The large processions encouraged by extensive presents in turn helped validate the standing of well-to-do families. Sewall wrote of “very thin” as well as large funerals.93 “Few there,” he reported another time, “their little Room not full,”94 fittingly failing even to note the name of deceased. As he and his contemporaries well knew, participation could be expected only from the family and its ministers. Families who sought a more substantial ceremony felt obliged to provide for larger numbers, particularly through elaborate and expensive goods that increased the sense of the special character of the ceremony.

Presents also helped shape these larger processions. Along with mourning clothing and other decorations, gifts shaped large numbers of people into an ordered array, differentiating bearers from mourners, ministers, and magistrates from the other marchers, who were in turn distinguished from onlookers by gloves. Gifts not given to everyone generally went first to people who held such special position in the procession. At the 1720 funeral of former governor Joseph Dudley, council members and ministers both received scarves. Dudley’s son wore a mourning cloak while leading the widow. Such careful attention to goods made the elements of the procession clearer to the enormous numbers of observers that Sewall noted as looking “out of windows” and standing “on Fences and Trees, like Pigeons.”95

Even as presents created new meanings for the funeral, helping it become more genteel, attract more participants, and create a more orderly procession, these gifts also reinforced the social goals of the Puritan ceremony. Presents created a complex interchange between families and their communities that helped bind them together. Rather than being simply signs of self-regard, presents allowed families to show respect to other funeral participants, to reach out, and to signal their desire for connection with the larger community. Cotton Mather refers to “the Civilities (of a Glove, or a Ring, or a Scarf,) given me at a Funeral,” tellingly describing them as signs of respectful social interactions. In accepting these gifts, he and others committed themselves to enter the communion created by the ceremony.96 Anthropologists argue that gifts always come with strings attached; they entail an obligation to continue the relationship and to reciprocate later. In this context, the family’s gifts were less about alienating goods than creating connections, a continuation of the essentially social role of the Puritan burial service that persisted despite the sometimes dazzling decorations added in the age of Sewall. Gifts shored up society—or, to use what may be a more apt metaphor, they helped repair the social fabric in moments when it seemed in danger of coming unraveled.97

By the time Sewall died in 1730, the large funeral had become virtually universal among well-to-do New Englanders. Participants and observers alike expected these ceremonies to include substantial numbers of gifts, extensive use of other objects, and full attendance. The practice of glove-giving pioneered in the large funeral had become virtually obligatory even for poorer people. But the triumph of the large funeral proved short-lived. Although it continued to expand in both size and expense in the short run, the large funeral eventually came to seem unmanageable and unsatisfying.

The large funeral continued to grow after 1730, as larger quantities of gifts and mourning display in turn spurred other families to outdo their predecessors. Governor Jonathan Belcher, who asked Sewall to serve as a bearer when his father died in 1717, sponsored an even more impressive ceremony when he lost his wife in 1736. A newspaper account judged that “the most grand and showy Funeral ever solemnized in these Parts, came far short of This in Expence and Magnificence.” “. . . [I]t would be endless,” the report noted, “to mention all the Tokens of Respect and Honour shewn to the Memory of the deceased.” But only two years later Peter Faneuil created an even more magnificent ceremony for his uncle.98

This tendency toward expansion helped make the large funeral insupportable. This great expense may have come to seem even greater because funeral gifts, while important in the ceremony, seldom seem to have been considered significant afterwards. Judging from their survival in current collections, rings were the most likely gift to be saved. Yet the examples of two ministers suggests a less reverent attitude. The cosmopolitan Benjamin Colman used them to buy British books. The collected piles of gloves and rings assembled over the years by another minister became a means of raising cash. Scarves by design were made long enough to turn into a shirt. Gloves were presumably worn for, and worn out by, everyday use. No colonial-era scarf and only a single, fully documented pair of gloves from a funeral seems to survive.99

Even by the 1720s and 1730s, many New Englanders complained that funerals had become too extravagant. Massachusetts legislators took up the issue of funerals again in 1742. Having successfully banned scarves two decades earlier, they now prohibited almost all gifts beyond gloves for a few ministers. But New Englanders largely ignored the measure. Major change only came as a result of a broader public movement that began in the 1760s and became part of the resistance movement against British policies. These reformers called for more restrained funerals that they termed “the new mode.” These new standards had become common by the late 1780s.

The transformation reshaped each of the main elements of both the large funeral established by Sewall and his contemporaries and the Puritan ceremonies they had sought to preserve. Mourning clothing itself was perhaps the least changed. Although it seems to have been used less often by people beyond the family, well-to-do women increasingly made it part of the changing world of fashion. Grief also gained new significance. Rather than being distrusted, as it had been in Puritan times, it came to symbolize admirable sensibility, portrayed in the popular genre of mourning art with its central image of a woman grieving by a grave.100 Funeral ceremonies also underwent substantial changes. Even Congregationalists, having lost much of their centrality in the region’s culture, followed the example of Anglicans and Evangelicals by including church services in their funeral ceremonies. At the same time, the procession lost its central role, as both the body and attendees went to the grave in carriages. But even these changes were not as dramatic as those affecting gifts, the most characteristic element of the large funeral. By the end of the Revolution, families had simply stopped giving presents on a large scale. Although some localities continued to offer gloves to ministers, the gifts that remained tended to be small, designed as personal mementos rather than sumptuous public displays.

The rise of the “keepsake” (a term first used in 1790) marked an end to both the large funeral and the Puritan ceremony on which it was based. Although the large funeral had dramatically increased the extent (and the expense) of goods in its ceremonies, in many ways they were simply the old forms dressed in fancier and showier clothing. As such it redoubled the Puritan effort to create a ceremony based on communal interaction. The burial practices established by the first generation of New Englanders helped work toward the goal of Wait Still Winthrop’s grandfather, the first governor of Massachusetts, who told people embarking on their mission that they “must rejoice together, mourn together . . . always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.” But these ceremonies, even as they were expanded in the age of Sewall, were ill suited to the post-Revolutionary world where emotional and religious expressiveness were celebrated—and where people’s “community in the work” of communal engagement was no longer as clearly visible, even in the “grand and showy” form of the large funeral.101